‘What’s the Point?’ – Questioning the Critical Essay
Since entering university, and possibly even before that at A Level, we as English students have been required to include the following two elements in our critical essays: context and critics. No essay would even be worth reading in the eyes of our tutors if we hadn’t included one or both of them.
Context is the history. This generally boils down to politics, monarchy, economy, war, and, specifically to our subject, literary achievements. According to our tutors, no novel, play, or poem has ever been written without the influence of at least one of these things. I disagree. While I don’t deny they are often a contributing factor, I find it difficult to believe that every literary text is directly linked to at least one of them. I myself don’t think about politics or monarchy, economy or war when I write creatively. I write what I want to write, with issues and characters that I care about. The current situation of my country’s political parties means nothing to me. Neither does the monarchy. I’ve just never understood the point of it – call me ignorant, it’s probably true, but I just don’t understand why it’s so important. Especially when it comes to analysing literary texts.
I am currently writing an essay on Frances Burney’s Evelina. It’s due in tomorrow, so I should probably be writing that instead of being here, but I need to get this out of my system. I am also writing another essay on Stoker’s Dracula and Le Fanu’s Carmilla. Both of these essays require me to comment on the context in which they were written. Yet to me, the context isn’t that important. What happened to enjoying a book for, you know, the plot? This is why I like Structuralism. Structuralism does what it says on the proverbial tin: it is about the structure, the form, the layout, the words, the imagery. There is no nonsense about who was on the throne and how the text was shaped by it. It baffles me how an essay is deemed unworthy of a good grade if history is not brought into it at some point.
Equally, I fail to understand how an essay becomes almost invalid if you fail to quote a number of critics who write on the same, or similar, subjects. So far in my Evelina essay, I have one critic: Joanne Cutting-Gray. I know my lecturers won’t accept this and I’ll be marked down for it. But despite my best attempts at research, I can’t find anyone who has written on the topic I have chosen. And I don’t see why I should have to. Why should an entire essay be regarded badly simply because no-one else has come up with the ideas yet? Someone had to say it first, right? So why can’t we be one of those people?
A good point is a good point, regardless of whether someone else thinks it or not. So long as we can back up said point with evidence from the text, that should be enough. If there is valid reason for the point to be made, and it is explained well, regardless of whether the tutor agrees it should be seen that the writer of the essay has thought about the point, formed an opinion, and taken the text in question into account. Why is a critical opinion necessary?
In my last essay I was criticised for letting the critics make my points for me, yet at the end of the same essay I was penalised for not having enough critical quotations. The hypocrisy astounds me. If we didn’t have to back up our ideas with other critics ideas on the same topic, then our opinion would be valid as ours. But the requirement set by the Higher Beings on the Governing Body of the Educated World will not allow a students’ thoughts to exist without back-up from somebody that they know. Without another person who has publicly mentioned the same idea you had, even if you hadn’t seen their critique at the time of forming your idea, your entire essay, no matter how good your points are, becomes worthless.
This is what rattles my cage, gets my goat, and creams my corn. Why must the voice of a student be nothing unless someone else has said it before? Are no ideas original anymore? Can we not read a text, form an opinion, create ideas and have them count as meaningful unless we seek out the only other people on this planet who thought of it before us? And why should history matter if there are points to be made within the text without bringing it into the matter? Surely, if we can comment successfully on the events, impacts and morals of a text, context shouldn’t be dragged into it unless it is directly relevant to the point?
1. Drop the need for context. If we have something to say about the text that relates to it, give us credit for finding it. Don’t make it a requirement, as there may not always be something to say about it.
2. Allow our ideas to count for something. Let our opinions stand alone as ours. How can we prove our intelligence, our intuition, our ability to think independently, if we are made to include critics who happened to write about it first? Let us mention a critic if we like their side of things. Let us argue why other people are wrong and we are right. But don’t force us to validate our individuality by proving we are, in fact, the same as someone else. This is moving backwards. Give us room to build our own opinions, find our own evidence. So what if someone else got there first? It wasn’t Joanne Cutting-Gray who gave me the idea that nature and innocence go hand in hand in Evelina. It was me. My brain. Don’t make me bring her into this, just because her name and her essay are in a journal somewhere from 1990 and mine isn’t.
3. Back off. Don’t be so critical. We are only students after all. We are here to learn. To make mistakes. To figure out how in the hell the text makes a point and why we think it’s important. Just because no-one has said it yet, doesn’t mean our voice shouldn’t count for something.