LITERARY CRITICISM: A FEW INTRODUCTORY COMMENTS
BY ADAM DONALDSON POWELL
Much has been written regarding the history and development of literary criticism, the present "crisis" precipitated by trends and practices in the areas of publishing, marketing and distribution, as well as challenges posed for literary criticism by electronic publishing ... including a renaissance of the age-old questions regarding which persons are qualified to write literary criticism, and the purposes and goals of good literary criticism.
All of these topics, themes and discussions are actual and important today. My main concern is to provide authors of literary works (poetry, short stories, novellas, essays, novels etc.) and independent presses and facilitators of self-published books of quality with a new form of literary criticism: which is informative, which incites debate, which challenges author and reader, and which provides entertainment, but which at the same time functions as a marketing tool and an opportunity for authors to consider their own development and accomplishments from the perspective of another literature enthusiast. I review both first-time authors and authors who have written dozens of books, assess individual books as well as compare several books by the same author, and sometimes follow a specific author's development from book to book.
All literary criticism is subjective by definition. However, it can be helpful for both author and readers of literary criticism to discover new ways of perceiving their own writing, and writing in general. I am not an English professor, or even an English major. I am an author, and yet another who constantly struggles with the same questions, choices and challenges all authors confront. It is my experience that reviewing others' writing gives me greater insight into my own. This is (for me) an ever-going process of personal and artistic development.
I am often asked what I look for in poetry books that I review, or consider reviewing. There are many poetic forms being used today, with many hybridisations. There exists both a sense that there are "no rules" anymore and, at the same time, there are some unspoken literary guidelines that determine the probability for successful literary communication -- beyond the subjective, and questions of personal taste. I believe that it is important for me as a reviewer to restate what I look for from time to time. As I have written elsewhere, I look for many qualities including: evenness in quality, diversity in content and form, artistic intent, planning, execution and polish (the degree of polish being both intentional and commensurate with the desired expression), and an overall concept of the book as a complete work of art -- beyond an arbitrary "stew" of individual poems. In addition, I pay attention to the author's sense of originality, political and social awareness, mastery of storytelling, and visual, musical and philosophical expressions indicative of the author's experiential personal history. I further look for: balance of intellectual rationalism and emotional presence, a solid command of the full palette of language(s) used, descriptive colour, clarity, intentional usage of abstractions, entertainment and theatrical/performance value, humour and occasional irony, and an overall sense of when to use poetic economy versus poetic rapture. And finally I am concerned that the author has an understanding of how to arouse within the reader a sense of personal identification, emotion and engagement -- enabling the reader's "inner artist" to enter into a creative cognitive dialogue with the author, and hopefully even to inspire the reader to embark upon his/her own creative process.
I believe that art is both an intentional and an intuitive process, with many pitfalls: eg. overwriting, non-attention to levels of language used ($5 words can sometimes be more appropriate than $5000 words), stylistic and punctuation liberties that sometimes work and sometimes not, mimicking famous (and usually deceased) writers without sufficiently developing one's own signature style, and getting all too caught up in "or ignoring" traditions of literature without having thought through why one has consciously chosen this or that style, or a divergence ... just to name a few. At the same time, I believe that artists must always keep experimenting in order to grow and to develop further. That means taking risks ... and sometimes even falling flat on one's face. That is okay. We eventually learn from both our own ... and others' mistakes.
So writing is not a static process ... and neither is literary criticism. While much criticism for first-time authors can be similar, it must be kept in mind that 1) there is no definitive "correct way" of writing, 2) criticism is personal and subjective to a large degree, and 3) there has never been a "perfect" book (and never will). I do not personally believe that writing a perfect book is an all important goal. Constant experimentation with technique, style, form and language is the real key to self-development and literary development. A not so well received book can be preceded by one or more very well received ones -- who is to judge what is "good or not"? And the perhaps "not-as-good" book could teach author and reader much more than the "good" ones.
That being said, I do believe that literary criticism should be balanced -- pointing both to that which functions well for the reviewer, and to that which the author might consider developing further or experimenting with in another way in future writing. Every now and then an author gets a complete rave of a review from me, but that is often because the author has managed to impress me in any of many ways that demonstrate overwhelming strength, courage, openness, visual imagery, musicality, movement, theatricality and/or originality ... perhaps because I happen to resonate with the author at that particular point in time in regards to a certain form of expression or quality. There is no formula, there is no real checklist or form ... it is an objective/subjective process.
Getting reviewed is exciting -- for the author, the publisher ... but it is also exciting for me as a reviewer to experience the reactions of author, publisher and reader, and to see if my comments help to incite further enthusiasm and growth in the author, and to incite potential readers and new publishers to consider the author and his/her book(s). And yes, I am always curious as to whether (or not) the author and others share or understand my experience of the work in question. A work of art is "after all" a vehicle for mental, emotional and soulful transport, taking each of us to our own self-designed destinations. Reading a work of literature is "at its best" a dialogue between author and reader.
Lastly, I would like to say that I consider literary criticism to be an art form in itself -- a form for expression that is constantly stretching and yawning, recollecting older traditions and recognising the contemporary and the visionary in authors, and sometimes making associations between diverse forms of artistic expression and artistic disciplines. However, reading a book review or a piece of literary criticism is no substitute for reading the book, and is not a prerequisite either. Literary criticism is only a personal guide and commentary ... a short essay containing the reviewer's thoughts and reactions to having read a work (or works) of literature by another author.
-- Adam Donaldson Powell