Archive for literary criticism

Reading vs Reviewing

Posted in General Musings with tags , , , , on December 13, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

It never really struck me until Saturday, when I sat down to read a book simply for the hell of it, that the acts of reading and reviewing are distinctly different. It may be self-evident to some out there, but whenever I reviewed a book I always considered it just another form of reading, albeit a little more involved in the sense of paying more attention to moods, nuances and plots etc., etc. However, reading the book on Saturday, I realised, with a little shock perhaps, that rather than analysing it as I normally do, I just let the whole thing seep into me on an emotional level, enjoying the flow of words and images. After I’d finished it, it dawned on me that I had truly enjoyed reading it on a different level than when I review something.

I still have a lingering distaste for the kind of thing that I used to have to do when I was a sixth-former, studying texts for A-level English. Picking everything apart line-by-line and word-by-word does nothing for me except put me off the book/poem/play in question. I’ve come to realise that a great book (or even a good one) very often doesn’t depend on the particular use  of a particular word or phrase but on the storytelling, how immersed one gets into it and how it all lingers on in the memory after the final word has been read. It’s all about empathy and attachment, and how much the book enables us to invest in it. Merely picking it apart only renders the whole thing impotent in my eyes.

Although reviewing is a form of literary criticism and analysis, I tend to step back from breaking a book down into its constituent parts, instead hovering somewhere between serious textual analysis and just plain old reading. In the middle air I inhabit as a reviewer, I can see the general sweep of what the author’s trying to say while also being allowed to pick up use of language, strength of characterisation, integration of plotlines, use of mood, place and nuance to tell the story, without at the same time squeezing it dry of enjoyment.

Reading, however, is just another way appreciating a book but at a greater distance – one can certainly marvel at an author’s facility at invoking empathy and emotion but without necessarily having to witness the mechanisms by which the writer has achieved his effects. For me, at least, that’s the crucial difference between the two actions – reviewing entails inspecting the behind-the-scenes machinery, so to speak, to see how it’s all done without taking it all apart. The best analogy I can currently think of  is that it’s like looking at a Ferrari or Lamborghini: reading is looking at the flowing lines and inherent classiness and beauty of the car, and reviewing is actually looking under the bonnet to see what propels the thing along. Literary criticism is actually taking the engine out and taking it to pieces to see how all the elements relate to one another.

One can appreciate a book on all levels, even abstrusely critical – it’s just a simple matter of how much you want to know before it all loses its wonder. I’m sure that delving into the basic particles of a text does for some people what looking at the quantum level of reality does for a physicist, but for me it would destroy the finely woven tapestry of words the author has woven. It’s often occurred to me as well just how conscious is a writer’s use of certain words at certain junctures, for instance? The very fact that he/she is a writer means that, like a  circus acrobat, they’ve been at it so long that the art comes naturally to them. They may not even be aware that they wrote that sentence the way they did with any particular reason – it just sounded better that way, In any case, more often than not, it’s mere interpretation on the part of the critic/reader. It’s the spectator who invests a work with meaning, because, unobserved, it’s just a collection of words or pictures.

Reviewing has also fed into my appreciation of reading. Whilst deliberately shying away from investigating the deeper mechanics of a story, I can still be aware of the way in which the writer has crafted his story and the way in which he/she has told it. Both activities have also given me an insight into how I can improve my own writing – in other words, what works particularly well and what doesn’t, how stories are meant to flow, what makes a good story and what doesn’t. It’s an endlessly fascinating process – in some ways, there are no definite boundaries where one ends and the other begins, and they both feed into each other like a Moebius strip. Plus, like I said above, they also feed into writing, and can sometimes be a better teacher than any amount of tuition by a tutor.

So, maybe those English Literature A-level classes were useful after all…..  =)

Our earliest influences…

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words with tags , , , , , , , on October 25, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

It’s easy enough to remember the teachers in our school years who had the greatest influence on our young lives, the ones who encouraged us to stretch ourselves or to explore our creativity, or whatever. How many of us, though, think about those people who had a somewhat negative influence – that one teacher who, no matter how hard you tried, denigrated everything you did. OR, in my case (which is even worse in my opinion), took an idea or concept and, despite it being a wonderful thing in theory, managed to put you off it for life.

I confess, I have a big problem with poetry. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of poetry, the concept of distilling the essence of something into a few short lines rather than using up huge swathes of white space, and of creating patterns of words and meanings in a compact form, lending whatever the subject of the poem is an added layer of beauty or style. But thanks to a certain Mr. Singh, who was my form teacher in my very first year of primary school back in 1970, I have an unreasonable dislike of poetry that often blinds me to its innate qualities.

Mr. Singh loved poetry – and that was the problem. He was obsessed with it. He would sit us all down every afternoon for poetry-reading sessions, and I distinctly remember the resigned groans of my classmates every time the sessions were due to start. I always dreaded that hour in the afternoon when he would bring his chair to the head of the classroom, open up some huge book of verse and read something aloud to us. I’m sure I might even have inadvertently dozed off a couple of times during those sessions. More often than not, he would then set us a poetry-writing exercise, based on what he’d just read. I hated writing poetry above all else, because I never ‘got’ it.

It hadn’t always been like that, however. I’d learnt to read at a fairly young age, after a slow start, and I’d become a voracious reader by the time I was five. My parent’s house, as I have mentioned before, was stacked full of books of every description, and volumes of poetry were included in that inventory. There was even a translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales available for me to read, although my dad would probably have been horrified if he knew I was reading it at such a young age (well, some of the tales at least). I was absolutely fascinated with words – the way they sounded, what each one meant, the way they built up into pleasing sentences, or created rhythms and beats within the short space of a line or two. Poetry, especially, emphasised that magnificent power of words. Necessarily, being so young, the deeper meanings and subtexts of the poems went way over my head. That didn’t matter, though – I still derived enormous enjoyment out of reading poetry back then.

That was until I was assigned to Mr. Singh’s class. I can’t even remember if the sessions started immediately or whether they came in gradually. What I can remember is that at some point they became a regular fixture of my school day. I think I even used to rant, in my little childish way, to my parents when I got home (which they would have found highly amusing, no doubt).

I’m sure (nay, positive) that Mr. Singh wanted to cultivate an appreciation for verse in us kids. There’s nothing wrong in that at all. However, what put me (and my fellow classmates) off was his obsession with the whole thing, his insistence on pushing it on us every day. Looking at it now, of course, it’s no different from my liking of a particular literary gene or pursuing a hobby with enthusiasm and almost preternatural tenacity. In fact, it was no different from me obsessing over the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico back then. I think it was that year that Esso were offering little plastic busts of the England squad – one for every so many gallons of petrol that was bought – and I just had to get every one of them (I still had those busts and the stand that was created for them up until a few years ago).

What felt different was how the poetry sessions were presented. They were being foisted on us all in a way that was conducive to mass turning off as soon as the words poetry or poems were uttered. Often, the examples Mr. Singh read out were abstruse and obscure, and sometimes way beyond what a seven-year-old could comfortably grasp. His enthusiasm was evident in the animation with which he used to talk about poetry (which we found funny rather than inspiring, unfortunately) but his sonorous intonations as he actually read a poem out used to dull whatever head of steam he’d built up in the preamble. We just switched off en masse (I guess there must have been a few exceptions, but they kept quiet).

In just that one year, I was left with an indelible aversion to poetry, a dislike which followed me throughout my school career. In grammar school (how much cooler would it have been if it had been called a grimoire school?) we studied various poets at ‘O’- and ‘A’-level, with the added bonus of picking apart every single line and deconstructing it for nuance and meaning or whatever. Rather than leaving me with a love of the form in particular or the English language in general, I came away with a distrust of literary criticism, especially when it came to those poets (and writers, too) who had been dead for years. They had no comeback to say whether what the ‘experts’ were telling us was the correct interpretation of their work. This was brought home to me when (apparently) a living poet took an ‘A’-level exam, where his work was part of the syllabus, and he failed miserably. If it’s true, then it truly says a lot.

Since those days, I’ve come to realise that I can separate myself from that negative impression I have of the poetic form and look at things anew. I still have some trouble with the form even so. I sometimes find the ‘density’ of poetry almost impenetrable, the underlying meanings too obscure – whether this is the result of some kind of mental block or that when it comes to poetry I’m completely thick, I don’t know. I suspect it’s the former (or at least I’d like to think so). I still like the idea of poetry, and the potential the form harbours. The actuality is different, however, even 40 years later.

And, in an ironic twist, I’m now a book reviewer, whose job it is to analyse the worthiness or otherwise of prose literature. It isn’t quite as deeply analytical as literary criticism in its purest instance, but close enough. I still look at whatever I review with an eye for meanings and subtexts, use of language, rhythms and cadences. I still try to put myself into the mind of the author (and when it comes to horror, that isn’t necessarily a good thing….) and try to divine what he/she was thinking at the time or what motivated them to write it the way they did. I pick it apart and deconstruct both the story and the prose. Just like the literary critics and academics did to the texts that were set  for our exams way back in my schoolhood.

It’s amazing how life turns out, eh? =)

(Did you have a similar teacher at your school, who left you with a distaste for something interesting?)