How the practice of criticism can offer a way to rethink our assumptions about truth, history, and human nature

What exactly do we mean by the term ‘criticism’?

Catherine Belsey, Criticism (Profile Books, 2016)
Catherine Belsey, Criticism (Profile Books, 2016)

The publishers asked me that and I didn’t give them an answer! It’s a fair question but I’m uneasy about definitions. They’re a bit like written constitutions: they tie you down and exclude new possibilities. Definitions demarcate a legitimate area of activity – and close off other options.

In a general way, criticism is reflection on the stories, plays and poems we read (or see, or listen to). But in detail, it varies. For some people, it’s effectively a source of consumer advice: this film is worth going to; that novel is worth buying. Others might prefer to think about what differentiates genres, or the effects of different media. Does a play tell a story in the same way as a novel? Do novels tend to works as films, say?

Then there’s fiction as a record of the way we think about the world, or our ancestors once thought about it. Criticism offers access to cultural analysis and cultural history.

My own current preoccupation is pleasure. Why is fiction so enjoyable, even when the stories it tells are unhappy ones? Why does tragedy attract audiences? Other people have other concerns: it can all be criticism. (more…)