The legitimacy of critique : or, who am I?

(This is today’s post – a long read touching on criticism, the internet, and also distant reading. There’s a bit of theory, but I hope it’s worth the effort. If you’d like to read other longer posts in this series, here’s the archive of long reads.)

I have a friend who’s researching narrative autobiography, and every now and then, when we’re out, it’s fun to talk about the great self-questioning nature of her research. Of course all postgraduate research is self-questioning and often far too much so. The question of one’s mental health during research is something I’ve covered elsewhere, but I want to talk here about the legitimacy of critique. Or, to be more specific, the legitimacy of critics.

I’m reaching the end point of my research and am working on making it a springboard into something else. This requires talking to a lot of people, and pitching a lot of ideas, but I’m doing it with the realisation that I am a new person now. Research – this period of frantic question, determined typing, and ferocious passion – has changed me. It’s made me more confident (more argumentative, as my family will point out) and it’s led me towards questioning everything in my sector of children’s literature. I am moving into better and greater things but I will do that reflexively. I don’t leave readers behind. You, and the people I work with, the people I share texts with, all of you will come with me for the ride because literacy – power – doesn’t work when it’s in the singular. This is a collective effort, a collective strength, and the ability to question – to realise – to challenge – and to understand – is vital.

This has never been a blog for me, and my children’s books, it’s a blog for us.

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Getting unstuck

Image: Princess Toadie (Flickr)

I have a bit of an uneasy relationship with literary criticism. There are times when I can pull a text apart and take utter joy in sounding out nuances of meaning and thought; and then there are other times when I think of The Color Purple and Sylvia Plath and think I’d rather do nothing of the sort.

What did these two books do wrong to deserve such a disparaging attitude? They were part of my A-Level curriculum at school, analysed to the level of practically studying the grain of the paper they were published on. And I think, somehow, somewhere along that process I lost the love of these texts. I lost it to the extent of writing ‘oh look another poem about death’ on my copy of Ariel …

How do you become unstuck? And more importantly why?

The why is simple. Because if you learn to actively dislike one book, you learn to dislike much more than the book you started off with. There was a point during my schooling when I couldn’t bear to look at a book because I knew I’d have to rip it to shreds. I only really regained the ability to really engage with a book, wholly and purely, when I went to my amazing and life-changing university.

So how did I get unstuck? Well, in between all the Appalachian clog dancing, and the wide-eyed wandering around the gardens and going “OH MY GOD THEY’VE GOT A HENRY MOORE HERE”, I rediscovered writing.

I rediscovered my love of words:

  • After being dragged up in front of the class and being berated for not knowing a beginning, a middle and an end to my story.
  • After being told off for knowing the answer to a question because I’d read the book and not figured it out contextually.
  • After being asked if I copied my work because it was “university standard” and not A-Level.

And this is how I did it:

  • Step away from the books. Don’t worry; you’ll come back. What you’re trying to do, in a way,  is rediscover the word and shape of language.
  • I have a strong belief that readers must be writers. Not necessarily to the extent of cracking out a Booker prize winner, but to the extent of knowing how words feel and how they act. So write – but not with anything traditional. Get out, get down, get dirty. Write with your hands in mud, masking tape on walls, ketchup on bread. Anything that resembles a traditional writing medium is forbidden.
  • Breathe. I had no confidence in my own skills til I got to uni, and even then it wasn’t til the second year really. The first year involved me being a bit WTF and YOU WANT ME TO DO WHAT?. Breathe. Take time and trust your instincts.
  • Challenge yourself. Are you reading the black marks on the paper or are you reading the white space around them? Turn your books upside down. Take the first word of every other paragraph. Take the last sentence of every chapter. Get stuck into the language. Language serves you, and not you it.
  • The pure act of creating something isn’t something that should ever be critically assessed. Everybody is creative and we’re just so used to it being immediately assessed that we block ourselves in both when thinking about our own abilities and others. I love Julia Cameron’s idea of treating your inner child to something stimulating. So do. Take yourself – with / without others – to somewhere cool. My treat of choice was Paignton Zoo. It was right next to Tesco’s so it was dead handy.
  • It’s okay to hate something – as long as you can verbalize why. Don’t be afraid of not conforming. Easier said than done, I know, and it’s something I’m still working on.

It’s so easy to become stuck  and I think it’s incredibly difficult to become unstuck. I think a massive point of understanding books, and literature as a whole, comes from having confidence in your own critical faculties. Confidence is such a hard thing to get, so once you have it, hold onto it with both hands and don’t let other people tell you how to think. Have faith in yourself and your instincts.

Don’t become the person who pushes other people into the mud.