Becoming a “Literary Critic”
I’m writing an Amazon customer review of a book I like, marking it as “five stars” and offering comments that I think might entice others to buy it and read it.
Suddenly, I am distracted. I become aware of the strangeness of what I am doing. I am using an electronic device to send information out into the world where thousands if not millions of people might read it.
A specific question intrudes: who invented writing? And how have we come to this place that I am writing about writing?
Consensus is that writing began in the Sumerian middle eastern civilization over five thousand years ago. This ‘cuneiform” first writing was a practical, economic tool, a series of pictures and symbols used to keep up with livestock and grain. Eventually, writing was used to tell stories.
Of course, before writing there was the oral tradition, the storyteller, one of the world’s oldest professions. The storyteller was the keeper of the culture, keeping alive the ancient stories of heroes, values, great floods, and wars. Think the Homeric poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The oldest written story is the Sumerian cuneiform Epic of Gilgamesh, a story of flawed kings, friendship, sex, dangerous quests, and the search for meaning and immortality.
Alphabets, manuscripts, and all manner of stories then grew for thousands of years but nothing developed that could be called “literary criticism” until Aristotle wrote Poetics in the 4th century BCE. It took another two thousand years or so before reading and writing was no longer confined to the religions and the wealthy. With the “Enlightenment” and the printing press, new forms of expression spread, and a new form of human life evolved, the “critic.”
From there we now have the “new criticism” and “literary theory” but I’m getting too deep in the weeds now. All I want to do is tell you that a book I just read is a “good read” and you should buy it.
Out of my reverie now, I become aware that I am using writing for the same reason the Sumerians invented it, for commerce.
Creativity in the Time of Covid
Much has been written about how to manage the limits placed on our lives due to the pandemic. Physical fitness, workplace issues, and the stress of isolation from family and friends are three topics at the top of the list. But what happens with the creativity of writers and artists during such a time?
The story of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, deserves reflection here. At age 18, she and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Lord Byron at his home near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. The year was 1816 and the region was trapped in a “mini-ice age” due to atmospheric changes from the eruption of the volcano of Mount Tambora.
To pass the time during their confinement, Lord Byron proposed they each write an original story. The details of how this legendary story grew from the mind of young Mary Shelley are fascinating but beyond this writing. Rumors of what other activities Lord Byron suggested for passing the time will also not be repeated here.
The story Frankenstein was not the only remarkable act of creativity by the group during that “volcanic winter.” Lord Byron wrote a fragment of a story about vampires that others evolved to the modern version of the “romantic” vampire. (Polidori, The Vampyre: 1819.)
Back to the present. I must admit I have been “slowed” from the lack of bumping around in the world to see people and things. I spend a lot of time just sitting and thinking, and way too much time watching politics on television.
But I have hope. I’m becoming more skillful in using technology to connect to people. I’m reading more. And in the middle of all this, an idea for a new book has bubbled up to the conscious region of my brain. Too early to talk about, but like doctor Frankenstein’s creation, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”
I read. I write. I learn. I’m in a writing group and I have four published books. I’m still pretty sure I’m not Steinbeck, but my heart and soul have found their way back to where they should be.