On Learning Literary Criticism

The following passage, from Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon (Brian Rosebury; 2nd Ed.; Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003; pp. 198-9) is an apt description of how we are taught to do literary criticism in school. I remember doing something like this kind of work in my English classes in high school, and it would appear to be quite common across the pond, too:
Among reputable academic literary critics... [t]he damaging assimilation [of The Lord of the Rings to something else in order to show it is a bad book] has, in general, to be to other books, and to be based on some demonstrable resemblance, however fleeting. Fortunately (or unfortunately) the training provided by academic literary criticism is, in part, a training in making a great deal of fleeting details, inculcating as it does from high school onwards a routine in which large assertions are supported by small quotations. In practice this is hard to avoid. The examination candidate writes that Shakespeare in Othello makes extensive thematic use of animal images; and quotes — as she has been coached to do — a couple of lines from Act 3 to prove it. (This is called 'supporting your ideas with evidence'.) No one could possibly ask her to prove that these lines are in fact representative of a pattern visible across the play as a whole. The credibility of the proof by brief quotation depends on a prior consensus about the meaning of the play, to which the candidate is required to conform, as well as an essentially formalist poetics which views literary works as highly-wrought unities in which every detail may be assumed to subserve some thematic purpose of the whole. Once this routine has been inculcated, however, it can be exploited later in the student's career for a kind of glib dismissiveness. John Carey, for example, claims that The Lord of the Rings is 'a children's book', much of it in the style of Enid Blyton, and singles out as illustrations a few sentences from an early chapter, including the phrase: 'and of course his special friends, Pippin Took and Merry Brandybuck' (FR, 76). It is true that something like this passage could occur in Blyton, that Pippin and Merry are juvenile names, and that 'special friends' in many contexts could seem sentimental or arch. Colin Wislon says that The Lord of the Rings 'at its worst ... has touches of Enid Blyton', which is fair enough because it claims nothing beyond local resemblances. I have myself noted some 'incongruous lapses' in the style of these early chapters. The problem with Carey's assimilation [of the style of The Lord of the Rings to the style of Enid Blyton] is the unfounded claim of typicality. There is, after all, nothing exclusively [italics original] Blytonian about the phrase 'special friends' itself; what makes it reminiscent of her, especially if we pluck it out of its context and hold it up for inspection, is that Blyton rarely strays outside such cosy bourgeois-domestic intimacies as the phrase might capture. Readers turn to Blyton, as to other genre writers, because they know what they will get: lots and lots of the same. An attentive reading of the episode will show that Tolkien's style modulates into, and out of, the admittedly insipid passage to which Carey objects.
Enid Blyton authored numerous books, short stories, and other writings, among the most famous being her children's books about 'The Famous Five'. I have not read any of Blyton's works, but suffice it to say it would appear her reputation among literary critics of 'serious' literature is poor, and to such an extent that when assimilated to Blyton, The Lord of the Rings suffers as a result. The gem of this passage is the parenthetical comment by Rosebury about the example he gives on a student writing about Othello: 'This is called "supporting your ideas with evidence".' Burn.

Earlier in Tolkien, on p. 196, Rosebury defines assimilation thus:
In assimilation, the distinctive features of the original work, instead of forming the basis of an application to some new context, tend rather to be erased or eroded, in order to locate the work within some more familiar category. Assimilation, then, is the enemy of critical analysis or scholarly inquiry.
Take that, John Carey. Take that.


  1. I believe a more accurate description of what the hypothetical student was engaged in (no fault of the student's if that was his or her training) is 'cherry-picking'.

    1. I think that the term 'cherry-picking' is more of a bit of jargon on SBM-type websites, or at any rate the concept goes by a different name in literary criticism - when, that is, it is recognised to be an invalid technique of literary criticism, which is not, as we have seen, always the case.


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