Literary theory is a trip. I just spent a year studying this for the first semester of my Accessible MFA. I watched Professor Paul Fry’s 26 introductory lectures at Yale. I created a JSTOR account (for free) so that I could read most of the assigned readings. And I bought The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, so I could complete the rest.
I’d been introduced to many of these ideas and writers as an undergrad, but I had never studied the subject in depth. I wrote papers. I kept an annotated bibliography that ballooned to 25 pages. I took careful notes. And by the end, I was even more enamored of literature that pushes boundaries, that challenges what we know, and that breaks the norms of form and structure. Here’s my final reflection on what literary theory is and why it matters.
Literature is the attempt to distill human experience through the representation of the particular but in a way that invites readers to project their own diverse experiences onto the artwork, granting them an opportunity to freely play out—within the safe bounds of this framed canvas—their fantasies, fears, loves, and memories so that they might be resolved, understood, and rendered whole. In doing so, it contends with questions of agency, personhood, consciousness, and society. Literature also attempts to convey specific experiences in the hope of provoking rage, compassion, disgust, empathy, or identification in the reader so that when the author returns them to the everyday world, they might approach it—and those in it—differently.
To critique an art that can be catharsis or policy proposal and often is both, literary theory must contend with the slippery concepts of author, textual meaning, and the context of the text itself. Founded on hermeneutics, or the interpretation of scripture, literary theory has adopted a similar approach to literature. It examines literary texts with the assumption that, if written well, they contain all the complexity, linguistic richness, symbolism, sociology, history, and meaning of the Bible. This richness, this code within the text, then requires someone else to interpret and speak for it.
To achieve this, literary theorists must first deal with the author. If a critic or theorist sets out to speak for a text, they must preemptively nullify, minimize, or explain authorial intention. After all, there is no need for literary theorists if the author simply said what they intended to say. The poststructuralist Michel Foucault handles this dilemma by asserting that the author is not a person but a function. In his essay “What Is an Author?” Foucault argues that texts do not reflect an author’s personality or identity, proposing instead that readers “should re-examine the empty space left by the author’s disappearance” (Foucault, 121).
In contrast to this conception of an absentee author, or an author that is not a person, Harold Bloom, a psychoanalytic critic of the twentieth century, proposes that nothing is more vital to a text than the author’s personhood and specifically his (because Bloom genders all authors as men) awareness of his predecessors in the history of literature. Building on Freud’s Oedipus complex, Bloom insists that all authors attempt to assert supremacy over past authors while never being able to measure up to their achievements. All that is left to the critic is to untangle which “parent poem” the author is battling with (Bloom, 1582).
Once the author has been dispatched or analyzed, literary theory confronts the text itself. For Formalists, this is the only thing that matters. The Russian Formalist, Mikhail Bakhtin, supported this point by claiming that language is itself a social institution, collectively owned, so that even the individual voice of the author echoes and reflects many other voices. In fact, he argues that this is one of the primary strengths of the novel. Far from expressing the author’s individuality, “the prerequisite for authentic novelistic prose [is] the variety of individual voices” that it contains (Bakhtin, 1003).
However, for Deconstructionists like Derrida, it is not only language that can be multi-faceted in the text but ideas themselves. It is impossible to claim with any authority that a novel’s meaning is definite or limited to one interpretation. Binaries and oppositions, the basis of literary structure itself, are not as opposed as they may seem because they are interdependent. Concepts emerge between two poles, appearing as a difference but existing as an intertwined pair. Additionally, because language unfolds through time, texts are additive, experienced as a sequence that alters meaning as it progresses with each new meaning bleeding into previous interpretations. Deconstructionists argue not against meaning but rather for the acknowledgment of its being artificially constructed, imposed from outside a text, and destabilized as social perspectives shift.
Whether meaning exists in the text itself or is imposed on it by readers, literary theorists finally come face to face with the world in which author and text exist. Whether literary theorists assert, as Formalists do, that this context has no bearing on the text’s meaning, or that the reader is the true originator of textual meaning, society must be approached—even if only to be dismissed.
The list of theories that demand attention to the contexts of both author and reader is long. Feminist, Post-Colonial, Gender, Queer, Disability, and Critical Race Theories all contend that texts can serve the marginalized and oppressed as bids for recognition, credibility, and authority. Whether the example is Phillis Wheatley, a Black poet in eighteenth-century America who won her freedom through publication, or Helen Keller’s memoir The Story of My Life, which launched her career as a disability activist and remains a seminal text in the disability life writing genre, texts continue to exert power, convincing mainstream society to recognize the rights of disenfranchised groups.
However, these theories also confront the socialized biases that both writers and readers bring to texts. Toni Morrison argues in her volume Playing in the Dark that language itself “can powerfully evoke and enforce hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and dismissive ‘othering’ of people and language” (Morrison, x). The centuries-old wish of white writers to believe that race “doesn’t matter” in literature is only further proof of the exclusivity and, oftentimes, white supremacy underlying much of the Western canon. As Toni Morrison points out, even positing authors as “unraced” does not signify racelessness and can itself be “a racial act” (Morrison, xii, 46). Assumptions of racelessness on the part of the reader can also lead to disastrous misunderstandings of the text and literature as a whole.
For some theorists, however, nothing matters more than the reader. This is the case for Stanley Fish who argues that texts are only texts when readers label them as such. He goes further, declaring that no reader interprets texts alone. Because the reader reads within a larger social context, any interpretation is necessarily communal. The reader’s community trains them how to read, and the result is that they find what they are trained to find. It is, in his view, “culturally derived interpretive categories [that] make readers” and not the other way around (Fish, 1908).
By positioning the author, text, and context in such various and even conflicting ways, literary theory has earned its critics, especially among artists. Susan Sontag, for example, critiques its assumption that texts require an intermediary. In her essay “Against Interpretation,” she argues that interpretation is little more than an intellectual desire to “tame” art, distancing ourselves so that the encounter with an artwork cannot “make us nervous” (Sontag, 1725). Arguing for an experience of art grounded in immediacy, she invites critics to “dissolve considerations of content” (Sontag, 1729). But even she cannot escape the compulsion to talk about meaning and form, drawing very close to Formalism when she asserts that critics should focus on form, tailoring their language to describe not what art means but what and how it is.
Literary theory then is ultimately the practice of understanding literature. It is founded on the assumption that such understanding is difficult to achieve, and so it provides readers and critics with analytical tools. It is an attempt to systematize interpretation, to approach objectivity—or to identify why that is impossible, and to enable as precise a discussion of authorship and textual meaning as possible. The differences among its approaches reflect different assumptions about language, authorship, consciousness, society, power, art, and knowledge drawn from twenty-first and twentieth-century philosophy. However, one point on which all literary theories hinge is that the author, text, and context must be acknowledged and dealt with. Whether this means a tidy dismissal or a wholehearted embrace of nuanced complexities, literary theory continues to ask the same question: What does this mean, and how can we know?
Bakhtin, Mikhail M. “Discourse in the Novel.” In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 999-1030. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
Bloom, Harold. “Introduction. A Meditation upon Priority, and a Synopsis” from The Anxiety of Influence. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 1574-1582. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
Fish, Stanley. “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One” from Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 1898-1909. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.
Foucault, Michel. “What Is an Author?” In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, edited by Donald F. Bouchard, 113-38. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 1722-30. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.