Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Dracula Test

Given that criticism is what I do here, I enjoy reading professional literary and film criticism from time to time. When I pick up a critic's work, though, if it involves Victorian literature, horror, monsters, or anything of that sort, I have one simple test: do they understand Dracula?

For a culture with a huge backlash against Freud (some of which is unfair, I might add,) we sure do love talking like him to dismiss things! Dracula presents a pretty easy target; it's Victorian, so of course it's about repression! The female vampires are hot, so of course it's about how slutty women deserve to die! The heroine fights to escape the villain, so of course it's about how the only good woman is one who has no sex drive! The heroes kill the villain, so of course it's about how men need to keep their wives in line from dangerous foreign influences!

I know the phrase "you're wrong" is frowned upon in literary criticism, so let me put it this way: if you say the above, you have nothing more to say to me about books. I will neither agree with you nor find your opinions interestingly different; you may be brilliant, but I am unlikely to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Notice I didn't say you have to like Dracula. You can think it's the most boring book in the world, that the letter format is cliched, that Bram Stoker couldn't write dialogue to save his life, or that it could have stood to lose a couple hundred pages. And if you do like it, your interpretation doesn't have to be the same as mine. You can obsess over aspects I find trivial, or focus on implications that I can't see at all.

What matters is that you didn't take the easy way out, and that you actually paid attention to what you read.

Jane Smiley passes this test. So does David J. Skal. My beloved Kate Beaton fails it, but then I go to her for humor rather than criticism. And honestly, this could have been The Maltese Falcon Test (can you watch film noir without dismissing it all as male chauvinist anxiety?), The Romeo and Juliet Test (can you read Shakespeare without dismissing love at first sight as him signalling that characters are stupid?) or even The Video Game Test (can you appreciate that a medium can produce art without dismissing all of it as murder simulation?) All of these tests would indicate that a critic gives some thought to what they write, and has opinions I can share or at least respect.

For now, though, I still think of it as The Dracula Test.

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