Though often ignored and sometimes seen as necessary but not a part of the literary genre, criticism plays a vital role not only in literature but in the culture itself It has set the mode for certain eras and their particular tendencies: the Victorian Era and its romanticism, the Renaissance and its humanist people, and the postmodern era and experimentation with art, to cite a few examples. Criticism, often intertwining both literary and cultural, has set the mode for most of the culture that has been lived before you were born and the culture you will be living in the future.
What, then, is literary criticism? Some will say it is the “reasoned” consideration or analysis of literary texts and their themes or issues. It may also be an argument about a literary work, which will be proven using the text and the culture or context the text was written in or for. There is one general agreement among critics, however, when it comes to any kind of critique: it has to be “practical.” Criticism is meant to see what has not been seen before, to say what has not been said before, and to change what needs to be changed. It interprets meaning in text and judges the text’s quality so that it may bring forth new ideas, new realizations, and necessary changes in society.
One of the earliest works of criticism is Plato’s argument against the consequences of poetic inspiration in his writing entitled “The Republic.” Up until now, this text is used to guide critics on how a text can be interpreted or what other modes of interpretation can be done.
Functions of Literary Criticism
There are many functions• of literary criticism, and they vary depending on the text itself or the context where it is being performed. Literary criticism may be the simple review of books that you often read online or in local newspapers, or a systematic theoretical discussion of a story’s impact on society. These reviews usually determine if a book will be widely sold or acclaimed, though at times they do not serve as a precedent to the best seller’s status of the book. Criticism in everyday newspapers may also summarize the worth of a book, or support or deconstruct a publisher’s claim about a given book.
Another function of literary criticism is to reevaluate any given text. This is to shed new light or to give new meanings to old texts. Sometimes, literary criticism lets you see the function old texts in modern society. The literary critic becomes a scholar who works through old drafts and manuscripts, and edits all of them so that they may be reevaluated. This, when accomplished, may bring old texts to the new public’s attention.
Literary criticism may also be used to invoke discussions, reassess society, and redefine culture based on a literary text. These kinds of sustained criticism may be found in bi-monthly or even annual magazines or journals, which oftentimes have specialized topics. These kinds of criticisms are usually available to the academe, although some do end up in daily papers or mainstream magazines.
It is also common for criticism to dip its toes into social and political arguments, especially if the literary work is social or political in nature. Because literary criticism is highly interdisciplinary in nature, it is not afraid to transgress boundaries to argue a point and it also bravely follows where the literary text goes. Some forms of critical work done in the Philippines have dealt with the following: the abuse of overseas foreign workers (OFWs); the marginalization of women and/or members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community; the environmental degradation and injustice; and even postcolonial theories that dispute the years of colonization in which the country has endured.
This much, however, is true about criticism: critics may be seen as lawgivers when it comes to books, stories, poems, and the like. They may pass judgment based on their informed critical lenses and can make or break a writer. Even if writers, in the truest sense of the word, are owners of their own work (and are copyright holders, too), critics may still persuade the public to place their own judgments on the work, according to how they see fit. That is how powerful criticism is in society.
Writing a Critical Paper
You have written a critical paper before in your previous grade levels. What you must remember in attempting the feat once again for this module is that literary criticism does not look at literature as a way to proliferate a didactic message. This means that literary criticism does not solely look at a text to see if it has a message to say to the reader and whether this message is good or bad. Rather, literary criticism sees in the text what the readers do not see, and leaves the readers to think about what was discovered by themselves. Literary criticism also does not always have to delve into religious or nationalistic interpretations—it can be anything about the literary text on hand, as long as it is within the text. As they say, how can you force your readers to see what is not there in the first place?
A quick, insightful, and fun way to discuss your theories and insights in class is through a short paper. A short paper is literally “short.” It consists of one or two pages of written critique that will succinctly discuss your idea, realization, or concept regarding a literary selection. The point here is to introduce your idea or discovery about a literary selection to the class, which they can comment on and improve through constructive criticism. It is much similar to the writing workshops that the great national artists have established beforehand.
How do you start with your short paper? Of course, choose a literary selection that you want to analyze. It is preferred if you choose the same literary selection which you were asked to research on in Modules 1 and 2. Then, find at least two to three sources that you can use to develop your idea. You can find these through the Internet, your school library, or magazines/ journals. Once you have done your scholarly work, it is time for you to start writing.
Always begin with an outline. What do you want to say, and how do you want to say it? This outline is tentative and may always change as you keep on writing your paper. The important thing with an outline is that you can clearly follow it as you write along.
Next, start with a joke, an anecdote, or a quotation from the literary text as your introduction. The idea is to hook your readers so that they will be more willing to listen to your idea. After this, quickly state as a way of signposting (or letting the reader know what you are going to write about in your paper) what your concept is and how it is related to the literary text. Tell them, too, if you already have a hypothesis or a conclusion in mind. You may also give a background of the story, especially if it hasn’t been read yet by your classmates, in the introduction. But make sure it is short (2 pages at the most) because you only have two pages to write about your whole analysis.
The body of your essay must try to discuss the relation of your idea with the literary text. What has your idea discovered about the literary text? How did the literary text show you or enlighten you about your idea? What can your idea say about local culture and society? What other future research topics can be established from your idea? The body is critical in your analysis. If you need to quote from the literary text that you have chosen, do so carefully by choosing which are essential to develop your argument.
The conclusion is just like any conclusion when you are writing an essay—summarize what you have said or discussed in the body in two to three sentences. You may also want to conclude by referencing your introduction (the joke, anecdote, or quotation), so that it “sandwiches” your idea and is more appealing to the readers. You may also suggest future research projects for your readers, which they may undertake if they are interested in your topic.
A longer version of a short paper is National Artist Edith L. Tiempo’s critical paper entitled, “Writers for National Unity.” It was delivered in a PEN Conference in 1995.
The Philippine Center of International PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Novelists) is a member of PEN International and was established by National Artist F. Sionil Jose back in 1958. It is a worldwide association of writers that was founded in London back in 1921 to encourage friendship and cooperation among writers all over the world. Nowadays, PEN also includes writers of any form of literature such as journalists and historians. It has also stood up for the rights of so many writers who have been imprisoned, killed, and harassed for their writings and views.