What is Literary Theory?
The goal of this text is to ask questions that are seldom raised in the domain of literary studies even though they are at the very base of the field, and then to resolve them through reference to theoretical texts. What is literary theory? What are we doing when we are doing literary studies? What is the relationship between the 'literary' and the 'theory'? How is it that students interested in literature come to be intimidated by theories that have been elaborated to describe literature? What is the relationship of one literary theory to another? There are simple answers to these questions, but they have been lost or overlooked, which has led to a dramatic schism between persons interested in literature and persons interested in literary theory. Something is amiss in the kingdom of literary studies.
It should be said from the outset that the schism between literature and its theory is absurd. Indeed, the very existence of such a divide says much about the Academy within which literature is taught, and about the priorities of those persons hired to teach it. People who have since their childhood revelled in the pleasures of reading literature sometimes find themselves in departments devoted to the study of this literature, only to discover that the practices of these departments exclude them. The principle commentary of these individuals is that literary theory is difficult. And those who do manage to take theory seriously often come to realize that the literature they loved has lost some of its magical appeal and becomes alien, ethereal and argumentative. Or else, they realize that the intense study that theory demands has come between the reader and the literature. Worse, in the face of literary theory the student of literature often feels ignorant, as though s/he has somehow missed the point all these years, that the pleasure conferred by the text was the result of a naive misreading on their part. Surrounded by so-called experts, people who had devoured literary texts for so many years suddenly feel, or are made to feel, that they have missed out on the real significance of the literary text.
Why is Literary Theory So Difficult?
How is it that the theories that are supposed to explain the real meanings of literature are so inaccessible? Most students would reply that the ideas expressed in literary theory are difficult to grasp. They are indeed. Most literary theory presumes a long initiation on the part of the reader in both the current debates and in the stakes of the discussion. Literary theory, like most other theory, tends to talk to itself. What this means is that literature often fades into an ever-receding distance when discussed by theoreticians. There is one step from the literature to the theory, and then another from the theory to the meta-theory, descriptions of literary theory. Much of what students are asked to read in theory courses is meta-theory, discussions by persons who are talking about the importance of one theory over another. Without a grounding in the basic theoretical texts, this discussion is completely abstract.
And what about the literature? Where does it fit into the theory? Theoreticians often relegate literature to the status of short citations, or, more frequently still, author's names are mentioned but texts themselves are not directly discussed. Literary theory is inaccessible because it presumes that the reader has a thorough knowledge of the literary tradition, while at the same time assuming that the reader is now interested in something other than literature.
There is another problem with theory which is purely formalistic or stylistic. The prose employed to explain literary texts from a 'theoretical' perspective is often impenetrable, and generally much more complex than the literature itself. There are even some examples of literary theory which is purposefully written in complex, circumlocutory and convoluted prose in order to alert the reader to the complex, circumlocutory and convoluted nature of prose. Apparently simple notions are rendered incomprehensible through reference to masses of tangentially-related citations and references, and concepts are explained with regards to a whole lexicon of complex terminology. Confused students desperately appeal to standard dictionaries, only to discover that key terms simply don't exist. This seems to suggest that literary theorists speak an entirely different language. So desperate students seek out dictionaries of literary theory only to discover that even the definitions require definitions.
Literary theory also alienates students by making frequent reference to approaches that students are unlikely to have much knowledge about. Thus many theoreticians employ terms and techniques from disciplines as various as philology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, linguistics, politics, law, theology and sociology, which means that those who lack appropriate initiation will either take the theoreticians word for it, or else be forced to embark upon a long tangent which seems to lead them further and further away from the literary text, the object of their original interest. The use of 'initiation' rather than 'learning' in this regard reeks of brainwashing and intimidation. This is quite purposeful; people in the domain will eventually witness scenes that recall religious rifts, whereby one theorist will attack another theorist simply in order to demonstrate intellectual power or superiority. Departments get divided on these lines, and students are made to gravitate towards one faction or the other. In such an atmosphere huge amounts of dogma can be taken for granted simply to support one cause over another, with students getting pulled around in the process.
In short, the entire domain of literary studies looks and sounds learned and 'professional.' Professors do literary theory for a living, just like astrophysicists study sub-atomic inter-galactic particles for a living. But whereas the astro-physicist seems to be exploring mysterious phenomena in the hope of making sense of the universe, the literary theorist often appears to explore accessible phenomena (literature) in the hope of making it incomprehensible. This tendency, which is nicely described in the conversation between Noam Chomsky and Mike Albert, is best described by the term professionalization, and it warrants some discussion here because it stands in the way of our being able to enjoy and benefit from literary theory.
The Professionalization of Literary Studies
To return to the question: Why is literary theory so difficult? The cynical answer is that it is made that way, just like legal theory is made that way. Most people would agree that buying or selling goods, falling in love, or making commitments, are all complex social phenomena. But we are all capable of understanding what each of these actions implies, and we would be able to effect the transactions needed to effect them. But when any of these procedures are re-described in legal terms, the whole process is made to look complicated and beyond the grasp of the parties involved. So they resort to professional assistance -- at a fee. Law is not unique in this regard, neither is literary theory. Each discipline tries to cordon itself off in order to legitimize work undertaken therein, and in order to keep out the prowlers who might ask the difficult questions concerning its validity. So-called 'neophytes' pose a great danger to literary studies, as they do to most of the social sciences, because they are likely to ask the hard questions that those initiated in the domain have long since buried or forgotten.
If we assume a minimum of professional integrity amongst its practitioners, then the answer is different: literary theory is difficult because it tries to answer questions that are, at our current level of intellectual sophistication, unresolvable. We know very little about human creativity -- where it comes from, how to nourish it, what its biological properties are. When we try to address questions critical to human understanding we must resort to imagination, common sense or experience because the issues are simply beyond our grasp. If you put rats into a maze and encourage them towards a certain exit through the use of prods and punishments, the outcome can often be predicted. When humans are placed into similar situations, the range of possible responses is far more diverse. Therefore fields such as 'behaviourism,' the so-called science of human behaviour, fails miserably in its attempt to predict or control what individuals might do in the face of particular options because our makeup is simply too complex. We are creative beings, capable from a tender age of incredibly diverse range of responses. Moulding human beings to fit theoretical paradigms simply doesn't work.
This is not to say that we should not engage in discussions concerning phenomena as complex as human behaviour. We should simply be careful in allocating epistemological value to postulations made to that end. Scientists make a good deal out of the many 'mysteries of the universe' that have been unlocked over the last few hundred years. The fact is, however, that pure science can address a minute number of issues, generally in areas furthest from fundamental human concerns. We know how particular kinds of solid matter will act at given temperatures in a vacuum, but we don't even know how to begin to address questions concerning human existence. And even in the physical universe our knowledge knows phenomenal limits. Staring into space is a euphemism for staring into the unknown; scientists understand but a tiny fraction of the phenomena visible to the naked eye, never mind further on up or down the spectrum.
What about the 'Real World'?
The field as I have described it sounds like a strange and segregated place, far from the important problems of contemporary society. In certain cases, where there is question of the intellectual as tenure-hungry careerist, the whole realm looks to be a less than desirable place to flourish and grow. Persons engaged in the study of literature, already uncertain about the epistemological status of the knowledge they are acquiring and the financial shortfalls that their studies are encouraging, may upon reflection decide to return to the state of innocent enjoyment. Stock market by day, Dickens by night. This daylight-nightlight contrast leads to one of the more popular characterizations of literary studies, which deserves immediate dismissal. There exist many arguments for shunning the Academy and deriding the many 'expert' claims to knowledge in fields such as the humanities and the social sciences. The 'real world' versus 'ivory tower' distinction is not one of them.
Most white collar professions, from accounting to sales, have unreal qualities about them. There is nothing 'real' about hedging bets on theoretical quantities of metals whose values are pegged upon a range of incomprehensible and unpredictable criteria ranging from relative demand to historical importance. Or speaking with total strangers over fibre optic lines concerning the relative value of one mutual fund over another with regards to potential long-term RRSP enhancement. Or even arguing with complete strangers about the potential profit advantages in terms of downloading capacity when upgrading household computer modems from 4,800 to 9,600 BPS. Discussions concerning the ways that particular texts make us feel is in fact far more important than most 'business' decisions that any of us are likely to ever make. Furthermore, the ability to stretch the limits of one's understanding to the margins of human neural capacity is not a trivial activity. Astronomers, measuring the possible impact of magnetic forces within galaxies that are millions of light years away, do it all the time.
This is not to say that one disconnected reality deserves another. Literature truly can say things that cannot be uttered elsewhere; its range of subject matter is virtually infinite, its form is unfettered by bureaucratic or profit-driven convention, and its directions are virtually limitless. When societies implement censorship, the first area examined is generally the artistic domain, beginning with literature. Literature knows less about the 'real world' because it is not anchored in a specific domain; but it knows more about the 'real world' because it can pass from one area of knowledge to another, effortlessly. A short story such as James Joyces The Dead teaches as much about nationalism, the anxiety of Dubliners in the face of changing morals and the kinds of music that was appreciated at a given moment as it does about the methods of throwing a good party. Each of these subjects would require significant research, and long explanations inaccessible to most uninitiated individuals. But because we come to care about the characters of the novel, we also become interested in their real world. And by extension, we learn something about our own. Literature also allows us to question ideological bases of society in ways otherwise restricted or impossible. This is part of its allure, and part of its danger.
There is another real world issue worth raising. I have already suggested that literature has intrinsic value as an object of study. In this sense, the university degree in social sciences or humanities is worth pursuing if it develops our creativity and curiosity. But students are often led to believe that the only career they could secure in the 'real world' that is vaguely connected to literature is that of a teacher, somebody who will instruct other persons whose only motivation is to instruct other persons in the same field. This is not entirely true, and moreover it should not be the only basis for pursuing some other avenue. If we assume that literary texts contain valuable information, about whatever subject matter one might wish to explore, then the study of literature might have some other uses. The question is, how does one go about tapping into the knowledge that literature contains? And to what ends?
If it is worth studying facets of human production, then it may also be useful studying the cultural output of a society. For example, a government interested in evaluating the ways in which immigrant communities integrate into a city might conduct polls amongst members of various groups, they might set up research projects whereby sociologists are called to conduct in-depth interviews, they might do surveys in local social service agencies, or they might consult with 'experts' such as social workers, lawyers, doctors and community workers. This is quite a normal activity, generally described as 'sociology' or 'ethnic studies.' But this research can be supplemented through reference to the kinds of information contained in literary texts. So if researchers had some literary training, they might think about reading immigrant literature published in the host country. After all, literature contains detailed descriptions of people's lives, and immigrant literature probably contains passages describing the move from the country of origin to the host country, as well as the obstacles that the people face when they embark upon such a project. In short, one could probably isolate a corpus of literary texts, mostly novels and short stories, which address questions of this nature. Then what?
Each text would have to be read systematically. Information would have to be extracted according to some consistent formula. Some discussion concerning the relationship between form and content should be taken up. And certain thematic elements, say, the obstacles facing female immigrants from Islamic countries, could be isolated and discussed. If the corpus of texts contains 97 titles, and each title averages 150 pages, then the researcher is faced with 15,000 pages of potentially valuable but totally un-systematized information. The gathering of information, the correlation of relevant data around particular themes, the evaluation on appropriate grounds of the literary texts, all pose significant problems. If these problems are addressed effectively, the government might learn things about its population that it would never have otherwise known. But who could do such a study?
The only hope for a meaningful analysis rests with the applicability of the approach and the rigour of its application. This 'approach' would come from the domain of literary theory, and its application from a literary theorist. This kind of project goes on with increasing regularity, with very promising results. In short, the degree in literary studies is not only a ticket to the lottery called academic hiring; it is also a meaningful training for persons interested in the relationship between narratives and the societies that produce them.
What is Literary Theory For?
Having set forth the general characteristics of the field, it is now important to return to the original question. What is literary theory for? Broadly speaking, literary theory tries to address the complexity of narrative, illuminate literary texts, categorize literary studies, systematize observations and contextualize individual understanding. It is difficult to talk about overriding tendencies in all literary theory because each project makes claim to certain kinds of knowledge or value. Nevertheless, there are some hypotheses that help lead students through the ominous literary theory sections of libraries and bookstores, and these can be considered as virtual truisms applicable to literary theory and beyond. A number of these hypotheses will guide us through our tour of literary theory and will help structure the text.
The point of departure of this book is that the apparently naive questions that people ask about literary theory are often more valid and illuminating than the theory itself. Students often describe the harrowing experience of returning home from college and facing an interrogation from parents or friends who ask difficult questions like: 'Why study literature?' 'How is literary language different from normal language?' 'How can I tell whether a literary text is worth reading?' 'How come the theory employs terms I've never heard of?' 'Why does the upshot of most theory seem so obvious?' 'How is it possible to either refute or legitimize particular theories?' 'On which grounds would this be possible?' 'What is the particularity of literary knowledge?' 'Does it have some claim to universality, scientificity, objectivity or consistency?' If any of these questions were seriously addressed by the students and their teachers, then the theory can be rendered both vulnerable to relevant attack and illuminating in its own terms. Instead, the answers are often institutionalized so that only those already convinced of their validity can be convinced of their validity.
There is an easy answer to these questions, of course. Literary theory, far from being some alien form of knowledge previously unknown to the civilized world, is in fact the institutionalized form of a practice that occurs every minute of every day in every society on the planet. People respond to narratives; they summarize, recap, recall, recount and analyse narratives. Sometimes the propositions centre around initial responses; 'I liked this text', or 'I didn't like this text'. If the person beside me doesn't agree, we are likely to engage in a discussion concerning the meaning, the value, the impact, the concerns and the context of the text in question. We are likely, in other words, to engage in a theoretical discussion about narrative which, in one of its more popular forms, is known as literary theory. This is the second point.
Third, it will be my contention that the application of a reader's common sense rather than his or her literary 'training' will probably be more fortuitous in illuminating the meanings and value of literary texts than the simple regurgitation of acquired meanings. Part of the goal of literary studies is to learn to read, critically and carefully. This skill, when applied to literary theory, can lead to important revelations concerning the value and role of the theory and of the texts to which it speaks. While it is untrue that the 'anything goes' attitude towards literary studies is likely to yield sweet fruit, it is equally untrue that complex texts with serious tones are any more palatable or worth developing a taste for. If a text draws attention to its form, its academic apparatus, its complexity and its weightiness, it is possible that more important matters such as relevant content have been sacrificed. If a text contains masses of cited materials, the relationship from one to the other being dubious, then it is possible that the author had nothing to say. If an argument is rendered forceful with bold, italicized and BLOCKED LETTERS, it may be that the ideas themselves lacked appropriate force. If the reader senses that the theoretician is trying to shove unfounded and unpalatable notions down his or her throat in the name of political expediency, the status quo, or any other banner, then it is possible that the theoretician is trying to do just that.
Fourth, it can be shown in many cases that the theory emerges directly from the literature. A careful reader of Fyodor Dostoevski is already an expert in Mikhail Bakhtin's discussions of dialogism, heteroglossia and polyphony; a connoisseur of Simone de Beauvoir's texts has a strong grasp on an important strain of feminist theory; an avid reader of Honor de Balzac has a solid base for understanding Marxist theory; a pulp-fiction junky already understands something about Marc Angenot's social discourse universe. But the opposite does not hold: no amount of work on the theory of the carnival will prepare the reader for Rabelais.
This brings us to the fifth point, concerning the particularity of literature. This issue is most often addressed through reference to the question that Jean-Paul Sartre posed in his book by the same name: What is literature? There are more specific expressions that help focus the readers attention, such as: 'How should we differentiate between literary texts and non-literary texts?' 'What does literature know?' 'What can be expressed in a literary text that cannot be expressed elsewhere? Whatever the formula, each of these questions point to some recognizable characteristic of literature. Each question assumes that literature conveys knowledge in particular ways, and therefore has peculiar characteristics. There have been some intriguing studies made in this regard, from the notion of 'estrangement' in studies of formalism to ideas about the structural characteristics of literary texts. Theories of literature receive significant illumination when questions concerning the implied characteristics of literature are discussed. If literary studies are chosen for some reason other than default, then there is often something going on that has to do with particular characteristics of literature.
Sixth, questions concerning the particularity of literature should be complemented by some understanding of what literature can do. If literature is celebrated or suppressed, it is because societies postulate some relationship between literature and the context from which it emerges. And if theory hopes to engage epistemological issues, then it must also have some ideas about the effect that literature can have upon other social phenomena and upon individual readers. The nature of this effect should be considered with regards to the theory being studied. Something seems to go on when we read literature, or listen to literature being read. The appeal of the literary text, the effect that it has, and the fascination that it breeds somehow typifies the literary experience. Theories invariably talk about this particularity, and indeed many theoretical projects are based upon trying to understand the effects that literature has upon the reader.
Seventh, it is possible to show that the study of literature has unfolded in a quasi-linear fashion throughout the twentieth century, with theories responding to previous theories and building upon the successes and failures of particular projects. This is not to say that there has always been 'progress' in the study of literature; certain schools are decidedly retrograde, reactionary, even preposterous. But it is possible to trace threads of inquiry from one theory to the next, and when the intersection between different approaches is made clear, the value and limitations of literary theory becomes more apparent.
Eighth, all literary theory can be compiled and assembled with regards to four overriding approaches. The first approach requires that the literary text be isolated, separated off from the circumstances of its production and reception. This is true to varying degrees for formalism, structuralism, semiotics, New Criticism, narratology and deconstruction. The second approach lays emphasis upon the author and his or her prestige and significance. No significant Twentieth Century literary approach takes this stand terribly seriously, however it can figure to some degree in theories of New Criticism, reception theory, psychoanalysis, and feminism. The third approach emphasizes the context within which the text was written and the historical circumstances to which it speaks. This is true in varying degrees for dialogism, Marxism, reception theory, psychoanalysis, feminism, postmodernism, sociocriticism and social discourse theory. And the fourth approach centres upon the reading and the reception of the text, and the role of the reader in its composition and interpretation. This is the basis of reception theory, but it also figures variously in psychoanalysis, feminism, postmodernism, sociocriticism and social discourse theory. The increasing hybridization of literary theory, particularly in the latter half of the twentieth century, means that certain schools approach the literary 'experience' from different perspectives, often beginning with some kind of close reading (a concentration upon the text), and then looking beyond, either towards the context, the psychological factors surrounding it, or its reception.
This leads me to the aims of this book: it seems to me that important literary theoreticians generally elaborate theories to respond to a definable and fixed set of problems, the nature of which has not changed significantly with the passage of time. If students of literature were to keep in mind a series of elementary questions whenever reading theoretical text concerned with literature, s/he will find that the range of concerns for literary theory is limited and, surprisingly enough, extremely interesting. S/he will also discover that literary texts take 'theoretical' positions as well through narrative technique, strategies of involving the reader, the connections made and knowledge assumed, and so forth. Generally speaking, the major theoretical projects in the field of literary studies share certain procedural and intellectual goals which are situated around particular problems. For this reason, it is probably most valuable to begin the study of literature from a theoretical standpoint with a list of fundamental questions and concerns.
In order to demonstrate the validity of this approach, chapters in this book will each address the same issues from different theoretical perspectives. Not only will the reader find a redundancy of concerns, but indeed s/he will discover the importance of moving towards contemporary theory through a chronological recollection of previous work. Formalism presumes some understanding of linguistic approaches and the limitations of studies based solely upon the prestige and the productions of particular authors. Dialogism presumes a solid foundation in Marxist approaches to literature and formalism. Structuralism presumes some knowledge of formalism and linguistics. Reception theory presumes a solid basis in Marxist theory and formalism. We could go on right up to the present day work in sociocriticism, which presumes that readers have followed the successes and failures of virtually every approach to literature undertaken this century. Meta-theory, or hybrid contemporary theory, are both poor places to begin one's literary theory career for this very reason.
What Should One Look For in Literary Theory?
Students of literature and literary theory ought not be dismayed by the long list of approaches and concerns. Reading the previous section, it becomes clear that formalism, for example, is an important basis for many theories. And that Marxist-inspired work also crops up with some degree of regularity. On account of the importance of literature departments, and the rise of theory as the vanguard of literary studies, there seem to be innumerable works which demand specific knowledge from numerous domains. This is not really true. There are but a handful of significant approaches to literature, by which I mean approaches which aim to explore the full range of issues raised by literary texts. Each of these schools are described in this book. Further, the specific knowledge required for an understanding of each theory is not as overwhelming as it may seem at first glance, and if the reader has a general grasp of the goals of the text, s/he will be able to skip incomprehensible portions of the book and still understand the overriding argument. It suffices for this to know the broad strokes of the theory, the persons who have been involved in its elaboration, and the ways that it takes on basic questions about literature in order to use the tools that it offers. Once again, the terms, the individuals and the basic questions raised and then 'resolved' by each theory are discussed in this book.
Who? When? Where? What? Why? How? To What? What's Wrong?
For the purposes of clarity, each chapter is divided up according to the most basic, and the most frequently asked questions:
1. WHO? Who are the precursors? Who is most closely associated with the theory? Who does this kind of work today? Who should be interested in such an approach?
2. WHEN? When was this theory elaborated? When was it popular?
3. WHERE? Where was this theory elaborated? Where did it have influence?
4. WHAT? What does this theory try to accomplish? What is the knowledge claim of this particular theory?
5. WHY? Why is this theory important? Why should students of literary theory continue to study it?
6. HOW? How should one undertake an analysis according to this theory? How should one consider the kinds of work expected of him or her for such an analysis?
7. TO WHAT? To what kinds of literature can this theory be most fortuitously applied? To what kinds of literature does this theory owe its roots?
8. WHAT'S WRONG? What is wrong with this theory? What are its limitations?
Each of the theories discussed in this book has an opinion on each of these questions, and one way of getting to know the field is to simply assimilate each one. In most cases, the answer to one or two questions sets the stage for addressing several more. For example, once the student is familiar with Umberto Eco's stance on the stability of the text, then s/he will better understand his emphasis upon discovery procedures appropriate to the task of unearthing the treasure that the text contains. And once the student recognizes that Eco believes that literary texts contain particular treasures, which have been planted by the author, then s/he can better understand the kind of work that the text demands of the author as creator and of the reader as interpreter, and so forth.
How to Read this Book
This book is divided into chapters which individually offer the basic terminology, the overall approach, and the practitioners associated with the principle schools of literary studies. As such, chapters can be read individually, and the reader can refer to related areas of study located in different chapters by using the index. For those interested in a more complete picture of literary studies, this book is also constructed as a chronological narrative beginning with a general sketch of notable precursors and following through to present day work in the field. Some terminology is required, so summary definitions are offered in the body of the work. In order to facilitate the task of finding related terms and for purposes of quick reference, there is also a glossary at the end of this text.
This study is a summary introduction to literary theory, and could not even hope to address the many complex issues raised by even a single one of the theoreticians mentioned. The idea is to wet the reader's appetite, and to entice him or her to continue their research in the future. Persons interested in pursuing their readings in any area mentioned herein are strongly encouraged to return to the basic texts first. Many meta-theoretical texts are written to address very specific issues, including the quest for employment or tenure. Once the basic texts are known to be reader, their power of discernment in this regard will be enhanced. Readers are also encouraged to read the literary references in their entirety. For reasons of exposition and application, short passages are recalled and discussed in each chapter, but for reasons of economy and clarity only short poetic texts can be reprinted in full.
To return to the initial point of this introduction, literary theory emerges from or helps to illuminate literary texts. If one begins with the assumption that literature is in some ways different from other discursive practices, then it is clear that descriptions thereof or passages therefrom cannot serve as substitutes. This brings me to one final suggestion, especially valuable in light of the subject matter of chapter 1. Students and professors are eager and willing to bat around the names of great thinkers and authors, dismissing them or idolizing them on the basis of a short description of their work. A useful lesson for all persons interested in intellectual work is to seek out the entire canon of works published by these well-known authors. Even if it is but to view the magnum opus from a distance, it is worth the trip to the library. Seeing shelf after shelf of novels written by, say, Balzac, is to recognize that accepted wisdom in the form of terse dismissal or aggrandizement is simply inappropriate. In the next chapter I'll briefly describe the pertinent work of Marx and Freud for persons interested in literary theory, but to ensure that this brief description does not become dogma, it is worth consulting the collected works of each -- if only for a moment. The range and diversity of human experience is something that literature knows a lot about, and such lessons must not be lost on aspiring literary critics.