A flower flooded with blood [1]

Jadea Washington

“Why Study Textual Editing and Criticism” by Erick Kelemen enlightens us on the absolute joy and beauty found in studying textual criticism. Kelemen’s essay excites readers by concisely denoting the differences between textual and literary criticism, eventually concluding that the two “cannot be kept separate, but that they are in fact interlinked aspects of the same activity” (8). As riveting as the entire essay is, one point in particular got me really excited—by that, I mean I started writing in capitals in the margin. The notion that presenting readers with a selection of a text’s history will indubitably provide the reader with a better experience is a little silly to me. While it is completely beneficial in many ways, the rising influence of an editor’s bias has the potential to suppress the reader’s creativity by guiding and potentially distracting them from the hidden beauties in their own wandering thoughts. Ultimately, the reader may have a fuller understanding of the text, but is it necessarily better?

Kelemen describes textual criticism as a concrete and objective process. Rather than musing about a text’s meaning, an editor practicing textual criticism is studying the physical history of the words on the page. Kelemen “borrows the words” of D.C. Greetham, who posits that textual criticism is an “archeology of the text” (5). Just as archeologists seek to discover evidence of the past beneath layers of soil, the textual critic’s job is to discover hidden changes made to a text over time. I completely understand how editors want readers to know where the text has come from and how it got there, and in some ways, the knowledge they choose to share is integral to an understanding of the text’s meaning. However that understanding is limited to another human’s perception.

The opportunities to alter a literary work only increase with passage of time. What may have been an accidental omission of a period—perhaps the printer ran out of ink at that very spot—could be interpreted by future scholars as an author’s deliberate artistic choice. According to Kelemen, even the smallest printing choice can give readers a peek into the aesthetic and political climate of the text’s time. He purports “that a work of literature must be understood as a product of historical conditions, and textual criticism teaches us that the specific manifestations of the work. . .have affected our understanding of the work without our necessarily being aware of it” (9).

Understanding the history of a text indubitably gives readers insight into the cultural, political, and aesthetic world of the piece. Knowledge of the text’s cultural context can enable readers to better understand the meaning of a piece. Instead of being distracted or offended by an author’s use of the word awful,[2] wondering how this book—or Shakespearian play—came to be a “critically acclaimed bestselling literary classic,” readers can relax their faces and continue reading. When implemented in such a manner—modestly and in moderation—an editor’s textual insight can indeed be valuable to a reader. It is simply  that when an editor becomes a little too obtrusive with their notes, I believe it becomes a problem.

At the wise age of sixteen, I had always prided myself on never having used Sparknotes. I thought there was some kind of literary prestige about me because  I was smart enough to understand a text by my own means. If there was something in a text I didn’t understand, my deep insightfulness would provoke me to search for the answer. There was one book, however, during my sophomore year of high school that shattered my rosy reality. This is the day I matured from girl to woman.

We had been assigned Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so I purchased a fully annotated edition published by Yale University Press. In some instances, the annotations were helpful, but in others, they became obnoxious and almost offensive. Page 85, for instance, contains a staggering seventeen superscript numbers for just fifteen lines of text.

IMG_5153 copy
Page 85    😦

As I read, the annotations became so distracting and unhelpful that I tried to scribble them out. As you might imagine, seventeen black scribbles became even more obnoxious and distracting. At that point, I was still a naïve young girl so I decided to “give up” and search Hamlet on Sparknotes. I was pleasantly surprised and enlightened by how useful the information actually was!

The textual insight and criticism Sparknotes offered was gentle enough to be help me understand what the text itself meant, but also general enough to allow me to form my own opinion about the text’s meaning and explore it further. I did not feel like my own ideas about the text were wrong, which might easily happen in other texts with a heavy editorial influence. When readers become so distracted by the concrete matters of words, it becomes more difficult to explore the text’s meaning in a literary way. A reader’s own experience with the text might be stifled by some sort of literary expectation. But when an editor smooths out the concrete aspects of the written word just enough (in moderation), the reader has a clear path to travel along and also maintains the freedom to stop and pick some flowers along the way.

“Why Study Textual Editing and Criticism” is pro-textual criticism, believing that it “sharpens a reader’s awareness of errors and reorients a reader’s attitude toward them so that they are no longer noise or blanks in the message but meaningful evidence about the history of the text and therefore perhaps about the meaning of the text (21). It is clear that understanding the text on a fundamental level is the first step toward understanding the ideological meaning communicated by a text. The process of discovering a text’s meaning in the most heartfelt sense of the word is often deemed a sport of literary criticism. However, it has become increasingly apparent that textual criticism is an integral part of literary critique. The two may be different and separate ideas, but they need each other. ❤

It is important and beneficial to have some amount of historical textual insight included in an edition of a text but it is also important to allow the reader some room for interpretation. If an editor provides a massive amount of only what he or she finds most intriguing, the reader may feel limited to understanding the text’s literary meaning with bias. Ultimately, writing is an art and art is subjective. It’s good to have historical context, but we must be aware of at what point we, as readers, move from studying a text’s concrete history and start adapting our own meaning.


  1. My title is taken from Marina Tsvetaeva, “Love is flesh, it is a flower flooded with blood.” I found this quote while I was scrolling through my Tumblr dashboard on January 20, 2016. I proceeded to reblog it. 2,405 interactions (2,405 opportunities for change) before mine. The user WordsnQuotes posted the snippet of the sentence I used as a title here. That sentence is from Tsvetaeva’s “Poem of the End,” originally scribed in Russian. Since I am not a native Russian speaker, I’m really not sure whether Tsvetaeva is the author of the open or whether the selected phrase was even from the poem, or if that’s even what Tsvetaeva meant to describe. Regardless, “a flower flooded with blood” is a beautiful phrase literally and figuratively. The post also included a period after blood but I have made an artistic choice to omit it in my title.

2. Here an editor can include a cute little footnote explaining that awful in this context (line 4) actually means to be worthy of awe, not horrific.


Kelemen, Erick. From Textual Editing and Criticism. In “Why Study Textual Editing and Criticism.” New York: W.W. Norton and Company. 2009.

Shakespeare, William, Burton Raffel, and Harold Bloom. Hamlet. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2003.





Add yours →

  1. I really like the point you make that it is useful when editors clarify concrete and factual information for readers rather that inserting their interpretation. This means that people will be able to read a text more clearly and then will be able to form their own literary opinions and glean what they want from the text, rather than just having to go off of the editor’s ideas. This is important because you are giving a solution to the problem of heavy handed or overbearing editors. You put it so eloquently when you say, “A reader’s own experience with the text might be stifled by some sort of literary expectation. But when an editor smooths out the concrete aspects of the written word just enough (in moderation), the reader has a clear path to travel along and also maintains the freedom to stop and pick some flowers along the way.”

    I also think that your example of Shakespeare is a strong one because it is relatable. Shakespeare can be hard to read because we don’t always know the necessary historical context to get the most out of his work. However, by showing the picture of the obtrusive endnotes you are able to convey your point that even though textual clues are helpful, they can be overpowering and distracting when there are too many – even if it is Shakespeare.

    You also bring light to the important issue of editorial bias, which is something we have discussed in class. It is important to remember to exercise discretion and good editorial judgment.


  2. I really appreciated how you approached this topic with balance in mind, since I think that is important when discussing textual criticism. In the past, I’ve found annotated editions to be super helpful most of the time, but there are other instances where I agree with you that they can be more confusing than anything. I think you make a good point in bringing this up because it’s important in all fields of literature to be aware of the fact that critical editions of books should not be overloaded to the point of confusion. There is nothing worse than being so caught up with each individual word (such as in a Shakespearean play) that you lose all sight of the story!

    You also made an excellent point about the necessity for readers to have freedom to interpret as they read. I absolutely loved this sentence because it describes this concept so beautifully: “But when an editor smooths out the concrete aspects of the written word just enough (in moderation), the reader has a clear path to travel along and also maintains the freedom to stop and pick some flowers along the way.” This is one of my favorite lines in your paper since you so artfully paint a scene for us to see in our minds what you’re saying, and on top of that it’s awesome that it ties right back to your title! The title had me a bit mystified at first but this section really seemed to tie everything together.


  3. Katie Ballalatak March 30, 2016 — 3:14 am

    Jadea, your evaluation of textual criticism is enlightening! Your title is creative and I’m so glad you added a second superscript to show the difference between a helpful superscript and an unnecessary, extensive superscript. I also love how you conclude your first paragraph with a question that fully captures the idea that you are exploring. Lovely attention-getter!
    In terms of my position on the subject, I can’t decide if I find book editions that use textual criticism more helpful or annoying. Because on one hand, I sometimes read something and think “Man I wish I had some more background information” but then on the other hand, if I see too much information at the bottom of the page I get overwhelmed and irritated with the space it takes up (the example you provide was perfect by the way; all those superscripts would be very distracting). I think when it comes down to it, moderation is necessary; you don’t want to leave your reader in the dark but you also don’t want to overwhelm them with information or dictate the way they should experience/interpret the text. Too much information, like you said, can suppress the reader’s creativity and might prevent them from enjoying what they are reading. I think your metaphor of editors paving the way for readers but still allowing them to pick flowers along the way is a perfect analogy for how textual criticism should work. Great post!


  4. I was genuinely distracted by your footnote during your in-class reading. I was so excited about that little footnote and what it means for your Tumblr journey that I fell into your perfectly placed trap. So…congratulations! Your clear and creative voice definitely helped me understand your thesis!
    I have no shame (okay maybe I have a little bit of shame) in my use of Sparknotes. You’re so right in saying “It is clear that understanding the text on a fundamental level is the first step toward understanding the ideological meaning communicated by a text.” The daunting task of reading Shakespeare is so easily remedied by a quick Google search. Is this morally wrong for us English majors? Is it impossible to belong to the community of literary elite if I search “Twelfth Night Act II Summary” before delving into the text? Maybe. But I think you point out the importance of using textual history as an aide rather than a conclusive answer.
    We certainly shouldn’t use this assistance as a crutch, but I often benefit from gaining a bit of basic knowledge about a text before attempting to understand its most intricate details (especially when reading Shakespeare). That way I can form my own queries without spending hours trying to figure out if Viola is still dressed up as Cesario.
    So like much else we’ve talked about in class there is a balance. As you say, “It is important and beneficial to have some amount of historical textual insight included in an edition of a text but it is also important to allow the reader some room for interpretation.”


  5. I love what you added to this piece! Adding in the picture of the marks you made within your book really added in amplifying your remarks on how some of these textual commentaries take it too far. I love love love Shakespeare, but it has taken me a long time to understand his works. It is not just a simple book, so different editors do what they can to clarify. But sometimes that only adds more confusion. I purchased a copy of Twelfth Night that had footnote after footnote. And when I first read it, it was great! It helped my understanding. But since then, that commentary lessened my own chance to create my own ideas and opinions.
    Having that experience, I agree wholeheartedly with your idea that textual history is something people can go to when having questions which will lead them to their own conclusions, but not for a complete answer to the whole story.
    I also liked how you added the second superscript to show the difference between the annoying and the helpful. We have talked a lot in class about how everything needs a balance. Like how there needs to be a balance between the person who “hears” commas and the person who follows every single rule about when to use them. The same thing applies here. Sometimes the editor believe their needs to be a textual comment because without it there would be too much confusion, and other times the editor may just want to add their opinion. Therein lies the need for balance. I think you did a great job throughout adding your own voice and explaining the topic. Great job!


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