08 June 2010

Readers vs critics

Too many times, literary critics have marginalized or ignored public opinion about literary works.  Take Arabian Nights.  Here is a comment on it from an Arabic scholar, who appears to say that the reason the work is popular is that it is read mainly in translation, thereby removing the mixing of languages in the original:

"THE Thousand and One Nights (Alf Laylah wa Laylah) is the only Arabic work that has become truly popular in the West. For centuries it was frowned upon by educated Arabs for its inelegant style and mixing of the classical and vernacular languages.
"The first written compilation of the stories was made in Iraq in the 10th century by al-Jahshiyari who added tales from local storytellers to an old Persian work, Hazar Afsana ('thousand tales'), which in turn contained some stories of Indian origin. The 'frame' story, in which Sharazad saves herself from execution at the hands of King Shahrayar with her endless supply of tales was borrowed from the Persian Afsana but probably originated in India. A similar device, which may also come unltimately from India, is found in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron.
"The first Western translation was made in the early 18th century by Antoine Galland. His elegant French, coupled with some liberal editing, masked the flaws in the original and it became a huge success. He also added, from oral sources, several of the stories which later became most famous - including Ali Baba, Sindbad, and Aladdin.
"The Nights had a wide influence on European literary taste during the 18th and 19th centuries, when orientalism was fashionable. Examples include Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas and Voltaire’s Zadiq, as well as the poetic works of Byron and Wordsworth.
"The three best-known translations in English are by Edward Lane (incomplete, but accurate and with a detailed commentary), John Payne (probably the best, but without a commentary) and Sir Richard Burton (which tries to reproduce the oriental flavour of the original).
"Although sometimes regarded as children's stories, the sexual content makes some of them unsuitable - though bowdlerised versions are available. Modern Arabic versions have also been amended to meet the stylistic demands of critics."
Is it time to democratize literary criticism?  Is it time to finally remove the distinction between Literature and literature, High Culture and Low Culture, Literary Masterpieces and Airport Paperbacks?  The majority may not always be right, but surely they must know something the minority (that's us!) may not know.


  1. YES, it is high time to take a look at literary criticism as an art form. Literary criticism should not just mimic and justify older traditions but should also introduce new genres of literature and new hybrids of writing forms.

  2. Democratize literary criticism in the sense that this discipline must accept that the readers know best? Certainly, the ultimate arbiter of what gets read is the reader. No amount of scholarly literary criticism will trump this reader's prerogative.

    Nevertheless, literary criticism is one of the teacher's tools to guide the reader toward a productive and fruitful reading. Note that I am not using shibboleths like "intelligent reading." That would ultimately be a presumptuous standard.

    Good and bad literature, high and low culture, masterpieces and airport pulp are useful as distinctions only in so far as "literary appreciation" could be taught to those who might wish to squeeze the best aesthetic experience (including epistomological, ontological, moral etc.) out of a piece of lierature.

    As in political democracy, citizens who are readers, are generally more effective practitioners of the democratic processes if they were "informed" and "capable of educated response" as well as relatively correct choices for the wherewithal of living comfortably in a dignified human and humane community.

    Of course, the freedom to be dumb in the democracy can only go so far. Literary criticism provides guidelines for "educated" reading. Like most education toward a higher human purpose, one can only choose that which is consistent to the exercise of being a homo sapiens.

    Education is not a democracy in the sense that one could choose any which way to "know" or to "learn" regardless of goals. If it were, it would have ceased as an offering in learning institutions. Learning (thank Heavens) has not yet metamophosed into a dumbing down free-fall to ignorant anarchy.

    The dictatorship of teaching "taste", thinking and appreciation processes is not ripe for toppling by brutish people power.

    Literary criticism as an art form is just one of its facets. It's been that since the formalists' "regime". Literary criticism remains as the teacher's "GPS" (Global Positioning System) to lead the lazy reader to find the road he is running through --- before reading becomes a collision alley of meaningless, benumbing, sleep-inducing grazing of a little-idea-there-and-a-TV-Ad-soundbite-there resulting into community of couch-potatoes finally blinded by the blue rays of the boob tube (then known as the idiot box. Remember?)

    In literary appreciation, the majority could always profit from the critic's coaching, provided the former has not petrified in his calcified toilet-bowl of gooble-de-gooky hemeneutics and snobbish invention of terminology that has lost sight of the ultimate purpose of helping readers learn how to love reading for it's sake.

    Literary criticism and the literary artist both aim to celebrate the "splendour of a thing" and not miss it for a manic preoccupation with "traditions, conventions, and genres" where form and substance no longer matter or even meld.

    The problem really is that literary criticism has forgotten to abide by its primordial aim of "counselling, positioning" the reader to recognize between the piece of literature worth spending precious lifetime on and the drivel that money-grubbing publishers have flooded airports with. And yes, a welter of literary criticism has also become drivel, and a lot of them come from academics who cannot write artistically so they "criticise" to justify their tenure.

    Powell is right. When literary criticism gets recognized as an art form, the literary critic must a fortiori be a literary artist first. That way, he knows whereof he speaks, or "pontificates," lest they be treated like celibate clergymen who preach about the sanctity and joy of marriage or the sublime function of sex and sexuality.