Writers can benefit from understanding literary criticism, but as with everything else it has a cost. Writing well requires understanding.
First, the obvious question: what is literary criticism?
Literary criticism is the act of contemplating literature as an art. It is a diverse field with multiple different schools of thought. For this purpose, it’s worth splitting the discussion further into two points:
“Should a writer be a literary critic?”
The time and effort required to become a critic is significant. Also, criticism can mean different things to different people. I will not suggest that writers write for journals.
However, writing as a critic can be valuable as a source of content for books or blogs. It can also give tools drawn from works a writer examines.
All investments require examination. Personally, I enjoy looking at things analytically. I’d be an accidental critic if nothing else.
“Should a writer ascribe to a particular school of literary criticism?”
This is a key question.
Should a Writer be a Critic?
There’s a trade-off here, and one of those trade-offs is time. Becoming an excellent writer involves practicing writing.
Many good critics are bad writers. Many good writers are bad critics.
If there’s a correlation, it shows a potential benefit.
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen data about this. Though anecdotal examples–like Lewis, Eliot, or Poe–seem to suggest that many of the greatest writers of modernity were talented critics, most of these were people who devoted their professional lives to literature.
For someone who wants to get a novel out the door and published, it’s a much more difficult proposition.
After doing some research, I’m more convinced by Stephen King’s position, which can be summed up as this:
Reading broadly–and thinking about that reading–always helps a writer.
However, does writing about the critical process help authors?
I haven’t seen the same support for this. There’s a need for the reading and response process, but it’s not something that must come from deliberate creation of scholarship.Reading broadly–and thinking about that reading–always helps a writer. Click To Tweet
Another question is whether criticism must be scholarly. For instance, Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is not a work for academia but was rather first published in a magazine.
To this extent, I think the following paradigm is sensible:
A writer should think about writing when they read. They should assess writers’ decisions. They should engage their brain.
However, they do not need an academic background. Existing literature is a guide, not a pre-requisite
Schools of Criticism
However, saying “I will think!” does not mean one will think effectively.
The point of academic criticism, though it may not be necessary for every writer, is to bolster thought.
I have been working on a series of videos going over a history of literary criticism, so instead of belaboring my point here I will instead link the playlist.
My suggestion would be to find a school that works for you as a writer. I use archetypal criticism as my dominant mode. However, I read a lot of Carl Jung, which is not particularly accessible.
By looking at the different modes of criticism, you can find one that will help you get your foot in the door.
Writers should be literary critics. With that said, criticism need not be sophisticated or involve writing essays. It’s thinking about writing and literature that counts. That can flow from a disciplined framework, or be left to intuition and piecemeal efforts.
In the latter case, books on craft can serve to raise awareness of concepts that might be counterintuitive or difficult to grasp (like structural elements in fiction).