Saturday, August 26, 2006

Who is your critic crush?

Mine - hands down - is Joan Ferrante. Her writing is highly awesome. I ask this question of the blogosphere because I think everyone has a secret "critic crush" - someone whose work you read for your own and you say to yourself, "Damn - I wish I'd written that!"

So, mine is Joan Ferrante (and not just because I'm reading pretty much everything she's ever written at the moment) but because:

1) all of her work is excellently researched - she would never say something like, "obviously the 12th-century poet does this to make the character seem more natural..." - the heck d'ya mean? What's natural and how is this obvious to a 21st-cent. reader? But not Joan...never.

2) Her prose is clear and concise, yet still elegant, with an occasional zest of humor.

3) I find her to be a truly well-trained medievalist - she doesn't balk at Old French, Middle High German, Latin, or any other moldy language we're supposed to know. She might not be personally proficient in all these languages (although she probably is) - but she makes sure her writing takes them all into account, which adds to #1 above.

4) She defines her terms - not doing this drives me bonkers. If she's writing on the use of the Bible in secular literature, she'll define how she's using the term "secular" - she tells you what she's going to do in an article (e.g., offering historical and literary examples of "x" phenomenon) and then gives her rationale for her methodology/structure. It's staggering how many critics you read where there's either a) the assumption that we all see the social/political categories or the theoretical import of a work in the same way or b) you have to find out what they mean by "X" or "Y" over the course of the work. Defining your terms and aims from the start may seem childish to some, but it can be done well.

5) I, personally, dig just about everything she has to say - she writes on my kinds of questions. Indeed, I know that when I've come up with something I want to pursue, I can say to myself, "Ferrante's got to have done this before" and I look and she's mentioned it in a paragraph in one of her articles. And then she's included the tag, "but more work needs to be done on this" - it's like she's holding the door open!

So, I know she's not the newest critic or the hottest one out there right now - but she's got staying power. I find her work almost completely timeless, even though a lot of her writing comes from a time when feminist studies were first being used in medieval literature in the 80s.

I'll offer a few analogies:
- Ferrante's work is a little black dress, not those foldover-top cotton gauchos, which, while cute and comfy on the right person, make my hips look even wider than they are!
- Ferrante's work is a classic Cadillac, not a Cadillac Escalade
- Ferrante's work is more like Jodie Foster than whatever new starlet is popping up these days. She's consistent, she doesn't hop on every new bandwagon that trundles by, and she favors quality over quantity - she's just good at what she does!

This was all sparked by the fact that I realized that I learn a lot from her articles - they're like mini-encyclopedias with little bite-sized entries and she arranges them in a way that doesn't make you feel like you're reading a menu.

Thus ends my Ode to Joan Ferrante!

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At 12:07 PM, Anonymous Laustic said...

I don't know Ferrante's work very well, but after your homage I feel like I should!

As for my own critic crushes, I'm smitten with Helen Cooper and Robert Mills. Oh -- and Steven Justice!

At 5:51 PM, Blogger molly said...

I'm not up to your educational level, but I'd like to share my favorite author. Her realm is sci-fi, but her writing encompasses so much more. She does a lot of writing about gender issues, and with such understanding and compassion, I'm awestruck. Ursula K. LeGuin is an incredible writer. I wish I had half her insight.

At 10:05 PM, Blogger medieval woman said...

I too love Helen Cooper's work - pick up some Ferrante at some point, Laustic - she's an easy read!

Molly, it's very interesting that you mention Ursula LeGuin - I'm teaching a Fantasy course in the spring and I'm thinking of using one of her novels on my syllabus - which one would you recommend?

At 9:13 PM, Blogger molly said...

I love her work, and also the works of Gene Wolfe. If I were to choose something from LeGuin, I'd choose the Left Hand of Darkness. A wonderful adventure by itself, and add to it the premise of a world without gender. Imagine relating to others wihout having to consider them as male or female.
I loved the Earthsea chronicles, but they're a bit juvenile.
The other book that I would think makes for good study is the Lathe of Heaven. That set up an interesting dilemma. It wasn't a favorite of mine, though.
I love fantasy. If you wouldn't mind, once you have your syllabus made up, would you mind letting me know what you've included on it for your students to read?

At 8:10 PM, Blogger Steve Muhlberger said...

As a historical scholar, you should consider LeGuin's "Always Coming Home," which teaches us that the desire for linear history is the source of all evil.

Love today's verification code "zndor."


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