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ALBERT B. CASUGA, a Philippine-born writer, lives in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, where he continues to write poetry, fiction, and criticism after his retirement from teaching and serving as an elected member of his region's school board. He was nominated to the Mississauga Arts Council Literary Awards in 2007. A graduate of the Royal and Pontifical University of St. Thomas (now University of Santo Tomas, Manila. Literature and English, magna cum laude), he taught English and Literature (Criticism, Theory, and Creative Writing) at the Philippines' De La Salle University and San Beda College. He has authored books of poetry, short stories, literary theory and criticism. He has won awards for his works in Canada, the U.S.A., and the Philippines. His latest work, A Theory of Echoes and Other Poems was published February 2009 by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House. His fiction and poetry were published by online literary journals Asia Writes and Coastal Poems recently. He was a Fellow at the 1972 Silliman University Writers Workshop, Philippines. As a journalist, he worked with the United Press International and wrote an art column for the defunct Philippines Herald.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Readers vs. Critics

THE ISSUE: Is it time to democratize literary criticism? Is it time to finally remove the distinction between Literature and literature, High Culture and Low Culture, Literary Masterpieces and Airport Paperbacks? The majority may not always be right, but surely they must know something the minority (that's us!) may not know. (Dr. Isagani Cruz, “Readers vs. Critics,” Posted in his LOL Literature in Other Languages Blog, June 8, 2010)

OUR POSITION: Democratize literary criticism in the sense that this discipline must accept that the readers know best? Certainly, the ultimate arbiter of what gets read is the reader. No amount of scholarly literary criticism will trump this reader's prerogative.

Nevertheless, literary criticism is one of the teacher's tools to guide the reader toward a productive and fruitful reading. Note that I am not using shibboleths like "intelligent reading." That would ultimately be a presumptuous standard.

Good and bad literature, high and low culture, masterpieces and airport pulp are useful as distinctions only in so far as "literary appreciation" could be taught to those who might wish to squeeze the best aesthetic experience (including epistemological, ontological, moral etc.) out of a piece of literature.

As in a political democracy, citizens who are readers are generally more effective practitioners of the democratic processes if they were "informed" and "capable of educated response" as well as relatively correct choices for the wherewithal of living comfortably in a dignified human and humane community.

Of course, the freedom to be dumb in a democracy can only go so far. Literary criticism provides guidelines for "educated" reading. Like most education toward a higher human purpose, one can only choose that which is consistent to the exercise of being a homo sapiens.

Education is not democratic in the sense that one could choose any which way to "know" or to "learn" regardless of goals. If it were, it would have ceased as an offering in learning institutions. Learning (thank Heavens) has not yet metamorphosed into a dumbing-down free-fall to ignorant anarchy.

The dictatorship of teaching "taste", thinking and appreciation processes, is not ripe for toppling by brutish people power.

Literary criticism as an art form is just one of its facets. It's been that since the formalists' "regime". Literary criticism remains as the teacher's "GPS" (Global Positioning System) to lead the lazy reader to find the road he is running through --- before reading becomes a collision alley of meaningless, benumbing, sleep-inducing grazing of a little-idea-there-and-a-TV-Ad-sound-bite-there resulting into a community of couch-potatoes finally blinded by the blue rays of the boob tube (Then known as the idiot box. Remember?)

In literary appreciation, the majority could always profit from the critic's coaching, provided the former has not petrified in his calcified toilet-bowl of gobble-de-gooky hermeneutics and snobbish invention of terminology that has lost sight of the ultimate purpose of helping readers learn how to love reading for its sake.

Literary criticism and the literary artist both aim to celebrate the "splendour of a thing" and not miss it for a manic preoccupation with "traditions, conventions, and genres" where form and substance no longer matter or even meld.

The problem really is that literary criticism has forgotten to abide by its primordial aim of "counselling, positioning" the reader to recognize between the piece of literature worth spending precious lifetime on and the drivel that money-grubbing publishers have flooded airports with. And yes, a welter of literary criticism has also become drivel, and a lot of them come from academics who cannot write artistically so they "criticise" to justify their tenure.

When literary criticism gets recognized as an art form, the literary critic must a fortiori be a literary artist first. That way, he knows whereof he speaks, or "pontificates," lest he be treated like celibate clergymen who preach about the sanctity and joy of marriage or the sublime function of sex and sexuality.

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