They say everyone’s a critic, and it’s true. The writing process is a solitary act, but the life of a book is a collective endeavor. It not only requires and author, it requires a publisher, readers, and usually there’s a critic or two involved. I’d like to talk about the critics, who are not necessarily the theorists. For me criticism is the application of literary theory to a text. We’ll get to theorists another day.
Is a critic’s job to interpret or to evaluate? Or both? What gives his/her opinion more weight than the reader? Is a critique nothing more than a book review? Do critics affect the writing process of writers? Literary criticism has been around since Aristotle in 4th century BC. He had lots of ideas about the way he thought narratives should work. His Poetics is more a catalogue of forms, but he also puts his two cents worth in on how these forms should be used correctly. The implication being: stray from the form and you’re work is not valid.
Every literary movement has spawned its own platoon of critics who vacillate from damning those who stray and praising those who challenge conventions. So what’s an author to do? Some authors write about how people should criticize their own writings. Kind of a ‘how to read my stuff’ approach. William Wordsworth and Edgar Allan Poe were among those who felt the need to write critiques of their own work. Samuel Taylor Coleridge even went so far as to write critical annotations for his epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner giving it the feel of an important text that has been annotated by scholars. Kind of a cheat, but hey, those of us who had to read the darn thing appreciated it.
Many artists have questioned the value of literary criticism as indulging in generalities and find it wholly unnecessary. While an excellent review of a book may increase its sells, is that merely the function of criticism in the modern world?
Here’s my two cents: Every reader brings his/her own experiences to a text. Take a story like Snow White. A young reader may see this text as inspiration for what romance is supposed to be, i.e. Prince Charming rescuing the beautiful princess who narrowly escapes death at the hands of a vain, murderous evil step-mother Queen with magical resources. An older reader with more experience may read the same text and see the dangers of a preadolescent female hanging out with dwarfish social outcasts and a pedophile prince who objectifies female beauty as his entitlement, stoops to indulge his necrophilic desires by taking her body with him. Only when the poison piece of apple is dislodged from her throat do we see the sexual hierarchy perpetuating itself as restoring order to the world. And oh yeah, she's a zombie now. Yeah, I went there. And by the way…Hansel and Gretel are a couple of house-eating vandals!
So this is literary criticism as interpretation. I like it when people who have different experiences or higher levels of education tell me their interpretations of literature. I can learn from their ideas. I have my own guidelines for evaluation, however. Before I dive into a 600 page Umberto Ecco novel, I want to hear a few other opinions. So evaluation for me boils down to “Is the narrative worth the time investment”? I can handle artsy. I can handle non-linear narratives (I quite enjoy them, actually), I can even handle experimental novels. Just let me know if it’s worth my time.
Which brings us to the film Misery. I don’t feel there’s any more voracious critic as Annie Wilkes. Her involvement in getting Paul Sheldon to write his new Misery novel is diabolical. I imagine there are many literary agents who would love to use her methods of hobbling their clients until they finish a manuscript. One day Stephen King should really write a book about his own meta-fiction. It’d be a hoot.
Anyway, Wilkes extreme measures in the name of being Sheldon’s “Number One Fan” provide for an interesting look at the reader’s right to criticism as well as all the learned scholars out there who have to “Publish or Parish” and shine up their academic credentials for the lowly masses. Wilkes is not a simpering fan, she has knowledge of plot and character beyond even the writer as she is constantly telling him to “Do it over!” because he’s fudged a plotpoint or forgotten something crucial in his past novels. She has a great speech about getting upset because the serial films of her youth would cheat with cheap gimmicks in telling their stories and she is not having that with her favorite author. She is a demonic muse, indeed, but a muse nonetheless!
Here’s to hoping all successful writers have number one fans like this. The word FAN does come from FANATIC after all!