Thursday, December 6, 2007

Literature vs. Theory

I went to a talk last week at the college where I teach, and was a little dismayed to discover that, though it was sponsored by the English department, it made no mention of literature. Rather, it analyzed a particular social phenomenon by addressing its evolution in popular culture. Movies, TV shows, and celebrities came up a lot, and only one book was mentioned--one I've read and enjoyed, but which basically is an entertaining piece of crap. The Q&A afterward focused almost entirely on fashion reality shows, none of which I've seen, and which I was stunned to discover my colleagues watched religiously. What the hell's going on here?

On Rhian's recommendation, I picked up a book by another colleague of mine, Jonathan Culler. It's a primer on literary theory and its more controversial descendant, cultural theory. It is a really, really good book, and for me will serve as a kind of field guide to the scholars who people my department--smart, interesting people whose approach to literature, until now, made no sense to me whatsoever. Especially since, evidently, it isn't literature some of them are approaching at all, but other kinds of "texts" entirely.

Culler's vest-pocket definition of theory is as follows:

Theory is often a pugnacious critique of common-sense notions, and further, an attempt to show that what we take for granted as "common sense" is in fact a historical construction, a particular theory that has come to seem so natural to us that we don’t even see it as a theory. As a critique of common sense and exploration of alternative conceptions, theory involves a questioning of the most basic premisses or assumptions of literary study, the unsettling of anything that might have been taken for granted: What is meaning? What is an author? What is it to read? What is the "I" or subject who writes, reads, or acts? How do texts relate to the circumstances in which they are produced?

What surprises me about this definition is its familiarity. Any serious novelist asks himself these very questions, challenges the very assumptions theory, in Culler's definition, strives to challenge, every time he sits down to work. A good writer has got this stuff embedded in her mind--she doesn't write a page without filtering it with the kind of rigor theory appears to demand. The difference is that the theorist does this thinking for the purpose of academic illumination, and the novelist does it for the purpose of artistic expression.

It turns out that the talk I heard was an example of cultural theory--an area of endeavor that applies the central questions of literary theory to texts outside the sphere of literature (forgive me, academics, if I'm off the mark with this definition...I'm a neophyte here), in this case movies, TV, and figures in popular culture. What this is doing in an English department I have no idea--no more of an idea, anyway, than what I'm doing there--but the talk was interesting, and funny, and perhaps will lead to some good scholarship.

I think my past aversion to theory comes mostly from people who weren't very good at it. These are the kind of people who read a lot, and can tell you all about the extent to which a book cleaves to the late-twentieth-century capitalist-masculine social hegemony, but can't tell you if they liked it or not. They're kind of people who regard actual novels as artifacts, indistinguishable from one another, of the particular social context in which they were created. They're like paleontologists-in-waiting, who wish authors would just go away and die, so they can pick at the texts we leave behind.

Culler himself is famous around campus for having said, of contemporary novelists and poets, "You can stop now--we have enough." Or at least he's rumored to have said it. If he didn't, I don't want to know--it's a great line, one that hilariously encapsulates everything that writers fear might be wrong with theory. But from where I'm standing, it looks like writers and scholars--good writers, and good scholars--might well have the same interests in mind: the complexity and fascination of language, and the uses to which it is, and can be, put.

That said, I'm not watching "Project Runway," and neither should you. Read Culler's book instead. Or any book.


rmellis said...

You know what would make an awesome master's thesis? Cute Overload!

Man, I'm so on it.

jrlennon said...

I actually used both Cute Overload and in my class as examples of...something. I can't remember what. I think I just wanted to talk about dumb web sites in class. In any event, I've planted the seed. The doctoral dissertations will be maturing in about six years.

5 Red Pandas said...

Do you teach any classes that only focus on literature, without writing being the main focus? It seemed that all of my non-writing profs had to adopt their pet theories (like, "I'm a marxist-feminist-queer-theorist!") in order to justify their existence in the English department. That's one major reason I decided not to study literature at a higher level than undergrad. I'd rather just read books on my own instead of trying to pick a theoretical through which to examine the work.

As a writer I find theory too constraining and actually detrimental to fiction writing. It just feels like theory is at odds with the magic of fiction, and something that critics need as a way to get into the "text" so that they can make it their own because if they don't somehow make the texts they critique part of their own work, then what do they have?

Anyway, the direction that cultural criticism is going into just seems silly, or seems to highlight how silly our culture is. The girl from Washington Heights in me asks, "People get paid for that shit?"

A book that I think takes a good humorous stab at the silliness of current English department academia is Richard Russo's "Straight Man". It's a very funny book.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, I like "Straight Man." I have only taught one straight lit course here, a freshman seminar intro to the short story, and I was basically told I could teach it however I pleased. So I taught it from a craft perspective, with a focus on psychological nuance in character. Creative writing and English are very intertwined here, so I think the philosophical gap between the two is much smaller than it is at other places.