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Cultural Fragments essay:
“Should literary critics focus solely on the words on the page?”
- F. R. Leavis
Within this essay one of the areas covered will be the subject of New Criticism and how this is
relevant to the main topic. New criticism is a form of literary critique named after John Crowe
Ransom’s book The new criticism. A form of criticism that looks at literary works as though they
were their own self contained reference, involving mostly close reading as opposed to looking at
the bigger picture. This is the type of criticism that will be researched and discussed, judging the
advantages and disadvantages it may encompass. This formalist approach to literature enables
critics to judge the book or poem by the quality itself, instead of looking at it as a product of its
generation or culture, it enables us judge the literary piece as more individualistic, one that
stands on its own. If we disregard not only the historical and cultural context in which it was
written, but perhaps even the authors themselves, we are capable of reading the piece from a
completely objective and fresh perspective, we are freed from judging the work with a biased or
pre existing opinion of the author which would subsequently colour our opinions of the text and
change how we read it. An anonymous blogger claims: “Critics are free from contextual trappings
that tend to stir their attention away from the text.”
Some books will come across as less effective and in some ways entertaining without the context.
Jane Austin’s Northanger Abbey is a good example of this; the context Austin provides in the
introduction to the novel enables us to see that this book is a parody. This explanation is arguably
one of the most important factors for understanding the story, however that being said the
quality of the work itself is not reduced. Looking at her use of discourse and narrative, how
Austin dips in and out of the story with her own voice to add some satirical or comedic insight, as
well as the imagery used, one can see that these still allow for a well written book even when
disregarding context. Contrary to the books that suffer from a close reading, poetry instead tends
to benefit more, the compact structure and form poetry uses as well as its ability to be
understood and properly appreciated without needing context enables readers to perform a
close reading and purvey the raw quality of the work, similar to a work of visual art that often
leaves the interpretation up to the viewer instead of explaining itself.
Gary Lehmann, poetry critic writes “Poems should be read for what they say, not what they say
about the poet or his times. The text is its only spokesperson and the only one we should attend.”
Reading about a poet or author’s life and upbringing could colour the way you read and interpret
their work. The work of Sylvia Plath is an example of this; you’d be hard pressed to find
somebody familiar with her work that wasn’t also knowledgeable about her external life,
depression and suicide. The knowledge on this is so abundant it has become associative with her
work and in turn a critical analytical tool for her poems, it’s difficult to critique and study her
work without your opinion of it being swayed by the biographical information, and though she is
undoubtedly a skilled and talented writer, what readers and critics are looking at when they read
Plath’s work is her life, not the words on the page. To disregard the biographical context and
perform a close reading of her work with a New Criticism approach, one may discover a
completely new perspective and meaning to her work.
Looking further into how close reading and New Criticism can effect the study of various texts,
one can begin to break down the main advantages and disadvantages to the practice, having
already touched upon some advantages of this we now look to some criticisms of New Criticism,
when analyzing The New Criticism by John Crowe Ransom, literary critic and advocate of New
Criticism Rene Wellek talks about the four main reasons why many critics, such as Ronald Crane,
are disputing this form of criticism as being obsolete, one of the four reasons given was
explaining how limiting some believe New Criticism to be: “Finally the New Criticism is being
dismissed as a mere pedagogical device, a version of the French explication de texte, useful at most
for American college students who must learn to read and read poetry in particular.” Even though
Wellek continues on to claim that these accusations against New Criticism are baseless, we have
to wonder if there is any validity to these disputes.
In his essay on literary criticism Ronald Crane argues that in the New Critics attempt to remain
objective to the text, only to end up instead becoming subjective “They fail to come out of the grip
of New Criticism. Consequently many important aspects are lost sight of.” The underlying argument
is that instead of creating a form of literary criticism that remains entirely unbiased and objective
of the text it’s studying, it ends up limiting the potential of the book or poem and can cause New
Critics to overlook crucial context. An example of this would be Oscar Wilde’s A picture of Dorian
Gray, without looking at the historical and cultural co-text in which the book was written, the
importance and merit that it carries becomes limited, and Wilde’s message about the dangers of
the aesthetic movement at the time will be lost.
One can study and appreciate the quality of the written word, they can analyse the patterns and
structures within poems and books, but because the literary works contain so much more than
that you would only be studying half of the poem or book. Similar to judging a work of art by
nothing more than the mediums, colours and practices used, it could be argued that in studying
the format and text only, one can use the method of close reading to research the author or piece
together their thought process. Instead of using biographical, historical and cultural information
and co-text to study the book, you could use the book to study the biographical, historical and
cultural. However to conclude it would ultimately seem that to focus solely on the words on the
page, critics would be limiting themselves to the depth, messages, context and meaning the
literary piece may contain. There is evidence that proves the effectiveness of New Criticism and
close reading, and for many it’s a preferable approach to analyzing work, however the evidence
to the contrary goes to say that it is not the only effective method. We as readers and critics and
writers should look at more than just the words on the page, as most literature goes beyond just
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