Msnowe's Blog

What is New is Old Again

Posted in Uncategorized by m.snowe on June 2, 2009

Is New Criticism too Old School

Is New Criticism too Old School?

m.snowe had a rather good conversation with a friend and fellow avid reader last evening, and the question on the chopping block in between glasses of sangria was this: “New Criticism: Are you in, or are you out?”

m.snowe was brought up in the school of New Criticism, despite being born about 60 years too late to get the first wave of it. But hey, what’s old is new again, right? Literary Criticism schools come in waves, and sometimes people try to bring back old techniques, often to their detriment–kind of like the reemergence of the ’80s every so often (stirrups, really people?). But out of all the theoretical critiques applied to the analysis of a text (and m.snowe has learned some doosies, including deconstructionism, which she detests), New Criticism has always made sense, perhaps because especially with new fiction, it is easy to apply. Although it was created and propped up by some of the male chauvinist writers of the day, in its purest permutation it should serve as a form of analysis that is free from preconception of a text based upon the race, gender, age, etc. of the author.  What New Criticism taught about ambiguity, Virginia Woolf would reinforce in A Room of One’s Own, specifically for writing in a unisex, genderless way.

Why were we talking about this in the first place? m.snowe, admittedly nerdy, listens to the Slate.com audio book club–which usually covers new fiction. This past podcast was all about Atmospheric Disturbances, the first novel by Rivka Galchen. Now, m.snowe hasn’t read this book yet (she waits for paperback!), but the discussion of the podcasters was a good one–and one debated topic was the question of the reception of the book. Was the book viewed as “beautiful” by reviewers and not “Nabokovian” because it was written by a woman? Because the protagonist is a male and the author is female, does that change the way we should approach the story? Does the simulacra of the protagonist’s wife/marriage get a more “domestic” interpretation simply because the perspective of the author is decidedly female?

To m.snowe, all these questions, while fodder for engaging discussion, are rubbish. As her friend pointed out, sometimes the opposite sex does a piss poor job of representing or providing a realistic narrative picture of the sex they themselves are not. However, a woman can mis-characterize her sex just as easily as a man can botch up his own–and vice versa. So really, why bother coming to the table with any idea of who is behind the narrative? m.snowe loves a good biography/autobiography, but she’d rather not know anything about the people that write her novels (kind of like how she’d rather not know about how that cow meat was processed before she enjoys her burger). Of course an author biography can shed light on certain facts about their works. However, once you try and apply the life to the words on the page, you’re heading down a road that is mighty hard to turn off of, and has no bearing on the quality of the fiction in front of you.

Honestly, once an author’s words are down on paper, they really aren’t the author’s anymore (despite what U.S. copyright laws say)–an author can interpret every line of their poetry or prose, phrase by phrase, and it still doesn’t get you much closer to the “meaning.” Literature is not life, and m.snowe thinks it was Saussure who pointed out that language is the signified, and can never become the signifier–these are separate entities. When someone creates a novel that actually becomes “reality” (Stranger than Fiction-Style)–then m.snowe will start brushing up on author biographies. But until then, she will happily read in the dark with a tiny book light, and judge a text by the words in front of her, not the shadowy life behind it.

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2 Responses

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  1. fictionadvocate said, on June 2, 2009 at 4:33 pm

    Right, yes, well and good. I would only add that divorcing the author’s identity from the text is something we SHOULD do, but not always something we CAN do, at least in this age of big pre-publication buzz for major releases of contemporary fiction. Authors are selling themselves as much as they are selling their work. It’s idealistic to think we can see the text separately, but it’s a good ideal.

  2. msnowe said, on June 2, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    So true. Luckily, the tabloid-like craze that has developed with celebrity authors or high-profile fiction hasn’t permeated the pop culture so much as to make biographies unavoidable, aside from the few real heavy-weights of modern literature. Thank god so many people in the US still hate reading!

    m.snowe would suggest not reading all that dang pre-pub stuff, or maybe finding some review sources that reliably leave out authorial biography when evaluating a text. (though m.snowe has been guilty of utilizing biography in her own reviews. So I guess you have to stop reading this blog now).


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