when you are asked to write critically about a novel:
- The author is biased.
- The author does x, y, and z in order to establish credibility
- Certain aspects of the novel can be explained by the fact that the author was trying to make money.
The author of a novel cannot be biased because she is describing something fictional. Certainly, something like the fictional event could have taken place. A scientist, for example, may have had the ambition of animating dead flesh. For all we know, several may have tried this. Nevertheless, Mary Shelley cannot possibility be biased in telling such a story because she is inventing it. An author creates characters with distinct points of view, and the analysis of this is always worth your critical attention. But the word “bias” refers to skewed reporting on actual events and thus is not relevant to discussing the ways in which an author unfolds a narrative. Similarly, authors do not do things like establish various points of view to create greater credibility. Just like there can be no “bias” in fiction, there is no need to establish credibility because the narrative is not reporting on things that really happened. Sometimes fiction texts try to establish “verisimilitude”—which means that the events perhaps could have happened—but this is different from credibility. Now as you may have noticed, these issues are a little different for narratives that we now call novels but that were written before, say, 1760 or thereabouts, when the conventions of fiction were not fully established. Still, the issues of bias and credibility are nevertheless not really productive for critical analysis. We will never know whether or not Behn was “biased” in telling the story of Oroonoko’s slave rebellion because we were not there (if it really happened). All we have is text that represents a series of events. (Please reread the essay “Representations” by W.J.T. Mitchell in Critical Terms for Literary Study.) It is clear that Behn’s narrator admires the Prince Oroonoko. This, however, does not make the novel biased, but instead suggests that the author has created a character with a particular (in this case admiring) view of another character. Why does she do this? What is the narrative effect?
Finally, it is true that Behn wanted to make money from her novel and that Shakespeare, writing for the stage, wanted to make money from his plays. So what is wrong with the argument that Behn tells the story of Oroonoko to make money, and that Shakespeare includes Caliban because he is so entertaining? The answer is: perhaps those statements are correct, but they are not literary criticism. They do not advance our thinking about the texts in any way. The problem here is not with your logic, but with the fact that you haven’t yet learned the conventions of the literature classroom. When your instructor asks, “Why does Shakespeare include Caliban in the play?” he is not using the ordinary language of motives (as in, “Why did you call me?”). What he is really saying is: “offer a critical analysis of Caliban’s function in the play, and/or the aesthetic, cultural, ideological, historical, etc., implications of this figure.”
Perhaps it would be easier if we always remembered to spell out what we are asking, but unfortunately you won’t be able to count on this. At a certain point, many of you will internalize the lessons above. If you don’t, please keep them handy for future reference.
LR, who welcomes other insights about things that are never the answer.