These book lovers (and sometimes haters) are the people to follow for a well-rounded and intellectually stimulating view of literature
Ever finished a book and immediately wanted to google all its hidden symbolism and meanings online? Without a book club or a GCSE English classroom it can be hard to satisfy our thirst for answers, especially if the author prefers to leave things ambiguous.
Enter literary critics, who have been interpreting the world’s greatest novels since Daniel Defoe first put pen to paper. Here are ten critics to remember¬—but don’t expect everything they say to be nice…
Where best to begin than perhaps the most famous literary critic of them all? New Yorker Harold Bloom was born in 1930 and has analysed everyone from Wordsworth to Shakespeare, even writing a literary appreciation of the Bible and naming Jonah as his favourite book. According to Bloom, Jesus was a “major literary character.”
Bloom has written over 40 books, half of which are works of literary criticism. He joined the Yale English Department in 1955 and is still a professor of the subject, also teaching at New York University at the impressive age of 88.
So what’s the secret to his success? The legendary critic previously told the HuffPost that he remembers everything he has ever read. Unfortunately for him this presumably includes Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which he didn’t seem too crazy about. When answering the question “Why read it?” he answered, “Presumably, if you cannot be persuaded to read anything better, Rowling will have to do.”
Michiko Kakutani is the Queen of Mean in literary criticism. The Japanese American was formerly the chief book critic at the New York Times and even won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1998. She has been known to write reviews in the voice of characters such as Elle Woods from Legally Blonde or Brian Griffin from Family Guy before retiring in 2017.
So how harsh is she? In 2006 Kakutani called Jonathan Franzen’s memoir The Discomfort Zone “an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed”. The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike was labelled “magical mumbo jumbo” and “cringe-making” and she even fell out with author Norman Mailer after calling his novel The Gospel According to the Sun “a silly, self-important and at times inadvertently comical book”.
But in fairness, the novels Kakutani enjoys are heaped with praise. Don Delillo’s Underworld was a “dazzling, phosphorescent work of art”, while Franzen seemingly redeemed himself with Freedom, which she said was written in “visceral and lapidary” prose.
If you like folklore and fairy tales, Scottish critic Andrew Lang is essential reading. Born in Selkirk in 1844, he was obsessed with mythology and oral history long before he began studying at St Andrews, Glasgow and Oxford Universities. He’s best remembered for publishing a collections of stories for children between 1889 and 1913, known as the Langs’ Fairy Books.
A self-branded “psycho-folklorist”, Lang was particularly fascinated with the journeys behind well-known stories, analysing how one tale could appear to have origins all over the world. He would ask questions such as: At what point does the tale of Cinderella stop being the same story, if it is altered to fit new cultural surroundings each time it is retold?
Some might say the presence of two ugly stepsisters or a glass slipper is crucial to the tale. But Lang wrote that it was “a person in a mean or obscure position, [that] by means of supernatural assistance, makes a good marriage”—something we still describe as a “Cinderella story” in popular media today.
In the 1950s and 1960s, American author Mary McCarthy was best known for her open treatment of taboo subjects such as abortion, feminine sexuality and promiscuity. Born in 1912, she fell into writing after intending to be an actress; and her debut novel The Company She Keeps received critical acclaim.
Yet despite her own positive feedback, McCarthy was unafraid to pass criticism on others. She became one of the most respected and feared critics of her generation, unable to be anything but unsparingly honest. The author once famously wrote that Eugene O’Neill “like other American authors such as Farrell and Dreiser” had thrust themselves upon their chosen careers despite not possessing “the slightest ear for the word, the sentence, [or] the paragraph”.
But it is clear McCarthy had no regrets. Before her death in 1989, she was asked why she continued to be so fiercely unsatisfied in her reading of others. The Guardian reports that the author simply responded: “There is so much to hate”.
English professor Eric Griffiths’ lectures were so popular at Cambridge University, student newspaper Varsity featured them in its entertainments listings. Sometimes known as “Reckless Eric”, the Liverpool-born critic was famous for his sharp tongue and quick wit, which would shine through in his analysis of others.
Griffiths would interpret texts word by word, once notably describing the word “divina” of the Divina Comedia to mean “fabulous poem, darling, loved it loved it loved it”. He was able to demonstrate how a “Kafkaesque” mood, often applied to any situation with a hint of sinister bureaucracy, could be produced by small words like “if” and “but” in Franz Kafka’s sentence structures.
But it seems not everyone fell for Griffiths’ charm. Despite being called the “cleverest man in England” by the Guardian, poet Donald Davie once called him the “rudest man in the kingdom”. Author AS Byatt even revealed that the critic had reduced her to tears by calling her Booker Prize-winning novel Possession “the kind of novel I’d write if I didn’t know I couldn’t write novels.”
Elaine Showalter dedicated her career to creating a woman-centric approach to the male-dominated field of literary criticism. The American writer is most famous for coining the term “gynocriticism” during the 1970s, which signified a “female framework for the analysis of women’s literature” that would examine the “internalised consciousness” of being female.
Showalter defined three phases in which women’s literature could be interpreted. From 1840 to 1880, in the “feminine” phase, writers like George Eliot would attempt to imitate male writers and use pseudonyms to publish their work. From 1880 to 1920, authors like Virginia Woolf led the “feminist” phase, full of protest, while an increased self-awareness from 1920 creatd the “female” phase, where women’s experiences became “autonomous art.”
Some experts said gynocriticsm omitted differences between women, such as class, race or sexuality, but the project was also credited with re-examining literary history from a feminist perspective. As Showalter put it, the world needed to “stop trying to fit women between the lines of the male tradition, and focus instead on the newly visible world of female culture.”
James Wood gained a fearsome reputation for reviewing books as the chief literary critic at the Guardian before going on to join the New Yorker in 2007. Financial Times called him “the best literary critic of his generation” the year after.
Always true to his opinion, Wood advocates an aesthetic approach to literature; even if it makes for a particularly blunt review. In 2015, he argued that Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go contained passages “that appeared to have been entered in a competition called The Ten Most Boring Fictional Scenes”. Wood believes that the most important literary style is realism which is always “at the bottom” of his analysis.
But now the author of two novels, the writer has since said he is now much less likely to “slay people” in his reviews. Just last year Wood joked he had “lost his nerve” after being on the receiving end of criticism himself.
Harvard University professor Steven Greenblatt has written seven books about Shakespeare and his Elizabethan world of words. In the 1980s, the critic co-founded New Historicism, arguing that writers are inseparable from the context of their surroundings, stating that he believed “nothing comes of nothing, even in Shakespeare.”
But Greenblatt’s is at his most impressive when linking the world-famous playwright’s writing to today’s top stories. In his latest book, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, he hinted at a comparison between King Henry VI and a certain US President. “Drawing on an indifference to the truth, shamelessness and hyperinflated self-confidence, the loudmouthed demagogue is entering into a fantasyland—‘When I am king, as king I will be’—and he invites his listeners to enter the same magical space with him,” Greenblatt wrote.
“In that space, two and two do not have to equal four, and the most recent assertion need not remember the contradictory assertion that was made a few seconds earlier.”
In the 1970s, Bulgarian-French critic Tzcetan Todorov originated the concept of the fantastic, a subgenre of fiction characterised by ambiguous supernatural forces which cause the reader to hesitate when questioning reality. For example, in Edgar Allan Poe's The Black Cat, the murderer is unsure whether he is being stalked by an animal or something sinister from beyond the grave.
Todorov stated that readers of the fantastic would most frequently find themselves in two situations: Where supernatural forces are later revealed to have a rational explanation (the uncanny), or a straight up confirmation of a supernatural presence (the marvellous). His analysis has become vital groundwork to understanding the structural conventions of gothic, horror and science fiction.
Also a history, sociology, and philosophy academic, Todorov also studied the moral issues behind the Holocaust and questioned if “extreme situations” turned men into “beasts”. He wrote over 20 books in his lifetime, many of which paved the way for other literary theorists such as Rosemary Jackson, who published Fantasy, the Literature of Subversion in 1981.
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