“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, 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.
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.
- 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.