Lit Crit; ur doin it wrong

The other day my husband rang me up at lunchtime.

‘Did you get a look at our boy’s English literature essay?’ he wanted to know.

‘Of course not,’ I replied. No sensible child passes homework onto a mother who works in that area for her approval. Many years ago my son told me quite straight that what he expected from a mother was support and encouragement, but NOT corrections to his schoolwork. Naturally his essays are a closely guarded secret and I would never dream of prying. My husband, however, has no such scruples.

‘Well I did,’ he said. ‘It was lying on the desk upstairs so I read it. It’s hilarious!’

I was perfectly aware that on the weekend, one thousand words on the issue of whether Romeo and Juliet were to blame for the tragedy that befell them had been bled from his body at extreme cost. He had come to find me while I was doing something domestic in the kitchen, saying: ‘I don’t know how to begin.’ This is always a problem, I agree. I asked what the title was and he told me, and I made various suggestions, to which I received the responses too long, too short, not quickly enough into the question, too quickly into the question, mmm yes well, just not exactly what he was after. It’s a kind of warrior dance, a song he sings before going into battle. Eventually the critical point was reached when it was more unpleasant to talk to me than actually write the thing and he sidled off. And bless him he sat there and wrote until he had finished, so really he’s pretty good for fourteen.

‘Oh go on, what did it say?’ I asked.

‘It’s full of the kind of moral absolutes that adolescents have. The conclusion he comes to is that it’s Romeo’s fault for asking her to marry him after only the second date. Because no one should do that, it’s way too impetuous.’

‘That’s beautiful,’ I said.

‘And then it’s Romeo’s fault again because he kills himself too fast. Why didn’t he hang around a bit? Get a second opinion? It’s priceless. You should read it; it’s still up there.’

As a dear friend of mine used to comment, don’t lead me into temptation, I can get there all by myself. The essay was an exquisite example of my son’s thinking, which is both literal and logical. And of course he’s quite right. What was Romeo thinking, deciding to get married so rapidly? And that death scene is just a mess, isn’t it, a series of terrible decisions undertaken with bad timing and an extraordinary death wish for your average sixteen year olds. I think my son liked Romeo and Juliet well enough as a play, but it never caught his imagination, never swept him up into its feverish plotline. He still thinks that love is soppy. When a piece of art doesn’t quite captivate you with its fantasy universe, then it’s very easy to stay at one remove and to pass an opinion on what occurs rather than enact some literary criticism. To say, it’s not really plausible, or that it wouldn’t have happened the way it did, or I would have behaved differently. I’ve said before that, although we all have them, I’m not thrilled by opinions, which are a Walmart form of knowledge. They rely absolutely on the inside of the individual’s head for their authority, and given all the cognitive distortions I was listing the other day, you wouldn’t really want to depend upon that for clear, insightful perception.

Only a step further in thinking and you can make some literary criticism out of them. Let’s suppose that an implausible event usually happens within the context of the play (or the book) for a good reason. What is it trying to tell us? Romeo and Juliet do commit too fast, they do react with a fatal lack of hesitation when things go wrong; it’s the very impetuosity of their youth and character that hurtles them into a magnificent, passionate love. That’s what we think, isn’t it? The faster relationships deepen, the tighter those bonds are forged, the more dramatic and exciting and altogether better the love is. Although it may not be true; that belief may be a strange cultural validation when we also know that love takes many forms and the slow-burning, much-tested form of love may in fact be the strongest of all. Still, there it is. Their passion thrills the audience, and then brings about their downfall. The same quality that makes them transcend their ordinary humanity and brings them a spectacular experience, then casts them into an early, unnecessary grave. And that’s what tragedy is all about; it’s about a formidable and distressing paradox: the way that what is admirable and strong may turn out to be the cause of our own destruction. My son did sort of get there in the end. Or in his own, bored, glad-to-see-the-conclusion phrasing: ‘I would say the feud was the biggest thing stopping them then the other characters in the play like Mercutio and Tybalt and then the bad luck and fate and at the very bottom Romeo and Juliet choosing a few wrong decisions and going to fast for there own good.’ Ah, if he ever gets his ‘there’s’ sorted out, he’ll be a chip off the old block one of these fine days.

20 thoughts on “Lit Crit; ur doin it wrong

  1. It would be rough to have an English professor as a mom at moments like these! He isn’t taking French as well, isn he? 🙂 Still, it sounds like he managed very well on his own!

  2. This brought a smile to my face. I love your son’s reasoning and am inclined to agree with him. I have purposely not kept any of my papers from school because I never wanted to be embarrassed when I was grown up. I do recall I loved to come up with what I imagined to be dramatic conclusions and in my head as I wrote them I could hear the crescendo of music from a full orchestra to go along with it.

  3. Danielle – oh I am a sore trial to the poor child! I do hope he’ll forgive me when he’s older. 🙂 Actually he does have to do French and he absolutely loathes it. He’d give it up in a second if it weren’t compulsory!

    Stefanie – I just love that image of the orchestral crescendo. I’m tempted to do that right now, with blogging! 🙂 Some of my school books are around, but they mostly date from a time when I was a little older than my son, and since I was a swotty girl, I can’t compare! And he has a very good hold on objective truth – it always makes me laugh but he’s very wise in his way.

    David – thank you. And you know, that point about opinion and criticism has been turning around in my head ever since I posted this. You are quite right. I keep going to add a coda on the post and then can’t quite think what I want to say.

  4. It’s a tough nut to crack, LLove. On the one hand, one might say that good literary criticism moves away from personal experience, and judges the work based on more universal principles. But even a determination of what those principles are is a matter of personal choice.

    And in another way, it could be said that the only true gauge of literary quality is whether the piece moves or is relevant to the reader experiencing it … in philosophical terms, I suppose that would be a thoroughly relativist position, in which there’s no actual way to determine merit except on a case by case basis, at this moment in time.

  5. David – ah yes, thank you for that. I think that helps me to define my own (purely subjective) position on the matter. All literary reading begins in subjectivity – whatever we read we track our own desire through the writing, which can lead to love or hate or indifference towards the piece, depending. A literary review follows the tracks of that desire, and in that instance, opinion as such is sufficient unto itself. I read reviews because I want to hear someone’s opinion, in the full knowledge that that’s what it is, and I guess others do the same.

    But to move a review into the territory of literary criticism (and they are different, is all. Some people want one thing, some want the other, that’s fine) there has to be a move beyond the baldness of opinion, of saying ‘I think this’. It has to be backed up with evidence, or related to a broader picture, or considered with some curiosity as to why such an emotional response has taken place. It’s clearest to see that functioning in the way that most lit crit refuses to say whether it likes or dislikes something, or assigns it a value judgement of good or bad. It’s interested in other things – like how the piece creates its effects, what it tells us about the cultural value of certain concepts, how it fits into, or alters, a tradition. The effects on which such an interpretation is based may well emanate from the self, but the reading from them doesn’t end there.

    I guess I get uneasy about the concept of opinion because my students find it hard to understand that what they feel about a book is not enough. And I worry that opinion, generally, is getting too big for its boots. It can prevent people from listening openly and honestly to what other people have to say. So when the real trick of lit. crit. is to really open yourself to another person’s world and drink it in, feel it in its entirety, respond to it and then figure out why and how it’s provocative, well, you can imagine that sometimes those opinions do get in the way.

    Well, that was practically another post, wasn’t it! But you’re right it’s a tricky question and I’ve still only scraped the surface of it here.

    Anne – One of these days he may well create a World of Warcraft video for youtube, and I will certainly let you know if he does! 😉 But thank you – I will explain to his teachers that he is an unrecognised genius! Big hugs!

  6. OK, what’s priceless here is a lover of literature having someone with such a literal outlook as offspring. That’s excellent. I’m probably more like your son, by the way. Characters acting rashly for no apparent reason always perplexes me and gets in the way of me drinking in the beauty of it all. But you make a great case against opinions. They are a bit full of themselves, aren’t they? My own barely make room for me in my own head!

  7. Ms Honeypiehorse – your comment has just given me such a good chuckle. It’s so true. You grow up, think you know a thing or two and then children come along… My son’s mission in life since his earliest days has been to prove me wrong and he can now do so with consummate ease. 🙂 I love literary criticism and will defend it until I am alone on a collapsing barricade, but then I am very happy to read a thoroughly opinionated review if it makes me laugh (or it chimes with my own thoughts), so what do I know? I did enjoy your unruly opinions, tell them to get back in the basket! 🙂

  8. Priceless is right! I can’t figure out what I like most about this: your conversation with your husband (hilarious), your nuanced consideration of the distinction between crit and op, or your son’s no-nonsense despatch of those melodramatic brats…

  9. Oh, I do love your boy. And he might not have mastered their/there just yet, but his warrior dance sounds oddly familiar; I think that might be what’s making our literary barricades prone to collapse, all the prevaricatory tap-dancing? Although it might be the feuds, and the other characters, and the bad luck and the fate and the wrong decisions and the going-too-fast-for-our-own-good. The kid is brilliant. Brilliant!
    PS The only bit of schoolwork I still have is my re-working, aged 8, of the Annunciation. It was all jogging along conventionally enough, until Mary asked “How shall this be, seeing as I know not a man?” and the Angel Gabriel replied crisply “You’re having a baby, virgin or no virgin!” Next to it, my headmaster wrote “Great Stuff!” and there are a couple of splodgy inkstains, where he claims he laid his head down on the exercise book and cried with laughter. Ah, the fierce pragmatism of my youth…how I wish it hadn’t worn off. May your boy stay literal-minded, even if romance arrives to rattle the bars of his beautiful certainty.

  10. I love the comparison between your own polished analysis and your son’s no-nonsense approach. Of course he’s right and he’s summarised some key moments into a neat mathematical-like formula: Impetuous passion + rash decision-making etc = death. And then reading your response was priceless. More of these please – can he summarise some more of the classics maybe?!

  11. My dad is an English teacher, and while I was growing up I hated it when he inserted himself into one of my papers – he was always telling me why I was wrong and giving me his thoughts, which I could then never eliminate from my mind. Your son is very lucky to have a mother who talks him through his thought process without inserting herself overly much!

  12. This was lovely. I managed to spirit away many of my children’s essays through the years, and stick them into scrapbooks (which they may be interested in reading through one snowy night). I vaguely remember one of them doing a similar project about Romeo and Juliet. I think the overarching message the play had for that child was something like, “Everything looks better in the morning. Don’t kill yourself tonight.” Gotta love it.

  13. How fun! It must be enjoyable to watch your son’s critical abilities and writing skills develop, even if he makes you sneak around a bit to see his work (which I would totally do too, if I were him! Nothing against you, of course, but I wouldn’t want my parents reading my work, especially if they were experts on the subject!) I like your distinction between opinion and criticism as well — it’s a very useful distinction to keep in mind.

  14. I’m doing the restrained dance, too, trying to keep out of the way when my son is writing, so this story made me laugh, laugh, laugh. Your husband sounds a bit like mine, too. And I love the literal mind of the adolescent!

  15. Doctordi – oh thank you! The menfolk around here do keep me entertained, it must be said. 🙂

    Fugitive – you know how to talk to my mother’s heart. D’you think that next time I have something awful to write, I should go and give him a hard time first? Hmmm, how very tempting. Your tale of the annunciation is quite glorious. I have stored it away to tell my son on another occasion. It made me think of the graffitied version of the Annunciation I saw, in which Gabriel in the picture has a speech bubble that read ‘God sez to tell u u is pregnant, k?’ to which Mary replies ‘WTF?’. But you got there first.

    Couchtrip – he likes maths and chemistry, chemistry in particular, so I was amused and intrigued by your comment about formula. Oh I love the idea of getting him to summarise the classics. If only I thought I could persuade him to read War and Peace or Madame Bovary (I’d particularly like to hear that one)!

    Everythinginbetween – years ago my husband once complained to me ‘you’re colonising my thought!’, so I learned that useful advice is not always received with joy. 🙂 And my son is still deeply suspicious of my interfering, which is good, because it keeps me at bay! Must be nice now that you’re older to be able to have top book chat with your dad, though.

    Grad – oh that’s a delight. If my son knew the phrase ‘everything looks better in the morning’ he would undoubtedly use it. I like the thought of you squirreling work away. That will make for some lovely reading in times to come.

    Dorothy – oh I absolutely understand why he wouldn’t want me continually looking over his work. I would meddle, I really would because it would be irresistible! That question of opinion and criticism is part of a school of thought that keeps revolving in my mind about what you can say – what it’s permissible to say, what it’s useful to say, what you can say that can be heard. It’s all much trickier than it at first seems.

    Gentle reader – we have very similar households, I think! Always glad to have the solidarity of another blogging friend and mother doing the same tackling teenager thing! And the literality is so funny, and wise in its way too. He certainly keeps it real! 😉

  16. I’m afraid almost all my pieces when I was in school were nothing but opinion, from the report I wrote at age 9 on my home state of North Carlina in which I shared the opinion that NC shouldn’t have the Dogwood and Cardinal as its state flower and bird, because Virginia had them, too, and it ought to have its own, to the paper I wrote on Madame Boary at age 19, in which I opined that a woman would never behave the way Emma did if she had a husband who doted on her so. Hmmm…and then there’s my blog. Oh well, maybe one day I’ll get away from opinion.

  17. Emily – I knew I should have put the sentence where I say opinion in the right place is fine and vital in ten foot high capitals. Blogs are the ideal place for opinion and that’s what we read them for – I write lots about my own opinions here. I only want to draw a line between opinion and literary criticism, when people claim one is the other. There are lots of fun and good opinions (as all yours are) and then the kind of opinion that says women are better suited to house cleaning than men are. You can see where I’m going with this. 🙂

  18. “at the very bottom Romeo and Juliet choosing a few wrong decisions and going to fast for there own good”….
    I find it cool that your little guy can hold his own in the face of Shakespeare, under whose influence so many are whisked away with nary a rational thought. Oh, for a child’s unfettered presence of mind! He’s right of course – they _were_ going too fast for their own good.

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