In response to my brief response to MS, anonymous writes “Is it possible to disagree with a literary critic? It seems that they refuse to accept that a text may be uninteresting, despite the often considerable effort devoted to its interpretation. Do they make any falsifiable statements at all?” Absent an accompanying emoji, it is difficult to determine in what tone of voice this question is asked, but since it raises some interesting issues, I will respond as though it was a genuine request for an answer.
Let me begin by distancing myself from the high priests of Lit Crit who, in a desperate grasp for dominance, have advanced the absurd view that a text is indeterminate and hence their interpretation of it is more important than the text itself. I sympathize with their dilemma, which is that they spend their entire careers discussing the productions of creative types and yet themselves never create anything original at all. For a senior tenured member of an elite private university, this must be a terrible blow to the ego. But though I feel for them, I cannot take their claims seriously.
Do literary critics make any falsifiable statements at all, asks anonymous. Well, the simple answer is that of course they may very possibly do so. A literary critic who calls John Steinberg the finest English satirist of the earlier eighteenth century can reasonably be said to have mistaken Steinberg for Swift, perhaps because of the similarity of their first names. And another who describes War and Peace as a trenchant Spanish novella has also clearly gone astray.
But that is not what anonymous means. He [?] means, are their literary analyses factual assertions capable of falsification? Are they aesthetic judgments answerable to some defensible norms of interpretation? Or with them, as the Cole Porter song says, is it that Anything Goes?
To answer this question, we need to be a bit clearer about the function of literary [or musical] criticism, or indeed of any sort of aesthetic criticism. Opinions differ, needless to say, but my own view is as follows.
The primary activity in the field of art is the creative effort of the artist. That effort produces a poem, a tragedy, a novel, a painting, a sculpture, a carving, a dance, a symphony, a song, or some other object or action or installation that is intended as an act or product of creativity. The work of art may be offered to an audience to be experienced, appreciated, enjoyed, reviled, exalted, condemned, or whatever.
There is no limit to what can count as art, and there is no authority who gets to say what is and what is not real art. Some efforts to create art will be welcomed and enjoyed, celebrated and revered by others. Some efforts will, as David Hume said of his immortal Treatise, “fall stillborn from the presses.” Some will never be recognized as art by anyone else, and some may even not be intended to be shared with anyone other than the creator.
The function of the literary critic, insofar as literary critics have any function at all, is to say things about a work of literary art that readers or listeners may find illuminating, insightful [or inciteful], helpful, amusing, profound, scholarly, shrewd. At its best, literary criticism may improve the experience of reading a text. At its worst, literary criticism can all but ruin a reader’s enjoyment of a text.
Think of literary critics as akin to those audio guides that some museums offer to their visitors, for a price. If you want someone’s opinion of what you are looking at, rent one. But there is nothing stopping you from simply walking through the galleries on your own.
My interpretation of The Color Purple was offered in that spirit. If you find it suggestive, I am gratified, but for heaven’s sake, do not view it as a substitute for reading the novel!