Ever since a young age, studying English at primary school, my superiors in the academic world – be they teachers, tutors, or lecturers – have constantly aggrandised the term ‘essay’. It is accepted fact in many departments and faculties across the globe that an essay is the optimum medium through which to express intellectual thought as literary criticism. And with this convention comes a wide variety of academic clichés and figures of speech prevalent in certain fields of discourse. But is an essay always the best way of structuring and expressing ideas on a work of literature?
cartoonified image of a hand with a pencil

The backbone of an essay is surely its content, but too often I see this lacking in essays written either in published collections or on electronic journals. I question whether the best way of engaging with a poem is really to write an essay about it, or whether a Powerpoint presentation, or a visually impactful, expansive reproduction of the work, written out with detailed annotations, is more powerful. When studying Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Doctor Faustus’ for A Level, my teacher printed out the entirety of Faustus’s final speech on A3 paper, and we discussed it and annotated it in great detail. This was infinitely more enjoyable, appealing, and helpful at the time of revision than any essay I had written.

Throughout my teenage years I have written countless essays, predominantly for English and modern languages, that did not aid my understanding when I came to the exam at the end of the year any more than spending an hour or so making notes on the text itself. I used to spend days and days planning what I would write, desperately trying to organise my thoughts into some form of coherent arrangement, when I could have been devoting that time to reading the text itself.

There are some essays, without a doubt, that are exemplary in terms of what literary criticism should ultimately constitute. However, too often I read what amount to vacuous musings on the text, void of any real purchase onto its linguistic make-up and too afraid of Wimsatt’s ‘affective fallacy’ to demonstrate any real, intriguing engagement. Impersonality, objectivity, and academic convention have tarnished much positive interaction with the text, as young writers feel that they cannot express themselves for fear that their style and rhetoric is decidedly inadequate in comparison with established literary critics.

A common observation, pointed out numerous times but over and again with apparent originality, is that literary criticism uses the same medium as its subject, a luxury not afforded to any of the other arts. And yet, why does this have to be so? Why can’t a YouTube video engaging rigorously and tenaciously with a text be considered as ‘worthwhile’ as something too bogged down in rhetoric to be of any value? I myself have often learnt much more from watching an introductory clip on the Internet about a particular aspect of literary theory than I have from reading a dense and periphrastic essay.

I am not saying: ‘get rid of all essays’. I am not saying ‘YouTube is the way forward for literary criticism’. But what I am saying is that the essay should not have pride of place without having continually to justify itself. There are too many essays I read in English, Spanish or French that are useful for nothing more than the odd quotation when a critic has invested all their mental capacities into producing some pleasant turn of phrase. Often I have been more impressed with close analysis -of poetry, in particular – on websites such as Sparknotes than I have with general, overview-type essays written by critics and scholars who attempt to adopt this ‘objective’ stance. The demands on young writers to make their essays logically consistent, with clear lines of argument, sometimes detracts from what they originally think when reading a text. I say we let bullet points, visual media, colour, colloquialisms, and fun back into literary criticism.

 

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