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Literary Criticism, Natural Selection, and Creativity

dfishervan's picture

            I have been thinking about our discussion last Tuesday on literary criticism and its relation with creation. Like Professor Grobstein, I too conceptualized literary criticism as the humanities’ version of natural selection. The evolution of literature certainly requires some sort of force equivalent to natural selection. It seems that literary critics provide that selective force as they swoop down on a written piece and elevate the elements that suit them with praise and berate the elements that fail to mesh with their tastes and literary training. I suppose that one could try to derail the parallel between natural selection and literary criticism by mentioning the subjectivity involved in literary criticism and how what elements of a piece work varies from critic to critic. To resolve this issue, I’ve decided to view each critic as existing in a different environment in the literary world, selecting for different traits depending on what his/her environment/community consists of. In this sense, the literary critic, like natural selection, is not acting as an individual favoring writing aspects that only suit him/her. Instead, the author is selecting for writing that suits the community which she/he grew up in and received training in.

            The question still stands as to whether literary criticism leads the creation of different writing pieces. Although I am unsure of the answer, I think due to the association between literary criticism and natural selection, it might have something to do with the way one views the relationship between natural selection and species diversity. Like natural selection, literary critics act on variations within written works as they praise the creative deviations that work while dismissing those that don’t. While literary criticism operates on creativity, I am not sure if it always promotes the creation of different writing. Literary criticism can prompt the writer to revise his/her piece or even write a new piece based on the feedback he/she received however, that new paper will fit into the confines of what the literary critic considers worth while writing. Thinking of the implications of literary criticism in this light makes me wonder if literary criticism actually stifles creativity in writing by causing writing to fit in the boxes shaped by critics. Writers frequently take risks but I worry that literary critics are less likely to embrace these risks since unlike biological evolution, the selection force they employ often depends on factors from the past such as training and community. I think I just contradicted myself by pointing out this possible difference between natural selection and literary criticism while still claiming that the answer to this question relies on the similarity between the two. Oh well. 



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