Five Literary Theories and Their Limitations

This is going to be one of my last posts on literary theory, I promise. At least for a bit. Well, maybe until I finish reading David Herman’s essay “Narrative Theory after the Second Cognitive Revolution” (fascinating stuff about the mind itself as a product, as well as a producer, of discourse). We’ll see.

But first, as I say goodbye to the first semester of my Accessible MFA, let’s raise a glass to some of the most compelling literary theories, the fundamentals of literary theory if you will—without which, we wouldn’t have some of my personal faves, like feminist theory or disability studies or critical race theory or gender studies.

To five literary theories that shaped the revolutionary theories of today, I raise my glass:

  • Formalism is grounded in Aristotelian and Kantian aesthetics, which argue that artistic forms express a perfect ideal. Literature, and poetry especially, “invents another nature” that is independent of human self-interest and therefore demonstrates our capacity for freedom (presuming that once art elevates us above the pettiness of our daily concerns, we will no longer be buffeted about by competition, greed, lust, and all those who would use these to manipulate us). Beginning in the 1920s, the Russian Formalists, while also interested in structure and style, were specifically interested in literary devices that obscure meaning and defamiliarize the bureaucratization of modern life. While both formalisms strive to implement scientific approaches to reading texts, they have been criticized for not taking historical context into account as well as too readily dismissing authorial intention. Think of Formalism as the perfectionist school of literary theory. It’s populated by straight white men in buttoned blazers (or cardigans) who hang multiple degrees on their walls and stroll around lecturing between sips of coffee (or tea), pausing only to tut-tut anyone who mentions gender, race, society, or all that fluff. For them, art is about perfectly realized language and technique, nothing else. When it comes right down to it, formalism is the father one can’t help but rebel against. Which has made it a fertile birthplace for many theories that argue form is content and language is the author’s biases, intention, and social milieu. More on this debate here if you’re interested.
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  • New Criticism was developed at Yale University, and the term was coined by John Crowe Ransom in his 1941 book, The New Criticism. Considered by many literary theorists to be a branch of Formalism, New Criticism posits that texts are independent objects, which must be evaluated according to their own criteria as indicated by their form and subject. Influenced by T.S. Eliot and James Joyce who believed that art is independent of the artist and must be as rich and complex as reality, New Critics such as I.A. Richards and Cleanth Brooks developed the practice of close reading. This reading strategy—still taught in high schools and universities today—is designed to reveal tensions that the work then reconciles through artistic unity. However, New Criticism has been faulted for proposing a reading strategy that can never be truly authoritative (because you can always dig deeper) as well as for emphasizing reconciliation, which is essentially centrist. I mean, dude, can’t we just sit with the contradictions? If art is aiming to be as complex as reality, then keep it that way. Our lives don’t boil down to some tidy unity after we’re dead. Maybe the best literature shouldn’t, either.
  • Psychoanalytic Criticism draws on Freudian theories to interpret literary symbols, language, and history. Two significant psychoanalytic critics, Peter Brooks and Jacques Lacan, agreed that language is structured like the unconscious. Lacan applies Freud’s concepts of condensation and displacement in dreams to literature. Similarly in the 1970s, Brooks draws on Freud’s “The Dream Work” from 1905 to analyze narrative structure, arguing that endings are delayed in literature in order to put off death and allow the work to choose its own death, actualizing the desire of all living things (these theorists assume that even in death, we want some say about how it all ends, which seems pretty true to me). Harold Bloom also applied Freud’s Oedipus complex to literary history itself in an effort to explain authors’ apparent compulsion to recycle the work of their predecessors. He read this as a father-son competition, rather than the simple fact that artists find pre-existing forms useful for both improvisation as well as dialogues with the history of their art. However, even Lacan and Brooks were critical of Freud’s presumption of a stable self as well as his interest in the unconscious of the author and their characters. Feminist critics also have objected to applying Freudian ideas of masculine power struggles to literary history because this excludes women. Basically, this approach has all the same issues that Freud does, and then some.
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  • Post-Structuralism (a vast circus tent under which Deconstruction also lives) asserts that ideas are not absolute, that all structure is constructed, that language is fraught with uncertainty, that ways of reading have political implications, and that literature occurs within a sociocultural and historical context. Beginning in the 1960s with Derrida, Post-Structuralism acknowledges the necessity of structure both in literature and in theory. However, it also asserts that this structure is always imposed from the outside. Opposites and tensions are interdependent, relationships and connections need not be linear, and all definitions are a snapshot of language at a particular point in time. Although some critics argue that Post-Structuralism claims there is no such thing as knowledge, Post-Structuralists would counter that there is no such thing as knowledge that is final, objective, and complete. This can be a rich and humbling place to write fiction, poetry, and memoir from, but it’s not so useful if you’re trying to write a term paper in five hours where you have to settle on a specific reading of a specific text. In fact, if you hang out with these guys too long, you can start to sound like a bit of an asshole (But can we really ever know Truth? What is Truth? Everyone has their own truth, but none of us really knows Truth, limited by our time and place as we are). Cue the eye roll from your weary professor who simply asked what you think might be true about Daisy’s feelings for Gatsby.
  • Post-Colonial Criticism examines the relationships between colonizers and the colonized, specifically interrogating the identities imposed on the colonized by their colonizers, as Edward Said does in his critique of Orientalism. Concepts applied by post-colonial critics include double consciousness, hybridity, and the master-slave dialectic. Interested in exploring the agency of the colonized as well as inserting colonized authors into the canon, post-colonial critics and writers also integrate economics, history, politics, and language into their critiques of Western hegemony. However, one criticism of Post-Colonial Criticism in the United States is that it often supports race and gender hierarchies, entering into dialogue with, rather than dismantling, traditional canons of white male authors. Indeed, some post-colonial thinkers have embraced the racist, colonizing institutions that at first shunned them, and now pride themselves on their own gate-keeping efforts. In contrast, many of the best post-colonial critics and writers are in dialogue with the best critical race theorists and concepts. Take Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s masterful novel Americanah which explores both race and post-colonial struggle in contemporary America. There’s also the famed friendship between Wole Soyinka and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (And if you’re unsure who Soyinka was, as I embarrassingly was before I added him to my MFA guest lecturer list, check out his lecture on slavery as metaphor and reality in literature here.)
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Well, that’s about all we have time for today. But there you have it. Five literary theories, their pros, cons, detractors, and successors. If you can be sure of anything in literary theory, it’s that nothing stays the same. Someone will always come along to shake things up. Thank goodness. But it helps to know exactly what they’re shaking up and why. Whether you’re someone who loves tradition or loathes it, it helps to know where we’ve come from. As a character in Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Primeval and Other Times goes around warning people, “You can’t make something out of nothing.” History is always the material we’re building with. It helps to know where the roots are and what they’re made of.


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Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

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