May 6, 2011
Many people have claimed to have figured out the proper way to analyze a text; many of whom are profound writers, critics, and figures in literary society. Many people have preached that their descriptions of the way to analyze texts are the “right” way and that those who doubt them are wrong. Only I, however, have figured out and will explain to you the true meaning of text, the learner’s guide for comprehending lyric, literary criticism for dummies.
As a literary critic, there are four categories that a work of writing are broken down into and analyzed by. These categories include; author, critic, reader, and text. Each category is important to the actual literature, however some more than others. Also, it is imperative to understand that different works of literature have different priorities; an autobiography may have more of a focus on the author while the critic can play a big role on a contemporary novel. The four categories exist in all literature, and through the lens of New Criticism, the proper analysis can be made.
Most important to the work of literature is text. Everything and everyone reading, writing, and understanding the literature depends on the text for information. The only thing that the reader has to even look at is the text. The author spends hours laboring over the text, editing it and perfecting it to make it sound perfect, exactly like they want it to, to readers. As other New Critics would conclude, for a critic to interpret specific meaning from the author and apply that to the text or general understanding of the work would be to commit intentional fallacy. People tend to read too far into the author’s state of mind, and this is why the author needs to be reduced on the hierarchy of what makes up a work of literature. Just like when Colson Whitehead visited our classroom, he told us about how one person had asked him if he had named a character in one of his novels after a post-racial theme because of certain characteristics and actions that character exhibits throughout the novel. He simply replied that the name of the character came from the street name on a sign that was present outside his window. This is not the only fallacy that New Critics attempt to avoid.
Being the most innovative and brilliant thinkers about works of literature from wide ranges of canons is not easy; it requires much work and thinking. Thus, New Critics developed a concept similar to that of intentional fallacy called affective fallacy. The term was developed in order to prevent readers and critics alike from making a judgment about a text based on the emotional effects it has on the reader, claiming that affective fallacy is the mistake of judging a work in such a way (Wismatt and Beardsley). It is only appropriate when criticizing a work to keep the concepts of intentional fallacy and affective fallacy in mind.
In his influential work for the “genre” of New Criticism, Cleanth Brooks helped to define the meanings and key concepts behind New Criticism. He stated, “Moreover, the formalist critic knows as well as anyone that literary works are merely potential until they are read- that is, that they are re-created in the minds of actual readers, who vary enormously in their capabilities, their interests, their prejudices, their ideas” (Brooks 74). This concept can be applied to Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, specifically the section when Whitehead uses the powerful watermelon reference. In this section of his novel, the narrator states, “We were all of us stuck whether we wanted to admit it or not. We were people, not performance artists, all appearances to the contrary” (Whitehead 108). This is an incredibly powerful section of this novel, one that sends strong messages of African American race and culture that are unavoidable when analyzing the racial aspects of the book. It would be easy for a reader to feel bad for the narrator because of the negative racial connotations that this passage possesses, however when analyzing them it is very important to remove the author from the racial analysis. The ideas that he presents are and had been around much longer than he had, and it is necessary to make sure that one does not confuse this idea of the racial tension they feel with Whitehead’s own ideas.
A work of literature has various parts that must be individually analyzed and broken down, and it starts with the text itself. Although it is hotly debated, the text is the foundation of all literature. Therefore it must be placed atop this hierarchy of literary aspects. To state that the author is more important than the actual text would be intentional fallacy, a concept New Critics have created to stress the importance of text over the author. The reader has the right to interpret the literature as he/she will, but relies on the text as the basis of his/her argument. Allowing emotion to run in the way of analysis of the work would also present a case of fallacy that is unacceptable when attempting to analyze literature. Lastly, even though critics may be able to present arguments such as this one to a reader, it is ultimately the reader’s goal to formalize these ideas for themselves.
Brooks, Cleanth. “The Formalist Critics.” The Kenyon Review 13.1 (1951): 72-81. Print.
Whitehead, Colson. Sag Harbor. New York: Anchor Books, 2009.
Wimsatt, W.K & Monroe Beardsley, “The affective fallacy”, Sewanee Review, vol. 57, no. 1, (1949): 31-55.