The Wonders and Perils of Analysis

I love to read and write, and I love to write about what I read. I also love to read about what I read. Basically, the more levels of meta-analysis, the better. I majored in English, one of the least practical majors, largely so that I could indulge this passion for thinking and overthinking every little detail of the literature I enjoyed. But I didn’t always feel this way. My earlier attitude toward literary analysis was contemptuous. I believed that trying to pick apart the hidden meanings and symbolism of a story was pretentious, presumptuous, making up things the author never intended, and a fine way to suck all the life out of reading. This attitude was probably informed by the fact that I didn’t know how to write a decent analysis of any sort (this was back in elementary school and junior high), so I had ulterior motives for questioning the process. I also believed that literary criticism tended to the dreary and cynical, inevitably leading to the over-arching theme of “the futility of human existence.” I employed that phrase to make fun of critics’ tendency to render anything, even the most lighthearted of stories, into something hopelessly bleak and depressing. And I still do occasionally use the futility line, but more often in reference to works of literature themselves whose outlook is nihilistic and perhaps seen as superior to works with an optimistic view, as if pessimism is inherently more literary or intelligent.

But my attitude toward literary analysis has greatly evolved. Somewhere in the course of junior high or high school, once I learned how to write a decent analysis, I came to realize that I could delve deep into the myriad interpretations and meanings of any given work and come up with something that was uniquely mine, an opinion backed up by (always at least three!) examples from the story. ┬áBefore college I was basically only aware of formalist criticism (the author’s intent is unimportant; the text is everything; Form=Meaning) and while I realize now how limited that field is, it still opened wide vistas for me. I read a lot more than what I was assigned in school, and even though I didn’t usually write full-fledged papers on my independent study novels, I definitely did a lot of thinking.

My freshman year of college, I learned about Historicism, Marxist theory, Feminism, Structuralism, Deconstructionism, Multiculturalism, Myth and Archetype and a host of other theories. Honestly, most of of them kind of blended together, and I was bemused by how dogmatically each adherent argued that their theory was the One True Way of literary criticism. I can do without that kind of fanaticism. What I did appreciate was the concept that every opinion matters and is just as valid as the next (as long as you use at least three examples from the text!) even though some opinions are pretty darn kooky. I can see why the law school kept trying to recruit English majors. If you can argue anything with words in the literary sphere, why not use those same skills to argue legal points? But I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to keep reading, writing about what I read, reading about what others thought of what I read, and on and on.

Well, this is obviously not how everyone feels about literary analysis – or analysis of any kind of art or entertainment venue. I’ve read so many responses to a negative review of a movie that amount to, “It’s just a movie! You’re thinking too hard! Just relax and enjoy it!” They don’t seem to recognize that for some people, analysis is how they enjoy it. Like my younger self, they believe too much thinking ruins the entertainment experience. I would argue that it’s only true for poorly constructed stories that fall apart upon any analysis. Sure, it’s possible to overanalyze. But for me, analysis is the best way to figure out why I like something, and allows me to seek out similar things for future enjoyment. It also allows me to be more conscious of what kind of stories I’m writing myself. I can’t write with my literary critic mind, of course – that would be a mess. But while I’m planning the story, and when I’m revising afterwards, I can use my critical thinking skills to see what my own work is saying, and whether it’s what I actually want it to say.