Fairfield University’s Inspired Writers Series hosted a discussion on the evening of Nov. 30, featuring literary critics Ryan Ruby and Becca Rothfeld. Phil Klay, a Fairfield University professor and host of the series, chatted with Ruby and Rothfeld to gain their insight on literary criticism as an art form. 

As two well-established critics, Ruby’s literary criticism has been featured in “The New York Times” and “New Left Review” among many other journals. Rothfeld is the nonfiction book critic at “The Washington Post” and has written essays for “The New Yorker” and “The New York Times Book Review”. Based on their experience, these two critics were eager to chat and share their thoughts on criticism as an art form. 

On his motives for being a critic, Ruby reflected on the importance of reading overall. He said, “we forget that reading is a part of life. Being a reader influences your way of being in the world.” He shared how each person’s understanding of a book differs depending on their understanding of themselves and their own lives, contributing to the interpretive art of reading as a whole. 

Because of the immense impact that reading has on people’s lives, Ruby feels as though literary criticism is a fundamental part of this process. By closely analyzing and criticizing a literary work, it helps one understand more not only about the piece but about themselves as well. 

Rothfeld echoed this sentiment, saying “Criticism, like art, is transformative, it’s supposed to transform you.” She commented on her own transformation through criticizing literary works and how the development of critical sensibility is similar to the development of a character throughout a story. Criticism of other’s works has made her a more critical-minded individual when it comes to producing works of her own. 

Ruby and Rothfeld also discussed how each author’s specific style of writing can convey meanings of their own. Rothfeld elaborated that some people have argumentative writing styles, while others may have emotional writing styles, but each writing style is a factor in how the overall piece is interpreted. 

“We can associate a particular style with a particular writer.” Ruby says, “The style depends on what each of these writers wants their art to accomplish.”

Klay prompted a question of what makes a piece of writing ethical, to which Rothfeld responded that “to have good style is to succeed ethically in a certain way.” She also spoke about how ethics does not necessarily define a book’s success. “There can be a book with bad politics that is still successful” based on other factors like plot, characters and writing style. 

Klay shared that he has gained a greater appreciation for literary criticism as an art form, especially after hearing thoughts from two of the most well-acclaimed critics themselves. He said that his appreciation for what art is doing for our society and culture has grown immensely and that he has been noticing more of art’s impact in “community, politics and economic systems.”

While many people appreciate literature and books as an art form, literary criticism often goes unnoticed. Ruby and Rothfeld’s insight on the importance and art of criticism provided a perspective of writing that often goes undiscussed.

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