New on Desk #92 — Critical Theory

I’ve been working nights, and been fairly productive — I even forgot to finish this newsletter for a few hours, so busy was I writing real stuff instead. Something about the peace of being able to put myself into order and focus on work, while everybody else is sleeping, works for me. It also helps that I finished reading this unwieldily long serial novel that ate up too much of my time last week.

Literary Criticism in a nutshell

I’ll just summarize the activity and background theory of literary criticism here, so’s we’re on the same page. And it’s always possible that the topic’s not that familiar to some readers. Maybe read Wikipedia on it alongside if you’d like, although as I usually do, I’ll be condensing the actual core of the matter pretty neatly here.

So, the point of the philosophy of aesthetics is to make sense of the confusing, chaotic arrangement of feelings, thoughts, behaviors, cultural artifacts and other detritus that human engagement with art leaves in its wake. What meaning is there, and why is it there, in the arts and the numinous, irrational feelings they elicit? Literary criticism is the specialized subfield of aesthetic studies that concerns itself with understanding the written word. Like all philosophy, literary criticism in the modern world can be separated into the largely distinct worlds of practicing philosophy (humans attempting to make sense of their existence), industrial concern (using criticism to market art) and academic philosophy (scholars doing meta-commentary on practical philosophy). Academic literary criticism occurs in the so-called “ivory tower” community, whence possibly worthwhile ideas spread into the world via the usual scholarly channels. Industrial criticism of book review occurs in media, wherever people can be reached to be marketed at. Practicing criticism happens everywhere all the time as people encounter texts and interpret them for their own purposes.

I think that, just like in all philosophy, it is essential to the practice of literary criticism to set aside the academic forms: if you integrate the wisdom, very well, but understanding literature is distinct from being familiar with the scholarly scene of understanding literature. A person who begins their literary criticism by referring to an academic source or conceit has failed, for they are not thinking for themself, and they are not engaging in understanding the text, busy as they are displaying their toolbox. So don’t do that. Engage the text.

Likewise, it is important to distinguish the technical practice of literary criticism with the commercial marketing form of the book review; while the latter uses the ideas and techniques of the former, they aren’t really the same. A critique intended to frame a specific work as worthy of your attention has corrupt motivations. Pure philosophy is practiced for cause arising within the philosopher, not to manipulate other people.

So anyway, setting those limits, what can be said about literary criticism? Academic standard model of literary criticism nowadays is the “many lenses” theory, according to which a literary criticism is performed on the basis of a background theory, a school of criticism, that then gets applied to the work at hand. Here’s Wikipedia on critical lenses; I find it highly amusing that the encyclopedia doesn’t seem to know where the lens theory itself comes from, instead acting as if it’s some kind of primus motor of literary criticism. As far as I can figure out, not even literary studies people themselves quite know who invented the idea that you can label your critical perspective like a rock genre, call it “ecocriticism” or “psychoanalytic criticism” or “grunge criticism” or whatever. It’s clearly after Northrop Frye (an important critical theorist in the academic circles) but before the millennium, so maybe sometime in the ’80s?

I personally think that the lens theory overall does a great job of obscuring the actual meaning of a literary work by legitimizing single-minded and mechanical application of a cause célèbre to a literary work. If you believe that the purpose of critique is to explify and understand the meaning of a literary work, as I do, then applying a lens or adopting a doctrinal perspective is an extremely hamfisted way of going about that. Texts are very individual beasts, existing in individual circumstances in time and space; insisting on “doing a Marxist criticism” as a mechanical operation of pontificating over the economic circumstances evident in a text is like going to meet a new person and deciding in advance that you should give them marital advice. A more reasonable person would probably encounter the new acquaintance with authenticity, allowing them a say in the critical apparatus that is to be formed to make sense of the encounter.

This being my starting point, I would say that worthwhile literary criticism has the following features:

Critic derives meaning from the work. Whether this is the intended meaning of the work or whatever is a red herring, whether the meaning is rationally verbalized is a red herring… the point is that there is meaning to be had, a prey to be felled when this text is brought together with this critic. The critic sees a worthwhile opportunity for criticism here!

Critic successfully verbalizes their interpretation of the work. In the form of a literary essay, let’s say. Whether this involves introducing the work to audience unfamiliar with it in preparation for explaining it is circumstantially optional. Whether understanding the interpretation requires understanding the authorial context, focusing on specific quotes from the original text, or other structural devices common to criticism, that all depends on whether those tools aid in explicating and explaining the meaning the critic observes.

Critic retains perspective on the value-proposition of their own activity. Is the meaning I see in this work important? Can other people appreciate this work, either raw or with the help of my critical explication? Can this work serve as a step of personal growth for a person whose attention my critique might sway?

The above can all be summed up simply: good literary criticism is an interesting anecdote about a thing you experienced. It is the exact same literary form as anecdote, just specifically applied to “hey, let me tell you about this book I read”. A good criticism is separated from a bad criticism by the same qualities that separates a good anecdote from a bad one: relevance, pleasant narrative style, having an interesting point. That is all.

To be a good critic is to be a skilled reader, able to derive ideas from what one reads. It is also to be a good writer (or speaker, I guess), being able to explain the interesting ideas that your encounter with a text engenders in you. If this sounds like it’s the same exact definition as what I’d give for what a good author is, then isn’t that interesting.

A text for consideration: And They Shall Reap the Whirlwind

I got inspired to write about literary criticism today because, ass-backwards, I finished reading a weird… novel(?) last week, and wanted to say a few things about it. So why not explain my views on literary criticism while at it. So this is really the primary feature today, I just disguised it as a more general treatise on literary criticism.

I’ll start by describing the thing I read in general terms, explain what it is. I’ll save more personal thoughts on it for last.

And They Shall Reap the Whirlwind is a few different things in cultural-historical terms. Let’s list the puzzle pieces of its identity:

Writing community manuscript: The work was first published at Alternate History, although I myself read it in a republication thread at Space Battles. These are both genre literature writing communities, one focusing on the alternate history genre and the other on… stupid anime shit, I guess? SB was originally literally established to be a place for Star Wars and Star Trek fans to debate who has the bigger biggajoules in their laser energy generators, so while that specific question’s been out of vogue for a while, it’s the general tenor to expect there.

Serial novel: This type of literary work is usually performed by hobby authors, often in a format that mostly resembles that of a traditional serial novel: chapter by chapter the work grows, published as it’s written. Serial novels usually die on the vine relatively early, but sometimes they get stupid long, like this one apparently is over 200 chapters and 700k words. No wonder it took me several days to slog through.

Alternate history: This is actually fairly important, as the alternate history genre is very narrow in its definition: alternate history novels are about thinking through and describing the changes that would occur to the flow of real-world history were something or other changed in the past. In this case, the work’s premise is to ask whether the controversial British WWII Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris could have conducted his war better given the benefit of hindsight.

Self-insert fan fiction: One of the evergreen genre conceits of fan fiction, self-insert stories simply add the author themself as a literary character into a pre-existing scenario, and then fantasize about the results. In this case the self-insert is not very flagrant, and technically speaking the protagonist character is not the author themself, being instead a post-millenial professor of history specialized in WWII British air warfare, who finds themself time-traveling into the pants of Bomber Harris himself, replacing the man just as he is taking charge of Bomber Command, the British strategic bombing arm that Harris was famous for commanding. So not quite a self-insert, the main character just otherwise happens to be an expert on the topic of the story, from the author’s own time, with the author’s general values and predilections.

War Gaming: Again, a very important part of the work’s nature is that it is not a general interest novel: the author is not interested in writing about great adventures or human psychology or anything like that. Instead, they’re after the wargaming prize of showing in detail how strategic bombing warfare in the WWII context should and could be conducted. Historical accuracy of doctrine and technology is paramount, so unless one is already an expert on the topic, expect to be educated hard.

Critical historiography: This is a novel-like thing, so it’s not all about armament performance profiles (just what, 15% of the total page count consists of that), there’s also the occasional war literature genre cruft and, first and foremost, damning description of the short-sightedness and sinfulness of the British WWII war leadership. The war-crime nature of area bombing (the practice of attacking civilian infrastructure in war) gets a lot of play, as one would expect of a Bomber Harris story. Anybody who’s not quite clear on why Winston Churchill may not have been the nicest person might find that stuff interesting, and everybody can surely enjoy the laconic, relentless way the Kafka-like bureaucracy of the Air Ministry seems to do their utmost to prevent the self-insert protagonist from single-handedly winning the war.

A few critical observations

All right, so the first thing I’d like to say about And They Shall Reap the Whirlwind is that I don’t really know that it’s a good book as such. The author isn’t a word-smith per se, and that shows in the huge-ass paragraphs, repetitiveness of the writing and the general hobby authorship nature of the work; this is not so much a crafted novel as it is the outcome of therapeutic writing. Not very different from this newsletter, in fact.

Furthermore, even if we set the technical problems aside, there’s this negative aspect that fan fiction often carries… it’s indulgent. Because the author is not writing for you, but rather for themself (and isn’t that the definition of hobby fiction if anything is), they are willing and able to cast aside all concerns about speaking to you like a fellow human being. Instead, fan fiction tends to immerse in a simplistic wish-fulfillment fantasy world where the purpose of the effort of producing a textual edifice is feeling good about yourself. People like reading this crap for the same reason the author wants to write, because it’s therapeutic (or simply degenerative) to indulge.

In the case of ATSRtW the indulgent themes are more mature than you’re probably thinking of in relation to fan fiction, but nevertheless, they’re pretty familiar. The main character is inhumanly driven, an always-correct know-it-all; their antagonists are short-sighted fools. Allies adore the protagonist, his human (rather, super-human) worth gets affirmed regularly. Communists are evil, civilians do not appreciate the soldier’s experience, bureaucrats are so stupid that we don’t even need to try to understand their viewpoint. Familiar stuff if you’ve read a lot of hobby writing, I’m sure. Comes with the territory, you could say, and the wargaming premise of the work sort of justifies not contaminating the experiment with more realistic human behavior, but still.

This is why I wanted to discuss art criticism alongside ATSRtW, though — because what is “good”, anyway? I personally found this serial to be quite compelling specifically for its authentic rawness. The author is exquisitely learned in the topic of strategic bombing, and WWII warfare in general, so what the fuck do I care about the dramatic merits? If I haven’t gotten enough of psychologically nuanced “boy meets girl” shit by now, I never will. Rather give me a technical explanation of the difficulties of using the strategic air arm to conclusively defeat an industrial state in total war, any day. If I hadn’t read other minutely detailed explorations of British WWII aircraft industry works in the past, I could say that this one taught me more about the production of Avro Lancaster (a particular bombing plane used by the Brits through the war) than I’d ever wanted to know. And it certainly schooled me on strategic and tactical use of radar, tactical bombing, logistical disruption of supply chains, and a hundred other things.

Basically, the wargaming perspective in the work is so decisively masterful that I ended up snorting it like crack cocaine, disrupting my own writing schedule to instead read about, well, Bomber Harris and Bernard Montgomery plotting to make Market Garden work. (If it seems like I’m just dropping names at random, the topic here might be slightly too unfamiliar for you to enjoy the work yourself.)

The author isn’t even a one-trick pony, as apparently their research-writing skills apply to horror fantasy of all things. I’m not exactly ignorant of the topic, and I’ve been around the blocks of horror and fantasy a few times myself, and the weirdly hammy B-plot about anti-Catholic time travel conspiracy still managed to make me smile with the way it combined an obscure occult manual with time-travel fiction. Similar to the main plot, the literary composition is sort of crude, but the research pushes so well selected phantasmagoric ideas that it ends up more legit than most wannabe-writing in the genre.

I don’t know if And They Shall Reap the Whirlwind is a good book, but I don’t know that art would necessarily have to be that, either; the world is a richer place for having this weird, insistent thing in it. People should do more non-standard literature in any case, filling the shelves with entertainment industry easy-reading is so last century. I’m not saying that everything’s good and nothing is bad, or that your precious desk drawer manuscript is automatically worthy of existing. I’m just saying that texts have many possible ways of being interesting, and apparently ATSRtW gets there by wooing me with bomb-load math and high-altitude bombing scatter tables.

What’s with the Coup?

I’ve personally been on hiatus from our on-going D&D campaign, Coup de Main in Greyhawk, but I do follow its proceedings regularly. I’m planning to get back in there once the worst of my writing crunch subsides. Both the Monday and Tuesday groups are still playing regularly, I just don’t happen to have a fresh play report this week.

The Monday group skipped a session this week as Tuomas the GM had a bout of the flu. I understand that the next session (on Monday, hopefully) is expected to be quite the humdinger, with the Knights Temp cracking open a monastery vault rumoured to have lain untouched since the fall of the wealthy institution.

The Tuesday group has been playing, I’m just having difficulties getting detailed reports from them. Apparently they’re working on the Tomb of the Iron God as planned. I don’t know, maybe I should just go interview the players with pen and paper on hand to get them to summarize what’s going on.

Food Court: Tea Wisdom

I don’t drink coffee, which is highly aberrant in Finland. A trivia tidbit about Finland: the Finnish nation drinks by far the most coffee per capita on Earth. It’s like [checks Internet]… 12 kg per year per person. Anybody who’s not into coffee is mandated to drink tea instead, so that’s what I’ve ended up doing. I’m not really a hot drinks sort of person in general, but the matter just comes up constantly, so I’ve gotten used to accepting tea just to let people give me something to fiddle with when it’s coffee time. A hospitality issue, basically: if the custom is to offer bread and salt to visitors, you better get in the habit of eating bread to be polite.

Over the years this has ended up with my getting into tea a bit more seriously. It’s usually for a winter or so at a time, ended by occurrences such as the electric kettle breaking down or summer being too hot for hot drinks or whatever.

My last bout of tea-drinking ended a couple years ago when my fancy auto-seeping electric kettle got a trip in the dish-washing machine courtesy of an old person (modern electronics don’t always look sufficiently like an electronic device, I suppose). This was demoralizing enough for the matter to lie fallow for its time. Now, though: winter is coming, and a basic model kettle was just 10 € at the store, so we again have a something for quick casual water-boiling in the kitchen.

(Not that, you know, the coffee maker couldn’t warm up water as well. But it has a nasty aroma from pushing coffee all day every day for all the coffee-drinkers in the house, so…)

Since there’s again a tea kettle in the house, I’ve found over the last few days that I slip fairly easily into tea-brewing habits. A cup or two a day, timed in the middle of my office hours. I used to be fairly bad at the brewing once, but nowadays I seem to be capable of doing the simple act of keeping tea leaves stewing in the right temperature for the right time to make a non-bitter cup of tea. The tea has to sit for like half an hour after brewing to cool down enough for me to actually drink it, but so far it’s working passably well.

I’ve been drinking old leaf stocks for now, and that’ll probably continue for a while, as you might imagine if you know anything about how tea bags tend to accumulate in households. The current flavour is black tea with vanilla. I’m likely to switch to green tea once that runs out, I seem to remember from my last tea season that it’s more to my tastes.

State of the Productive Facilities

I did some support writing for CWPs this week, and with And They Shall Reap the Whirlwind over and done with, I might actually be putting time into writing work for a change. Hopefully the CWP stuff will get finished in a couple of weeks now, it’s fairly close to done!

1 thought on “New on Desk #92 — Critical Theory”

  1. Markku Tuovinen

    Oh yeah, Lidl carries the Lord Nelson Green Tea with Vanilla that is excellent. The vanilla aroma is quite strong, so drinking it is enjoyable.
    It is competing with Coca Cola Sokeriton Vanilja Erikoismaut (Zero Sugar Vanilla elsewhere in the world) by Sinebrykoff here in Finland) at the moment… when purchased in 1.5 liter bottles, the contents cost about 1.5 €/liter, which is about the same as 0.33 L Pepsi Max Vanilla cans ordered from Germany… which is all kinds of messed up.
    Last time I got some Danish fruity zero sugar sodas as well, but they’re mostly undrunk while the 4×24 cans of Vanilla disappeared like last winter’s snow. I should really pay a bit more to order from, since they also carry pretty good zero sugar root beer at only about 3 €/L.
    On the other hand, I could just brew some Green Tea with Vanilla for ice tea, and it would be a perfect substitute for everything else. Especially if sweetened with a bit of B2 (Inosil, which actually has 50% of the sweetness of sugar), which has actually helped me to enjoy little things in life again, in spite of the impenetrable black clouds on the sky (we’re currently actually living the Crazy Years that Heinlein wrote about in the 80’s and 90’s with clumps of Merchants of Venus and 1984 thrown in).

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