“But WHY are the curtains blue?” A rant about ‘literary criticism’

When I first started college, I intended to go into English, maybe majoring in Literature. But I figured out pretty quickly that I lacked one major character trait that was absolutely necessary for being a Lit major:  I had zero ability to rip apart a work and analyze it for every last nit-picky thing. (Okay. Really, I should say “interest,” not “ability.” I had the ability. I just couldn’t be bothered.)

To be fair, I should have figured this out in high school. I didn’t need it all spoon-fed to me. I didn’t need to endlessly discuss each and every novel. Yes, I get it, Jim is Huck’s surrogate father. Yes, I get the symbolism of Hester Prynne’s beautifully embroidered A. No, I do not want to ponder the dichotomy between Heathcliff and Catherine; I want them to both die already so I can stop reading this god-awful book!

Currently, I’m editing a small anthology of literary analyses of HP Lovecraft’s stories. Ironic, yes, I know. Having never read Lovecraft, I’m intrigued by the depth and range of his work. But I’m even more fascinated by the people writing these papers.

If you don’t know Lovecraft, he is considered one of the very first sci-fi and fantasy writers. He wrote mostly in the 1920s and into the 1930s. His writing style is . . . odd. Though born and bred in America, he affects an 18th-century British ‘accent’ in his writing that even I, a dyed-in-the-Lake-District-wool Anglophile, find frustrating (in large part because half the time, I can’t tell if the person writing the analysis misspelled the word, or if they’ve got it right and it’s one of Lovecraft’s misspellings instead). However, I am coming to appreciate – deeply – his word usage, his sentence structure, his ability to create fantastical plots, and his descriptions.

And holy cow, can his fans find depth in his stories!

A few years ago – I forget exactly where – I heard a story about an author who was scheduled to give a presentation at a small college. Most attendees would be college students and instructors, and she was looking forward to an hour or so of give and take. But when she got there, they started bombarding her with questions. “Why are the curtains in Sarah’s room blue? What does blue MEAN?!” Etcetera, etcetera. She finally held up her hands, waited for the questions to stop, and then told them that – gasp! – it all meant nothing. The curtains were blue because that’s what she saw in her mind when she wrote the scene. That’s. It.

That’s how I feel about literary criticism. Who bloody freaking cares if the curtains are blue? Who cares what the red dress signifies (ahem; unless you’re in the 1950s and it’s a subconscious ploy to get you to think about Communism, that is)?

Take Lovecraft, for example. There are two papers in this anthology that deal with the same short story, The Colour Out of Space. These two papers make radically different arguments, come at it from radically different viewpoints, and – you guessed it – come to radically different conclusions. One is absolutely certain that Lovecraft was inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost and there can be no other explanation. The other is absolutely certain that this is a story about radiation poisoning. Both have good evidence (though as a historian, I find one a bit more convincing and interesting than the other). But what a contrast!

See, this is why I find literary criticism so pointless. A story means one thing to me. It means another thing to you. And it means something else to the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Why can’t we all be right? Why can’t we just take our interpretations and conclusions, agree that we’re all brilliant, and go home with smiley faces on our papers? Why does the professor have to glare down his nose at some of us, heave a great sigh, and say, “Of course this isn’t right! This is a dribble of cold pudding! Try again!” I despise digging deeper into a story. I despise looking for meaning. Maybe the author didn’t have a deeper meaning. Maybe the blue curtains really are just blue because that’s what she was thinking of at the time. Maybe the curtains in her own room are blue. Maybe somewhere, the character said their favorite color was blue. Maybe, maybe, maybe . . . who knows?

More to the point, who cares?!

Seriously. I am happy to rip apart primary sources, picking apart words and sentences, to dig for the true meaning behind the words of the person who wrote it. It’s one of my favorite things, in fact. But picking apart a fictional story to discover the greater meaning, is just So Bloody Pointless.

By now, I realize I’ve destroyed any and all chance of ever being admitted to University of Oxford or any other schools worth attending. Oh well. To quote one of my favorite movies, “I said what I said, and I’ll defend it to the death!” (McLintock!)

So right here, right now, I make a plea to my future readers and critics. Do not do this to my books. There is no deeper meaning, I promise you. Kai’s eyes are blue because that’s my favorite eye color. I chose the name Abigail because I happen to like it, not because it means a particular thing relating to x in the plot. Likewise, the name Malachi signifies nothing more than a really cool name, which I could then shorten into an even cooler name. I am a totally superficial writer, and a totally superficial reader. I will not look deeper into a text for the Greater Meaning Of It All. And I won’t write esoteric Easter eggs into my novels, either. My Easter eggs are right there in the open.

I do wonder, though, what Lovecraft would think of the papers I’m editing, particularly the one I read today in which the word ‘phallus’ was used (I kid you not, I counted) 40 times in 4 double-spaced pages. See, that’s what I mean.

Please, people. The sun is shining. The sky is blue. Life is short. Read for enjoyment. I beg you.


5 thoughts on ““But WHY are the curtains blue?” A rant about ‘literary criticism’

  1. Have you, by chance, come to recall the story on which the topic of “blue curtains” was so debated? I have been trying to hunt down the original source of the “blue curtains” phenomenon; for some reason it is an especially popular topic among critics of literary criticism. Your account of the story is the only one I’ve found that noted who the room belonged to (Sarah). Any more details would be appreciated.

    • Hi! No, I never did remember it – I vaguely think it might have been at a book signing, or perhaps in a book I was reading at the time I attended a book signing, and somehow the two got mixed up in my mixed-up brain. 🙂 I DO think it was a novel and not a short story, though. Sorry I can’t be more help! If I run across it, or happen to remember, I’ll let you know.

  2. Ha ha ha…. Heathcliff and Catherine, get over it, ya overgrown emo kids.

    Yes..I hear you loud and clear. Odd how nothing can destroy your love of a subject like studying it too hard and over obsessing about it.

  3. Here’s a twist; The Colour Out of Space was not a metaphor for anything, it was meant to be literally interpreted. Lovecraft was quite clear about his writings and he tried to convey the existential dread of the infinity of space and the potential for more longer-living, incomprehensibly different alien beings inhabiting them and what it would be like if humans made contact with them.

    This is just like what happened with Kubrick’s The Shining, where professors and film majors dissected that movie and thought it was a metaphor for alcoholism, child abuse, etc. But there’s a very direct interview with Kubrick about the movie. He said it is meant to all literally be happening, and the point of the movie was to give viewers a fright and convince them enough to believe what they were seeing. That was it.

    It’s personally my own perspective that a lot of professors and critics do this round-about way of analysis not because it reflects what the author wrote, but they do it in order to stroke their own ego. They get to take highly influential and well-known works and tear them apart and brag about how much they’ve studied by constantly making references to other works, when it was so much simpler the whole time.

    • I can believe that!

      I clearly remember a fiction class I took, in which we studied four novels in-depth. One was “Pride and Prejudice.” Our professor had us compare and contrast two characters that we thought were opposites of each other.

      Silly me, I chose Darcy and Wickham. Seemed to me that they were polar opposites in terms of their sense of honor (or lack thereof) and common decency. But my professor argued with me and said he didn’t see it . . . I still wonder if I was “supposed” to pick Elizabeth and Darcy, or Elizabeth and one of her sisters.

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