Critical Assumptions


We’ve talked before on this blog about what I might call “meta-criticism”, but a recent confluence in my reading has brought the question to my mind again. In brief, what I mean by meta-criticism is the examination of the tools we use to criticize art (in our case, mostly, books). As examples, we’ve talked in the past about the general ideas of people’s preferences for plot, character, setting, etc. And we’ve talked about the specific subjects of how to define the “rules” for nonfiction and for accuracy in fiction.

Today, I want to look at meta-criticism from the broadest perspective possible. This started for me (this time), over on Heavy Medal, where some folks were discussing the historical accuracy (or lack thereof) of Susan Cooper’s Ghost Hawk. It occurred to me as I was reading some comments that there was an underlying assumption on some people’s part that historical fiction must be historically accurate. Here’s what I wrote in response:

Claiming that Ghost Hawk has to be “as historically accurate as possible” is question-begging in the extreme. A major point of the critical inquiry is to try to determine by what critical methods we judge a particular book. To just claim, a priori that any book set in a particular historical period must meet certain levels of historical accuracy is absurd. Why should it? What does that add to the literary evaluation of it? Do the generally accepted great works of historical fiction follow this pattern? (answer to the last question: no, they don’t).

This was particularly on my mind because I happened to be reading a book called Shakespeare’s kings : the great plays and the history of England in the Middle Ages, 1337-1485 by John Julius Norwich. In it, Norwich goes through the actual history of England during the time period Shakespeare’s history plays cover, and he compares that history to how Shakespeare presents it. The book itself is riddled with problems, and I don’t recommend it, but to his great credit, even as invested as he is in historical accuracy, Norwich is clear throughout that Shakespeare’s play are not history, and that in most (if not all) cases in which Shakespeare departs from history, he does so for valid dramaturgical reasons.

All of which brings me back to the question I asked about Ghost Hawk: how do we determine what standards to hold historical fiction up to in the first place? Based on the comments in that Ghost Hawk thread, it seems like many people have a set of pre-formed assumptions, but it is not clear to me that they have examined these assumptions or tried to defend them on a wholesale basis. That last line of my comment is particularly important to me: if we are fine with dramatic telescoping of time and events, conflating of characters, changing motivations, etc. in (for example) Richard II, why should we hold a contemporary novel to a different standard? I’m not saying that it is impossible to find an answer to that question, but I think it is very important for us to find an answer to it before we begin to make critical judgments about those contemporary works.

The next piece in my confluence of reading was a review in the New York Review of Books of a book called The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl. The only reason I happened to read this review is that McGurl was one of my favorite professors at UCLA. McGurl’s book is about creative writing programs in America and the effect they have had on literary (and even popular) fiction. I’m not sure I’m going to read the book, but the review was enlightening, particularly for this quotation:

McGurl goes on to hold that our writing has come to have certain qualities in common because writers and readers and teachers will all have probably been promulgating three dicta familiar to us all, which he takes to be fundamental to creative writing programs, if not to literature itself:

  1. Find your voice
  2. Write what you know
  3. Show don’t tell

As Diane Johnson, the reviewer, says, these rules are “familiar to us all,” the last one being a particularly potent little phrase that has had far-reaching effects on criticism as well as writing.  You and I (and nearly every other reviewer I’ve read) have used this phrase to either praise or pan a piece of writing. But if the rise of “show don’t tell” corresponds closely to the rise of creative writing courses in post-war America, is it really an inviolable part of writing and criticism, or is it simply a fad?

Johnson’s review doesn’t probe that question terribly deeply, but by coincidence I happened across a different data point.  Spurred on by the Norwich book, I was reading Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3. In the introduction to the Arden edition, I found a little tidbit about Ben Jonson attacking Shakespeare’s plays for having too much action:

He was likely holding the public theatre up to the same standard that Sir Philip Sidney had used in his Apology for Poetry . . . : the standard of Italian neo-classical drama. Decorum, as the Italians had learned from Horace, required that vigorous action be reported, not shown (p. 10)

So here we have a beautiful example of Ben Jonson using a critical construct from Italian neo-classical drama to criticize Shakespeare for doing too much showing not telling, whereas (I’d wager) just about any reader today would be more likely to criticize Shakespeare for too little, based on an entirely different critical construct. And of course, neither construct was necessarily relevant 16th Century English drama.

So, OK, it’s unfair of Jonson to use the Italians against Shakespeare and it’s unfair of us to use 20th Century American ideas against Shakespeare, but surely we can use 20th Century American ideas to criticize 20th Century (and maybe 21st Century) American texts? But that’s my question – can we? What if a writer has no truck with the post-war creative writing industrial complex and wants to write in the style of Shakespeare? One of McGurl’s points is that literary fiction during the period he examines became increasingly homogenized because everyone was using the same rules to create fiction. Is that really what we want? But if we want variety and rule-breaking, then we are going to need to apply different rules to different pieces of literature, and how are we going to decide when a text is intentionally and successfully telling-not-showing, and when a text is merely failing to show not tell?

As usual, I have far more questions than I have answers. Anyone have a stab at some answers?

– Mark



Filed under Books

2 responses to “Critical Assumptions

  1. Kate

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the Ghost Hawk thread at Heavy Medal, too. Ultimately, my standards come from my role as a school librarian; I don’t know what the standards should be for people who function solely as cultural critics. I have a pretty good idea what I want the standards to be for reviewers for school librarians, since I depend on their work.

    Historical fiction is used in my school to support units about history. So I want to collect historical fiction that will accurately and engagingly support that curriculum. This also gives the entire genre–whether a particular book is used in a book group or not–a reputation for being related to history, and reflective of what actually happened. We can learn “what life was really like” from these books. We can teach some critical reading and research skills when books go wrong, but the bulk of the collection should be solid.

    The other big difference between GHOST HAWK and RICHARD II is that the depictions in RICHARD II are among millions of diverse images my students receive about “what European people/history are like.”

  2. This is something I’m getting increasingly sensitive to — people who disparage the prose style in Harry Potter because it has a lot of adverbs, where “bad writing” is defined as “writing that has a lot of adverbs,” without examining in what ways the adverbs weaken or strengthen the prose. (I do not think that J.K. Rowling is a fantastic prose stylist, but I do think people often skip a logical step there.)

    It’s interesting that people tend to be very concerned with historical accuracy in children’s books because children are still developing a knowledge of history and may absorb things from books without questioning their accuracy; this is true of adults as well, of course, but we *hope* that well-educated adults have a better-developed sense of smell for the big stuff. (On the other hand, when I’m reading alternate history, it’s hard for me to be sure when the author has made a mistake and when they’re signaling something about the alternateness of the history!) And yet, especially when you look at books set pre-1900, it’s very hard to find children’s books that seem to get the worldview and psychology right. Sometimes you get a lot of distancing and exoticising, more often you get anachronistic proto-feminists informed more by a 21st century “girl power” kind of thing than what the real iconoclastic women of the time period were doing. I feel like that’s way more important than the small details but also way harder to get across accurately.

    I don’t pretend to be able to know when a book is unsuccessful at following a certain set of rules or successful at following a different set. I think that readers should ideally become flexible and experienced enough to be able to appreciate what’s good about Dickens and what’s good about Hemingway at the same time even though they’re following completely different rulebooks. It’s possible to point to things like internal consistency, following your own rules, and craftsmanship, but ultimately I think it’s about what you bring to the table as a reader — like how if all you’ve listened to is late 20th century/early 21st century pop music, you won’t have anything useful to say about modern musicians’ experiments’ with atonality and nonstandard tunings.

    (I’ve read parts of the McGurl book, by the way. Parts were interesting and parts I got very bogged down in because it’s heavier than what I’m used to reading, but it had some important things to say.)

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