Friday, March 05, 2010

10 rules for criticism

Fifteen British writers have inscribed their rules for writing, ten or fewer, taking Elmore Leonard’s as a point of departure. I might as well give the ten rules of criticism:

(1.) You are not a makeup artist. You shouldn’t be applying anything, least of all someone else’s “system.”

(2.) In fact, give up the dream of a system altogether. There is no general system or theory of literature; there is only the particular text, with its own particular system of law, which demands a particular respect.

(3.) Nor are there any authorities in literature—not even the author. Especially not the author! After she has written her book, she is in no better a position than you are to judge it. (You are interested in her because of her book, though. Best not to ignore her altogether.) Otherwise quote other critics only to abuse them. Other criticism must always be read with hatred in the heart.

(4.) As small a technical vocabulary as possible. Some terms of the trade are unavoidable, but they should be established by wide usage, over the course of many years, and by many parties. Nothing coined by anyone writing in French since the Second World War, in short.

(5.) Specify the genre or tradition to which the work belongs. Comparisons to other authors, however, are Halloween masks for critical thought.

(6.) Assume that your reader has not read the work under criticism. Summary may be an onerous duty, but it is necessary, like listening to your children.

(7.) Distance yourself from the style of the author you are writing about. This is doubly true if you are writing about Nabokov or Bellow. No one who thinks that he can write like Nabokov or Bellow has anything intelligent to say about them.

(8.) Supply at least one extended sample of the author’s prose or verse. Wayne Booth is probably right that quoting from your author will burn holes in your own essay, but you must offer sufficient evidence for your reader to arrive at an independent judgment of your reliability.

(9.) A critical essay is not a mystery novel. Signal your decision early. Leave your reader in no doubt where you stand.

(10.) Disregard any or all of the foregoing rules if doing so will make you a better critic. The one rule of criticism that stands beyond repeal is that it too has a rightful place in literature, along with Faust and Middlemarch, and the critic is under the same moral obligation as any other writer.


M said...

So, I agree with many of the rules you've listed here, and enjoy the voice that delivers these rules. But, man! How I clench up when I encounter any sort of rules for writing list. And criticism especially hits a raw nerve.

Yes, "give up the dream of a system all together," except the system of rules for criticism.

I can't help but wonder: is my aversion to these sound and smart pieces of advice just a symptom of a late-20s version of teenage angst? Cause I really want to rage against your rules in the same second I appreciate their message.

D. G. Myers said...

Ah, but here’s the catch. If your nerves are rubbed raw by my rules, you thus abide by #3.

S.K. Azoulay said...

Great list, particularly 2 and 4. If my novel is ever published, this is the kind of approach I would expect from critics; I'd rather receive a thoughtful excoriation than empty praise.

PMH said...

Herr Professor Doktor, I would appreciate a book on criticism, written for beginning (grad and/or undergrad) students of literature (or of crit/theory), with these rules as organizing principles.

Each chapter an argument with the rule as the claim, well-defended.

It would be a brilliant introduction to the practice of criticism and the role of the critic.