The MFA Class No One Likes

Different institutions give it various names. Narrative Strategies. Textual Strategies. Literary Theory. Readers and Writers. But whatever you call it, it’s usually one of the first required classes. It’s also the class I’ve heard the most MFA graduates groan about. What’s the point? I’m never going to use this stuff.

So, here I am, making up my own MFA. I could do anything I want. After all, there’s no accreditation process. I don’t need anyone’s approval. I could put in a class on paper airplanes if I wanted to. Yet still, I chose to include the class everybody loves to hate.

Here’s why.

Great Artists Are Technical Experts

It’s true. I’ve yet to meet a dancer who can’t give a succinct summary of how ballet began in Italy, shifted to the French court, and eventually was elevated to the art form we know today in 1800s Russia. They can explain to you why ballet terms are French, what Tchaikovsky meant to ballet’s development, as well as how and why dancers like Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham forever changed Western dance.

Musicians not only can read an entirely distinct form of writing, but they know so many technical terms it makes my head spin. They think carefully about acoustics, their audiences, and how to translate their distinct sound into certain spaces.

I would even go so far as to say that artists are distinguished from amateurs and hobbyists not by sheer talent, originality, or passion but by technique. All human beings are creative. But those who create art that endures, from the Sistine Chapel to the paintings of the Dunhuang Caves in China, draw on techniques and expertise from decades of training.

Writers are no different. A big part of literary theory is understanding how literature functions. How does it achieve its effects? Why can the same text elicit revulsion from one reader and lifelong devotion from another? Why do people read at all? What can texts offer readers, besides escapism? Think of just about any writer in the Western canon. Virginia Woolf. Henry James. Alice Walker. Toni Morrison. Zora Neale Hurston. James Baldwin.

Every single one of them wrote essays we still study today, essays about how stories function, who our audiences are, what subjects we are told we can and cannot write about, the role of the author and that of the reader, and where our writing comes from. If you are thinking deeply about your art, you’re thinking deeply about literary theory.

You Have To Know Where You’re Starting From

Literary theory is also all about lenses. When I sit down to read a novel, what assumptions do I make? Where do those assumptions come from? How do they impact my experience of the text? How do I read? How do you read?

Spoiler alert: Those assumptions come from my background, both my background as an individual (a white American woman raised in the Christian middle class) as well as the background of my society (Judeo-Christian notions of order and individuality, an emphasis on cause-effect relationships going all the way back to Aristotle, the field of  psychology).

They also come from my education. For example, I believe that texts are not sources of authority but conversations, so I always read with a degree of skepticism. Other readers I know get annoyed with texts that require skepticism. They want to be able to trust that a book means exactly what it says.

As anyone who has tried to explain their gender identity or nationality knows, it’s not so easy to see our own lenses. Studying literary theory not only helps me see how texts are structured and the myriad ways one can read them, but it helps me see the biases inherent in my very criteria for reading and writing. Why do we read texts by men as more authoritative and important than texts by women and nonbinary authors? Why do we routinely “other” texts written by authors of color, especially black authors? How does literature approach sexuality, particularly any sexuality that isn’t fiercely heterosexual? And why do authors so often stumble when trying to write characters who have less privilege than they do?

Toni Morrison has been quoted as saying to creative writing students, “I don’t want to hear about your little life, okay?”

That seems to me a fair demand from a black woman who broke through so many barriers to success, becoming one of the greatest writers my country has ever seen, while never compromising, never ceasing to speak directly to black readers.

I have been lucky enough to live most of my life around people with very different experiences and backgrounds from mine. This diversity of experience, that is not mine, inevitably seeps into my fiction because that is the world I know. The real world. The world where not everyone is white and straight and able-bodied and masculine and middle-class and American. In other words, an interesting world, a complex world.

But then how do I do that? How do I ensure that characters don’t end up as stereotypes, or even just as portraits of the people I have known? How do I not fall into the snare of turning people different from myself into “best friend” types and “sidekicks” and not giving them lives and motivations and quests of their own? How do I not write about “my one little life?”

Literary theory.

Studying literary theory means that I will read authors whose perspectives and experiences I do not share. I will hear what they think of how texts represent people like themselves, and when that effort succeeds and when it fails. I will try on lenses from traditions and backgrounds to see just how different the world, and literature specifically, looks through the lenses of queer theory or post-colonial theory.

Henry James said that a writer is someone on whom nothing is lost.

Literary theory may be just the thing, to help me become someone on whom a little less is lost.

The Syllabus

ENGL 501: Textual Strategies

Fall 2019

 

COURSE DESCRIPTION

ENGL 501 introduces the major literary theories of the twentieth century. We will examine how literature is produced and read as well as the contexts in which these acts occur. Shifting between the perspectives of writers, readers, and critics, we will consider how the lenses of history, economics, philosophy, science, politics, gender, race, orientation, disability, and culture inform the ways we experience texts. With guest lectures and readings from Ijeoma Oluo, Jericho Brown, Judith Butler, Roxane Gay, and Katia D. Ulysse, we will actively seek out ways of reading and writing that challenge the perspectives of early twentieth-century literary theories and criticism. In doing so, we will interrogate criticism itself, testing definitions of literary texts that broaden their purpose and possibilities.

 

COURSE RESOURCES

Yale Open Courses, Introduction to Theory of Literature with Professor Paul Fry

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (3rd ed.)

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison

Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction, Dr. Sami Schalk

How Fiction Works, James Wood

How to Read Literature Like a Professor, Thomas C. Foster

Essays by Barthes, Foucault, Lacan, Anzaldúa, hooks, Sontag, and others

 

COURSE OUTCOMES

  • The student will be able to define and apply at least five literary theories, including Formalism, New Criticism, Psychoanalytic Criticism, Marxist Criticism, Reader-Response Criticism, Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, Post-Colonial, Feminist, Gender/Queer Studies, Critical Race Theory, and Critical Disability Studies.
  • The student will be able to articulate the purpose of literary theory, the context of its development, as well as how and why it has been reinvented.
  • The student will be able to write a five-page paper explicating how specific literary theories inform their writing and reading as an artist.
  • The student will be able to compare and contrast different texts through the lens of literary theory.
  • The student will be able to present a close reading in a five-page paper, demonstrating how the text either weakens or strengthens its surface-level claims.

 

COURSE SCHEDULE

Week 1 Introduction, Introduction (cont.)

Readings: Wood “Narrating,” Barthes “The Death of the Author,” Foucault “What Is an Author?”

Week 2 Ways In and Out of the Hermeneutic Circle

Readings: Foster Ch. 1-5

Week 3 Configurative Reading

Readings: Iser “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach,” Foster Ch. 6-10

Week 4 The Idea of the Autonomous Artwork

Readings: Wimsatt & Beardsley “The Intentional Fallacy,” Foster Ch. 11-15

Week 5 The New Criticism and Other Western Formalisms

Readings: Foster Ch. 16-20, Brooks “Irony as a Principle of Structure,” Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli”

Week 6 Russian Formalism, Reading with Roxane Gay and Katie D. Ulysse (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTd8IXx2ok0) Readings: Foster Ch. 21-27, Eikhenbaum “The Theory of the ‘Formal Method’”
Week 7 Semiotics and Structuralism

Readings: Wood pp. 39-80, Levi-Strauss “The Structural Study of Myth”

Week 8 Linguistics and Literature

Readings: Wood pp. 81-110, Jakobson “Linguistics and Poetics”

Week 9 Deconstruction I

Readings: Wood pp. 111-141, Derrida “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”

Week 10 Deconstruction II

Readings: Wood pp. 141-172, De Man “Semiology and Rhetoric”

Week 11 Freud and Fiction

Readings: Wood pp. 172-202, Freud “The Dream-Work,” Brooks “Freud’s Masterplot”

Week 12 Jacques Lacan in Theory

Readings: Wood pp. 202-232, Lacan “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious”

First Paper DUE

Week 13 Influence

Readings: Wood pp. 232-248, Eliot “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Bloom “Meditation upon Priority”

First Packet DUE (draft of an original short story, annotated bibliography with 4 books and 1-2 craft books, two 2-page responses)

Week 14 The Postmodern Psyche

Readings: Morrison preface-17, DeLeuze & Guattari “Introduction: Rhizaro”

Week 15 The Social Permeability of Reader and Text

Readings: Morrison pp. 18-44, Bakhtin “Discourse in the Novel”

Week 16 The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory

Readings: Morrison pp. 44-63, Benjamin “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” Horkheimer & Adorno “The Culture Industry”

Week 17 The Political Unconscious

Readings: Morrison pp. 63-76, Jameson “The Political Unconscious”

Week 18 The New Historicism

Readings: Morrison pp. 76-91, W. E. B. Du Bois “Criteria of Negro Art”

Week 19 The Classical Feminist Tradition, Judith Butler, “Gender in Translation: Beyond Monolinguism” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CK47Js9oUuA) Readings: Schalk pp. 1-23, Gilbert & Gubar “The Madwoman in the Attic,” Butler “Gender Trouble”
Week 20 African-American Criticism, Ijeoma Oluo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnybJZRWipg)

Readings: Schalk pp. 24-45, Hurston “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Gates “Writing ‘Race’ and the Difference It Makes”

Week 21 Post-Colonial Criticism

Readings: Schalk pp. 45-63, Said “Orientalism,” Anzaldúa “Towards a New Consciousness”

Week 22 Queer Theory and Gender Performativity, Jericho Brown (http://columbiajournal.org/what-place-does-beauty-hold-an-interview-with-jericho-brown/) Readings: Schalk pp. 63-83, Rich “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” hooks “Selling Hot Pussy: Representations of Black Female Sexuality in the Cultural Marketplace”
Week 23 The Institutional Construction of Literary Study

Readings: Schalk pp. 85-112, Fish “How to Recognize a Poem”

Week 24 The End of Theory?; Neo-Pragmatism

Readings: Schalk pp. 113-128, Nelson “AfroFuturism,” Sontag “Against Interpretation”

Second Paper DUE

Week 25 Reflections; Who Doesn’t Hate Theory Now?

Readings: Schalk pp. 128-145, Morton “The Ecological Thought,” Bogost “The Rhetoric of Video Games”

Exam

Second Packet DUE (revised/original short story, annotated bibliography with 4 books and 1-2 craft books, two 2-page responses)

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