Eudora Welty once said that she could never give a book a bad review. “After all, it’s a year out of somebody’s life” is how she put it. The respected writer from Jackson, Mississippi, whose house is now a museum across from the green grass lawn dappled by live oaks of tiny Belhaven University and is around the corner from mine, encapsulates with that sentence the level of professional respect with which a critic and/or another writer should accord one who writes books.

Like the celebrated Ms. Welty I am the gentlest of critics. Not that I avoid “bad” reviews, sometimes they are necessary. They should be done tactfully though, with the utmost sensitivity to the author’s sensibility, and fairly, and thoughtfully. But I myself cherish my harshest critics (though I like sugarcoating just as much as the next writer) because they are sure to tell me what I need to know.

I’m speaking of all writing here, literary fiction, nonliterary fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays, criticism itself. My interest in criticism is more theoretical than purely critical. A distinction exists between literary theory and literary criticism. However, literary theory is often referred to if not categorized as “criticism” so the terms seem confusing. Literary critical theory and literary critical practice would be better. There’s a lot of crossover of functions between the two specialists, too. A critical theorist must test ideas with practical criticism. A critical practitioner should know the theoretical bases for criticisms rendered and their soundness.

In the study of literary criticism and literary theory, such loopy terms as literary theory/literary criticism tend to occur with a surprising frequency in a discipline that is after all dedicated to the study of words and linguistics and texts. This is sometimes the result of progression in the field and the refinement of earlier ideas and terminology. Gerard Genette calls a narrator’s point of view perspective character a “focalizer” or “focalized character”. Yet the term “perspective” character endures. The subtle nuances of words matter in literary theory and criticism.

Too, I like to know the professional jargon of the critics, to know that a flashback is an analepsis and that narratorial summary is diegesis. My formal training is in law, not in criticism or literature, and during my legal practice the study of literature and the reading of books was the chief avocation to which I returned again and again.

In the subtle nuances of words I find delight and not only in critical texts. More so in fictional texts which are adorned with the ornamentation (as I call it) of lyricism and imagery and all manner of rhetorical flourishes. It was to know how these magical and charming literary tales are told that I took up the study of criticism. My interest went far beyond craft books and into the scholarly realm. But it is so I can understand and appreciate good works of literature and to enrich my reading experience that I turned to theory and criticism.

I write some myself. You’ll find an occasional poem I’ve written posted. A lot of essays on techniques of fiction. There’s a link to my Facebook page in the banner you can visit for links to the weekly New York Times’ bestseller list, news on major literary prize winners, shortlists, and longlists, major publishing news, and much more.

Welcome to Life and Literature.

~William Spell

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