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Literary Theory

Literary Theory

by David Carter

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A pocket guide to the key concepts of literary theory, explaining them in clear, accessible language. Cutting through the often confusing welter of peripheral writing on what can be an enormously unwieldy subject, David Carter covers the key thinkers, writers and theories in current lit-crit use, including Derrida; Baudrillard; Habermas; Postmodernism;


A pocket guide to the key concepts of literary theory, explaining them in clear, accessible language. Cutting through the often confusing welter of peripheral writing on what can be an enormously unwieldy subject, David Carter covers the key thinkers, writers and theories in current lit-crit use, including Derrida; Baudrillard; Habermas; Postmodernism; Deconstruction; Formalism; Hermeneutics; and Reception Theory. An invaluable resource for students and readers.

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Literary Theory

By David Carter

Oldcastle Books

Copyright © 2006 David Carter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84243-815-2



Attitudes to the study of literature have undergone nothing short of a revolution in the last half-century or so. Changes were afoot in the previous half-century but they moved at nothing like the pace and in nothing like the variety of ways that have been evident since the Second World War. It is true that writers and critics had been reflecting on the nature of literature at least since Aristotle but, in the course of the twentieth century, the whole concept of a 'literary text' became questionable.

As a student of European literature in the 1960s I heard little mention by my professors of 'literary theory.' Genre (tragedy, the novel, the sonnet etc) was certainly mentioned and so were the writer and the critic, but any allusion to the reader was rare indeed. Everyone talked freely of the writer's 'intention' and the 'meaning' of the text. When it was deemed necessary, one brought in consideration of the writer's 'background', the 'historical context', and the 'philosophical climate'. There was also such a thing as 'practical criticism', which literature departments made their students do, although no-one explained to us why we had to do it, or how it would be useful to us in our studies. It was assumed that its usefulness was obvious. You took a sample of an unfamiliar text, translated it, if necessary, pointed out a few significant figures of speech that you recognised, such as a metaphor or a simile, discussed its meanings and implications, brought in a bit of background knowledge, if you had any, and that was about it. If you did this well under exam conditions, you passed the exam, proving to all who cared to know that you could analyse literature. There were the great writers and the not so great writers and, by heeding one's professors, one gradually learned to distinguish them. Occasionally, one heard of a 'psychoanalytic interpretation' or a 'Marxist approach', but, more often than not, they were mentioned in a tone that suggested that these were slightly disreputable activities. If you were lucky, you might be blessed with one lecturer who was open to new ideas and challenges. Then, suddenly, when I was a postgraduate in the late 1960s, all these keen young lecturers appeared telling us that our very notion of a 'literary text' was questionable. Whole edifices of carefully constructed bodies of knowledge started to shake at the foundations. Nothing was sure or sacred anymore. It was becoming difficult to utter a word of comment on anything, especially literary works, without justifying yourself theoretically. Naturally the question arose, 'Why do we need theory?' Hadn't we been managing quite well without it, thank you very much, for some considerable time?

Why Theory?

What professors, teachers and lesser mortals did not realise, or were reluctant to admit, was that, in fact, they had been using theory all their adult life, without knowing it (rather as Monsieur Jourdain in Molière's play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme does not realise, until it is pointed out to him, that he has been speaking prose all his life). How could this be? Quite simply because there is 'live theory' (theory we consciously consider when making judgements) and 'dead theory' (the theory which lies behind the assumptions we hold when making judgements but which has become so integrated into our common practice that we are no longer aware of it). Many had been discussing literature using 'dead theory', without having bothered to analyse their own presuppositions. So the answer to the question 'Why theory?' is quite simple: because it is better and more honest to be aware of the reasons why you do something than to be ignorant of them. If this maxim holds good for all human endeavours, then there is no reason why the study of literature should be exempt from it.

The problem is that defining what counts as 'theory' and what one means by 'literary' is no easy task. Most critics and theorists have grappled bravely with the problem but have finally given up, declaring that it does not matter anyway. Some theorists lead one to the conclusion that literary theory does not really exist as an independent discipline. There is, many claim, just 'Theory', theory about everything from literature to lesbianism, from hooliganism to horror films. Since many books are to be found with the phrases 'Literary Theory' or 'Theory of Literature' in their titles, however, it is clear that there is a body of thought to which the terms can be applied. There is a kind of theory with literature as its focus. This is an important fact to establish, because there are other kinds of theory, such as 'Critical Theory' and 'Cultural Theory', which rely on the same theorists and schools of thought as 'Literary Theory'. The difference between them all is clearly one of focus and attention. The theorists and schools of thought considered in this book have in common the fact that they challenge 'common sense' notions of what literature is. They often question our assumptions about 'great literature' and propose different ways to analyse and evaluate it. However, any vague statement about literature (such as 'All literature is escapist') does not constitute a theory. It must meet more stringent requirements to be considered both valuable and valid.

What Counts as Theory?

Clearly, in the first instance, a theory must attempt to explain something. Its proponents may believe that it does this successfully but others may not. Jonathan Culler, an eminent populariser of literary theory, has made a useful distinction: '... to count as a theory, not only must an explanation not be obvious; it should involve a certain complexity' (Culler, 1997). Unfortunately, many theorists have not only recognised this basic truth but have taken it too passionately to heart, cloaking their insights in obscure language. Yet it is clearly true that new understanding often comes only after developing a model of some complexity in the mind. Literature, in all its forms, treats of human life, its nature and problems, its mode of existence, its ways of coexistence and thought, and its belief systems. Any theory about these phenomena can, therefore, be considered relevant to the study of literature. However, the actual application of such theories is a complex procedure, fraught with pitfalls, to which the revered academic, as much as the novice scholar, is disturbingly liable to succumb. Misinterpretation, false analogy, unfounded generalisation, reductive argument – all these hazards lie in wait for the unsuspecting critic. It is also, therefore, in the nature of theory that not only does it have some complexity but that it is also often difficult to prove or disprove. A theory may sound very convincing but can it be proved to have validity? If it cannot be proved, does it thereby lose its usefulness? And what would constitute proof, or disproof, of any given theory? Does it finally matter whether it can be proved or not? These are questions which it is difficult enough to answer in the fields of the so-called natural sciences and in sociology, psychology and other disciplines. What of literary theory? It would seem wise to consider first exactly what the object of study is.

What is Literature?

Because many theorists have been primarily concerned with phenomena other than literature (psychoanalysts with the human mind, Marxists with human existence in a capitalist society etc), it has often been of only secondary importance to them whether a text they are considering can be deemed to be literary or not. Often the same methodology is applied in analysing texts, which may resemble each other in many ways, but which must be identified differently. One can imagine, for example, one text which is a short story told in the first person, taking the form of a confession to a murder, and another text which is an actual signed confession by a real murderer. They might be almost identical in language, structure and content. The important difference is, of course, that the reader knows that one is a story and the other a real confession, and judges them accordingly. In the case of the story, the reader might consider whether or not it was realistic or whether or not the character was telling the truth, but would not need to question whether or not it was an authentic document, written by the person named. In the case of the real confession, it would be possible, in principle, to check its truth content against known facts. This would not be possible, nor would it be relevant in the case of the story. The reader thinks this way because he or she knows that the story is a literary text. But how is it obvious that the text has a quality which we call 'literariness'?

It would seem that a definition of 'literariness' should be of urgent concern. Yet the authors of books on literary theory provide no such adequate definition. This is likely to be due to the nature of language as much as to the incompetence of theorists. The lack of a definition, which could be applied to all works regarded as literature, is not necessarily a bad thing. Many of the most useful words, in all languages, are useful precisely because they do not designate something very specific, but identify a range of meanings and related phenomena. Where would we be without such words as 'Love', 'Hate', 'Work', 'Business', and, more pertinently, 'Music', 'Drama', 'Art', etc? All the things which we might group together and to which we might apply one of these words bear family resemblances to each other, but they are also all highly individual. If we had to have words for every single experience, we would not be able to communicate with each other about those experiences. We need words, such as 'literature' and 'literary', indicating such family resemblances, to enable us to communicate information about individual differences to each other. All attempts at defining literature therefore have proved to be only partial and thus of little practical use: the best that has been thought and said; language taken out of context; language organised in a special way which distinguishes it from its other uses; language used to create a fictional world. None of these definitions is close to being adequate or useful, because none of them refers exclusively to literary language (a mentally ill person, for example, can also create a fictional world).

The words 'literature' and 'literary' have also changed their meaning over time. Before about 1800 literature meant all kinds of writing, including history and philosophy, and it is possible to trace the gradual shifts in meaning all the way up to the present. This all leads to an inevitable conclusion: that literature is what a given society at a given time considers it to be. This may not be a very useful conclusion, but it is certainly true, and it is also true of 'Music', 'Drama' and 'Art'. Once you try to apply a specific definition, you find that there are examples of non-literary phenomena to which it applies and literary phenomena to which it does not. Most literature is, of course, fiction but most people would also agree that not all fiction (eg comic books, nursery rhymes, and pornography) is literary. On the other hand travel journals (presumably non-fiction) are considered by many to be literature.

To read literature is therefore to become involved in a conspiracy. A publisher conspires with a writer to publish something the latter has written. The writer swears that he has written the book himself and not stolen the material from another writer (or indeed from police records, if it is our imagined short story). The publisher publishes the work in a series of books identified in a catalogue as literature. Then a critic reads the book and joins the conspiracy by accepting that it is indeed literature. He or she writes a review of it, identifying it as 'good' or 'bad' literature, according to personal experience and values. If he is a good critic, he or she considers qualities of style, structure, use of language, psychological insight, reflection of social issues, plotting and the like. A reader of this review is then prompted to buy the book and finds it shelved under 'Literature' or 'Fiction' in a local bookshop. The blurb confirms the fact that it is a novel. The reader then reads the work, bringing to bear on it ways of thinking learned through education to be appropriate to the reading of a novel. If the work is found to be 'good', it is recommended to a friend. Thus all parties have conspired to confirm the existence of a work of literature.

It was the realisation that what counted as 'literature' and 'good literature' in any given society at any given time was a matter of convention that enabled theorists to consider further how such conventions were established and the possibilities of alternative conventions. It made it possible to consider literature in close comparison with other cultural phenomena and in the light of theories developed to explain them.

Hazard Warnings

With literary interpretation, if anything goes, then nothing comes of it. The more it seems like madness, the more need there is to have method in it. The philosopher Karl Popper coined the very useful concept of 'falsifiability' to refer to a characteristic any theory must have if it is to be considered truly scientific. This concept enables one to identify many fields of study, in addition to those of the natural sciences, as incorporating rigorous criteria for the truth value of their findings. Basically, to be truly scientific, a theory must be 'falsifiable.' That is to say that it must be so formulated that it must be possible to predict under what circumstances it could be proven false. Of course, the flip-side of this is that it must also be possible to present evidence to demonstrate that it is true. A clear example of a pseudo-science, in other words a pseudo-theory, is astrology. It is obviously not possible to prove or disprove the influence of heavenly bodies on the fates of human beings. The fact that astrology is not falsifiable, of course, only encourages many to believe in it! What many do not realise, or will not admit, is that the concept of 'falsifiability' can also be applied to interpretations of literature and theories about literature.

Analysing a work of literature from whatever theoretical perspective also requires rigorous attention to evidence. If, leaving aside the vexed question of whether it is literature or not, one considers possible interpretations of the nursery rhyme about Miss Muffet who memorably sat on a tuffet eating her curds and whey, and who was promptly frightened away by a big spider, then it is possible, in principle, to prove or disprove, by rigorous historical research, the theory that the rhyme reflects the eating habits of poor country people. But it would be considerably more difficult to prove, or disprove, the validity of an interpretation which suggested that the spider symbolised a fear, common among country-girls at some time in the English Middle Ages, of being raped by dark strangers.

In my accounts of each of the theories explained in this book, I shall endeavour to indicate any problems in their application to literature. The sequence is not strictly chronological, although it is partly so. Theories dependent conceptually and logically on earlier ones do appear later in the book (post-structuralism after structuralism, feminism after psychoanalysis etc). As a final warning I would like to remind the reader that the interpretation of literature according to a specific theory can itself be reinterpreted according to another theory ad infinitum. In the words of Professor Morris Zapp in David Lodge's novel Small World, which satirises literary scholars, 'Every decoding is another encoding.'

A note on conventions in the text

When a quotation is identified by the author's name followed by a date and both are enclosed in brackets, this refers to the edition of the author's work included in the bibliography. Where the names of theorists and critics have been used as headings, their dates have been given when possible. When it has not proved possible to trace dates with certainty, they have been omitted.


The Literary Canon and New Criticism

Most books on the development of literary theory in England start with Matthew Arnold, because he ushered in an era in which literature was to be considered by influential critics as the central repository of English culture and values. These critics were to have lasting effects on the ways in which many generations of students perceived the significance of literature. F R Leavis and the poet T S Eliot, above all, established the notion of the existence of a literary canon of undeniably great works of literature. I A Richards, with his focus on close textual analysis, inspired the development of the so-called New Criticism in America.

Matthew Arnold (1822–1888)

Arnold, an educator, poet and professor of poetry at Oxford University, was of the opinion that literature, apart from its pleasing aesthetic qualities, had an educational role in people's lives. He believed that the persistence of English culture was threatened by the growth of Philistine values, which were being encouraged by the rise of a middle class obsessed with material wealth. As he believed that religion had been undermined by Darwin's theory of evolution, he expressed the wish that poetry would take its place in men's hearts. Poetry would interpret life for us all and console us, as indeed it had always done, dating back to antiquity. Arnold famously defined culture as 'the best that has been thought and said in the world' (Culture and Anarchy, 1869). This culture was to be a bulwark against the chaotic life of the working class and the illusions by which middle -class Protestants lived. Through culture it was possible to be free from fanaticism and move towards an existence of sweetness and light. Culture encouraged 'the growth and predominance of our humanity proper, as distinguished from our animality' (ibid).


Excerpted from Literary Theory by David Carter. Copyright © 2006 David Carter. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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Meet the Author

Dr. David Carter has taught at several UK universities and presently teaches at Yonsei University, Seoul. He has published on psychoanalysis, literature, drama, film history and applied linguistics, and is also a freelance journalist and translator. He is the author of the Pocket Essentials volume on Georges Simenon.

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