what am I looking for?

It seems a natural question – what kind of thing am I looking for out of literary theory? What would it take to convince me that some body of theory was valuable?

Well, something that I thought was true and non-obvious would be a good start. Even if it didn’t provide any new insights, something that was coherent and provided an explanation for some of the commonplace observations about literature would still be valuable. A knowledge of physics doesn’t really help you to play snooker, or provide any insights into the game as a game, but it’s intellectually satisfying to know that the behaviour of the balls can be explained and predicted.

What you really want, though, is a way of understanding literature that provides new insights. Some aspects of the theoritication of criticism do that, I think. For me, the idea of different ways of reading work – feminist, historical, political – has obvious value. But I never felt it needed any special theoretical justification. It’s just a specialisation, a narrowing of focus to look at one aspect of the work at a time.

I do have an intriguing example from the visual arts. Some years ago I heard a neuroscientist (Semir Zeki) on the radio who was studying the different regions of the brain that processed vision. One particular area was processing something like colour contrasts (I can’t remember now), and the development of Mondrian’s paintings showed a increased tendency over his career to stimule that area precisely. Now that raises the possibility that he was aware of a particular kind of response and was trying to hone his paintings to create that response, even though he didn’t know why his paintings worked.

Where the story gets more interesting is that apparently Vermeer’s work is also very good at stimulating this area of the brain. Art critics have made the Mondrian/Vermeer comparison before, but this provides a precise neurological explanation for where the similarity lies. This little snippet of neuroscience doesn’t tell you everything there is to know about either Mondrian or Vermeer, of course, but it is interesting.

My choice of example no doubt suggests that I think neuroscience is also the way forward in understanding literature, and I certainly think it’s one important way forward. The structures of language as understood by contemporary linguists (i.e. not Saussure), and the way the brain processes language, seem obviously fertile ground for study. I found Pinker’s The Language Instinct fascinating, and I also spent a long time thinking about Dawkins’s idea of memetics at one stage. In the end, though, I wasn’t able to apply them in a way that offered any new insights. Memetics seems sound as a theory, but rarely seems to offer any interesting conclusions that couldn’t be equally well explained without it. And either I don’t know enough about linguistics, or I haven’t been thinking about it in the right way, or both. Or the insights aren’t there to be had.

I’ve just noticed that Zeki has a book about art and the brain, which I may as well add to my Amazon wishlist for the moment. If I ever buy and read it, I’ll let you know what I think.


my personal experience of theory

I’m a natural customer for critical theory. But I’m not a fan.

I’m generally reluctant to engage too much with arguments about literary/critical theorising because I haven’t read enough of the key primary texts. But I’m unwilling to bow out of the discussion altogether because there was a time, admittedly only a few months, when I devoted a great deal of time and intellectual energy to engaging with those theories.

In the third year of my undergraduate degree in English Literature, I chose to do a course in critical theory. I went into it with mixed feelings. I was sceptical, because the encounters I’d had with theory during my degree hadn’t impressed me. But I was also quite excited to see what I’d encounter, because I am, by inclination, a theoretical and analytical thinker. I was also already impatient with the woolly thinking implicit in the way that some traditional critics talk about literature.

I remember, for example, a lecture where the lecturer used the idea that the effectiveness of literature derives from its ‘truth’. The point I tried, incoherently, to make at the time, and which I still think is valid, is this: Most literature is not true, in the sense the word is normally used. The events in Bleak House didn’t actually happen. An appeal to ‘artistic truth’ or ‘essential truth’ or, God forbid, ‘poetic truth’ doesn’t help – it’s just verbal gesticulation. No doubt when pressed, the lecturer would have explained that by ‘truth’ he meant something slightly different (plausibility? sincerity?) – but that seems like a very good reason not to use the word ‘truth’ in the first place.

I also agree that appeals to ‘common sense’ are a cop-out. Even if there is some way of approaching literature which is obvious, universal and coherent, people should be willing and able to articulate the ideas behind it, and examine them.

So I went into this course with the hope that it would be my kind of thing. And although, as I said, I haven’t read as much of the key material as I should have to comment properly, I did read quite a lot of the reading material suggested – including three different introductions to theory, S/Z, Saussure, bits of Derrida and so on. Now I appreciate that introductory guides written for undergrads are not the real thing, but I don’t think my blood pressure would have stood it if I’d read too much more. For those few months, I spent a lot of time and energy thinking about the subject, and the fact that people were teaching this stuff – that it was an influential movement within a subject that I cared about – made me frustrated and angry.

As I hope I’ve made clear, it’s not that I mind theorising. It’s just that so much of the theorising seemed to be badly done. Books would make an argument, demonstrate a weak version of it, and then claim a strong version, or illustrate it with a very narrow, atypical case and claim to have made the general case. Or they’d make elementary errors of logic, like saying ‘history is just a kind of narrative’ and concluding that anything that is true about fiction is also true about history*. The theories were also built upon older theories which are themselves highly dubious. I can respect the importance of Saussure, Freud, and Marx in the history of their subjects, but none of them are exactly cutting edge. Linguists, psychoanalysts and economists have learnt a lot over the past century, but none of it seems to have filtered through to literary theory. And if, like me, you’re not convinced by either Saussure or Freud, Lacan is a non-starter. This narrowness of reference seemed to be a general problem. If for, example, you’re talking about how language and society develop and interact, why wouldn’t you mention the social and communication behaviours of other species?

In the end, I felt that many strands of critical theory have been positively harmful to the study of literature. Take the example of feminist theory. The intersection between gender and literature is obviously fertile ground for study. Any of these things, none of which seem controversial, would be enough to justify a gender-sensitive study of literature: if women and men tend to write differently, or read differently, or if women’s literature tends to be marginalised or approached differently, or if literature can offer insight into gender-roles in different cultures, or just if gender and sexuality is a major part of the human experience. But all those things can be analysed and written about without needing to buy into a radical model of language. The flakier end of feminist literary theory (like the argument that logic should be rejected as a phallogocentric embodiment of the patriarchal nature of society) can only weaken that field of study, both by reducing its credibility and diverting people’s intellectual energy into an unproductive direction.

And not just feminism – there were a lot of valid insights about limitations in traditional practice that were inflated into ludicrous theoretical contructions. You don’t need to make radical theoretical claims to challenge the centrality of the author in traditional criticism, or argue that literary study has not taken enough notice of historical and social conditions, or that critics have been too slow to engage with politics.

Also, theory-driven articles about particular works of literature seemed to me to be generally weakened by the theory, rather than strengthened by it. Often the author seemed more interested in ingenious ways of applying the theory than in coming up with new insights. The conclusions they did reach often seemed no different from those a traditional close reading might achieve – but less coherently expressed. Or radical and exciting sounding – but insupportable.

And I haven’t even mentioned the malign influence on people’s prose style.


*compare – ‘Bill Clinton is just a kind of mammal, and therefore, like mice, his teeth grow continuously and he needs to gnaw hard materials regularly to wear them down’.