If you study literature at university, everyone warns, it'll take all the joy out of reading. Your innocent pleasure in page-turning plots and made-up people will be supplanted with a purse-mouthed parsing that sucks out the marrow of magic to only leave mechanics. You will become a vituperative vulture - turning subtle, vital organisms into clever-clever carcasses - and then proceed to write their obituaries in 5,000-word essays with titles such as 'The Labial Handkerchief: Cloistering, Cloth and Female Castration in Othello' (that may or may not have been an actual example from my academic career, from the pile I liked to call 'clit lit crit'). Oh, and you will never write a decent book of your own.
That well-known parody of the world of literary criticism, AS Byatt's Possession, reinforces all these truisms, as well as reminding us that vicarious word-fiddlers are to a (wo)man sexually repressed or obsessed (or both). I read it just as I was heading to Warwick for three years of Eng Lit. My future looked bleak.
But as it turned out, I never had a problem confusing reading with 'criticising.' One is a deep, humane experience; the other is a game. I could easily read Crime and Punishment in the morning with visceral, unselfconscious abandon, then put on my bullshit blinkers for the afternoon and toss off a few hundred words on 'The City as Murderer in Dickens and Dostoevsky.' Because lit crit has, like most things in life, nothing to do with the subject in hand and everything to do with yourself.
Here's DH Lawrence:
Literary criticism can be no more than a reasoned account of the feeling produced upon the critic by the book he is criticizing. Criticism can never be a science: it is, in the first place, much too personal, and in the second, it is concerned with values that science ignores. The touchstone is emotion, not reason. We judge a work of art by its effect on our sincere and vital emotion, and nothing else. All the critical twiddle-twaddle about style and form, all this pseudoscientific classifying and analyzing of books in an imitation-botanical fashion, is mere impertinence and mostly dull jargon.
So there, twiddle-twaddlers.
But all this paints a rather unfair picture of the discipline I devoted three long years to, at one point considered making a lifelong ivory tower and, frankly, loved. I was adept at playing the academic game, and rather enjoyed it. I was under no illusions that I was going to change the world, but I knew that I might change mine. Because I was quite aware that lit crit is self-discovery masked as universal insight, I simply relished the chance to root out my own prejudices and preferences, to observe the stories I wove from others' stories, and to drink quite a lot while doing so.
So I was delighted to receive a copy of Elif Batuman's The Possessed (note the title - what is it about literary criticism and nutjobs?) and discover the first truly honest and inspiring book on the topic I have probably ever read. Appropriately, Batuman's debut is a personal memoir; as she pursues Russian literature and the people who love it around the world, from a Tolstoy conference in Yasnaya Polyana a to a surreal summer research placement in Samarkand, her own life interweaves with the authors, characters and critics she encounters. She is open-eyed about the ridiculousness of it all, but constantly finds a sort of redemption in the subtle and unexpected ways literary criticism illuminates what it means to be human. Watching how and why people criticise literature turns out to be more revealing than the criticism itself.
It's also very, very funny. Belly pain funny. People staring at you in Itsu over lunch funny. Reading out passages to reluctant family members funny.
Which goes to show that if you study literature at university, you might not only retain the wide-eyed wonder of the unstudied reader; you might deepen it. And you might even write a kick-ass book.