When you hear the word 'theory,' your mind probably darts to the sciences - the theory of relativity, the theory of gravity, etc. Did you know that literature, too, is full of theory? Check out this lesson to get a basic primer on just what literary theory is, and how you might apply it.
So we're going to be talking about literary criticism, which means it is time for the non-fiction glasses because things are getting serious. This is like the 'eating your vegetables' section of the English literature course. They're good for you - pay attention!
When we hear the word 'criticism,' you probably think of somebody telling you that you did a bad job at something. Like someone's giving you 'constructive criticism,' but they give you a sentence like, 'You chose a good font, but your writing is crap.' That's people's version of constructive criticism, and it's annoying. But if you're told to think of criticism in a more artistic sense, your minds might leap over to someone like Roger Ebert, famous movie critic. His job basically amounts to giving movies a thumbs up or a thumbs down. If you think about it in that way, criticism starts to seem pretty secondary to art itself - it's about art. It's in response to art. And in many cases it is. In many cases the kind of criticism that we're exposed to is like that.
What we call 'critics,' in general, are probably more accurately described as 'reviewers.' Particularly in literature, this impulse to review things (because everyone has an opinion and they want to share it) actually starts to develop into a genre all its own called 'criticism,' which actually starts to have as much of an influence on art as art has on it. It kind of becomes its own monster, in a way. I think the food reviewer in the Pixar movie Ratatouille gives a surprisingly nuanced take of criticism's role in art. I'm actually going to read that to you because I love that movie and I think this is such a good speech (bear in mind, he's writing this review after being fed a meal prepared by a rat):
'We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.'
Just kind of let that marinate a bit. It's no accident that the genre of literary criticism starts to evolve alongside movements like Modernism, in the early 20th century avant garde work, which was kind of self-consciously about making things new. That's Ezra Pound's famous statement about Modernism - 'Make it new.' If criticism becomes important in the defense of the new, we can see how those would evolve alongside each other. The New Criticism (it actually is called that - New Criticism is what they call themselves at that point) isn't just about saying thumbs up or thumbs down.
More purely stated, criticism is interpretation. You look at a text and argue about what you think it means, what you think its themes are, and what you think about its philosophical arguments it puts forth. They also try to understand how a text does what it does - how it makes you feel a certain way or how it describes whatever it describes. In the 20th century, literary theory has developed into a system all its own for doing this. There's a bunch of different branches of theory that all have different ways of approaching texts and making arguments about them. Criticism has been around in one form or another since Ancient Greece because, like I said before, we love to tell people what we think of stuff.
As you might expect, literary theory covers a pretty broad spectrum of thought. You might remember the idea that in certain classic texts 'everyone can have their own interpretation' - that's sort of an old standby about that. This is true in one sense. You probably encountered this in English class and it annoyed you - this idea that this book can mean anything. How could the author possibly have meant all of these things to be in here? Literary theory is devoted to, in a way, figuring out how to do this systematically in a way that it's not just random. You can't say anything about a text, but if you can back it up in certain ways, then you can say what you want. It doesn't necessarily have to be there, but you can argue for it. That's essentially what criticism is trying to do. There are a bunch of different schools of thought to do this, but there's a few general points we can make about theory.
- Like we said before, let me say it again: criticism does not imply a value judgment. That's really important. It's not saying thumbs up or thumbs down. If someone tells you to read a critique of something, it might be a review - they might say it's good or it's bad or it's successful or unsuccessful - but it's probably more likely that it will be a little bit more investigative. It's going to look at the text, why it does things and how it does things. We're not just asking, 'Does it function?' We're asking, 'How does it function?' Why does it do what it does?
- The history of literary theory is pretty intertwined with philosophy, especially European Continental philosophy of the last couple centuries. A lot of that discipline's key thinkers - names you might recognize like Nietzsche, Sartre, Marx - have contributed to literary theory a lot. It makes sense because they're analyzing life and how we live it; books are metaphors for life, in a way, and so it makes sense that there would be overlap there.
- Though some people might disagree, prevailing thought about this is that literary theory isn't just confined to books. Most people tend to argue that all things in the world can be 'read' and examined as a text. So you can do novels, plays - familiar stuff like that. You can do rock & roll records, historical events, and maybe other people. In some cases, like with psychoanalytic theory, it actually goes the other way - we were analyzing people, and now we start using those techniques to analyze books. In short, the deep, thorough analysis that's so necessary for literary theory can actually be applied anywhere. (Maybe not to a subway sign... but maybe! Someone's probably done it.) That's kind of the rule of literary theory - if you can think of an idea, probably someone's done it, which is endlessly frustrating if you're trying to come up with something new.
Major Types of Literary Theory
So now we're going to go through major types of literary theory. You can shorthand call them 'the -isms' because they're all -isms, I think, most of them. If you study literary theory in an academic setting, you'll likely run into some of these or all of them that we're going to cover. So you're going to want a basic knowledge at least - what they are and who the dudes associated with them are. We're just going to run right through them.
We've got formalism, which is kind of the big daddy of modern criticism. Formalism develops in Russia in the early 20th century. A huge name associated with this is Mikhail Bakhtin - that's kind of the guy. It comes in direct opposition to the Romantic idea and Romantic schools of thought, which places value on the genius of the artist and the creator. Formalists basically seek to totally deny this value. They don't care about the creator. They want to throw all of their attention on to the text itself. This interpretive shift, new in the history of literary criticism - that we just want to say, 'Eh, I don't care about the author' - basically paves the way for the development of modern theory in general. Not everyone still agrees with this, but it kinds of allows the development of theory as it goes.
That's also true of New Criticism, which is happening in England and America a bit later, but it shares a lot of the basic ideas. New Criticism - a big buzzword associated with that is 'close reading,' which is essentially looking at a book - not reading it really close to your face - but looking at a book and picking out details and examining these things in isolation in the text and, again, ignoring the author. These two dudes William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley are important guys for that. They write this famous article called 'The Intentional Fallacy' - the 'intentional' refers to the author's intention. What they're basically saying is that whatever the author meant to do does not matter. You can say whatever you want as long as it's in the text and you can back it up.
If you've ever been sitting in English class and thinking, 'Oh my god, he can't possibly have meant yellow or trees or canker sores or squirrels to symbolize whatever my teacher is saying it symbolizes' - no, the author might not have meant it to do that (although some were pretty good about being specific about what things meant. Like if you ever read anything by Vladimir Nabokov, who's the Lolita guy, he is amazing in terms of what he has planned out), but, yeah, your teacher might be talking about something that the author didn't intend. The author might not have meant squirrels to symbolize death, but if you can make an argument for a pattern being there, you can say it! You can say that it means that. It doesn't matter what the author meant. Like I said before with formalism, it sort of gives the critics free reign to talk about anything they want because the author is taken out of it. The importance of the author is now questioned, and it lets you say whatever you want.
Now we get to deconstructionism, which is associated with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. He created this term 'deconstruction' to describe what he thought should be the primary endeavor of literary theorists. If the word sounds confusing, do not worry because Derrida himself admits that deconstruction is difficult to explain, and all of his essays were trying to explain it. We read him in translation because he wrote in French, so all of his weird, vague, French stuff becomes almost incomprehensible in English (in my personal opinion). But we'll give it a go in a paragraph or so.
Deconstruction is the idea that all texts contain inherent contradictions. What does this mean? It basically means that to Derrida, and to other people who thought like him, all things - including words - only have meaning in relation, or opposition, to other things. So concepts are defined by their opposites. 'Truth' doesn't inherently mean anything - the word 'truth,' the sounds that are coming out of my mouth. But it enters a language system in which it refers to other things and distances or aligns itself with other things. So 'truth' becomes 'not false' or 'not trivial,' but then of course, what do 'false' and 'trivial' mean? So it goes on, and you're never really able to get to something that has meaning on its own.
Deconstruction aims to examine these key points in a text where we can see these oppositions really tugging at each other. We can see the system breaking down or acting particularly strongly. The system of building meaning off of oppositions is basically what we're getting at. Some followers of Derrida go on to explain this idea in a bit more friendly terms; one of the things his disciples would say is deconstruction looks at the accidental elements of a text, the things that disturb the tranquility of a text, or attempt to uncover the questions behind a text.
Deconstructionism is associated with French philosopher Jacques Derrida.
That still might leave questions in your mind - how can a text have anything accidental about it? The author wrote it all - why would he make something that's an accident? Doesn't make any sense. That's really one of the key questions of literary theory in general. And in this case, what they mean by it is just the stuff that doesn't seem central to the meaning. Like we were saying before, if we're going to remove authorial intent, if we're not going to care what the author wanted to do, then a work of art can mean much more than the creator wanted it to mean. Derrida and other theorists believe that texts will invariably take on disparate, contradictory elements by virtue of just existing in the world. The author might have meant it to do something, but, say he wanted to describe a scene and he sets it in a cafe, and the way he describes the cafe inadvertently undermines the meaning of the scene. That's one of the things that a deconstructionist would look at and try to figure out what's going on there and why are there these oppositional things.
Now we're going into postmodernism. The focus in deconstruction on contradictions or unexplained textual phenomena is a key aspect of one of the prevailing schools of late-20th century thought. Postmodernism really takes this up. It's sort of summarized as a study of differences. It kind of is an umbrella term for a lot of things. Remember how deconstruction had to do with pulling apart contrasting forces - that is part of postmodernism. Postmodernism, again, is a term that covers a bunch of stuff. A key landmark in postmodern thought is the questioning of objective knowledge - so, again, how much does the author have final say over his text? No one person can have final say over interpreting the world around us.
Another key thing in postmodernism that comes out of this is examining the role of the Other, or the socially marginalized individual. This coincides, not coincidentally, with a sense of splintering in the idea of the literary canon. The literary canon is just what we think you should read, from Shakespeare on, of things that you ought to read. Rather than just be a bunch of books written by dead white men, which is what it was for a long time, people start looking at it more like, maybe we should start highlighting more traditionally marginalized literature - literature by women or by people of color - kind of diversifying the body of literature. That's associated with postmodern thought. This shift in thinking about stuff gives rise to lots of different branches of criticism.
Feminist theory, which I mentioned in marginalized literature - literature by women - we want to pay attention to that. Feminist theory is all about this. It seeks to examine literature through the lens of gender relations and, kind of inherently, through the inequality of those gender relations. Feminist theorists might look at Homer's Odyssey and examine the marginalized or vilified role of women in that. The ultimate goal of this is to bring to light the female voice in the history of literature. So they also might look at under-appreciated female authors or also at ways in which the female body becomes a space for ideas to play out, as it often does in works where women are just objects for the men to look at.
Very similarly, we have queer theory, which is kind of the same idea as feminist theory, except with an eye more towards the LGBT presence. Queer theorists might look at how Hollywood films portray and subvert stereotypically masculine images. You might look at the latently homosexual leading man played by Tom Cruise in Top Gun (you should watch that movie again if you don't know what I'm talking about). They also might look at poets, like Gerard Manley Hopkins, who writes a lot about God but in a sort of a homoerotic way. We're sort of bringing out the queer voice in the same way that we brought out the female voice.
Hugely associated with both queer theory and feminist theory is a woman named Judith Butler, who has a famous book called Gender Trouble that argues that even though we tend to view sex, gender, and sexual preference as linked together naturally, they're not at all, is what she's arguing. They're all essentially performances of identity, and that's the thesis of her book. That's also what feminist theory and queer theory tend to be like in the arguments that they make.
Next we've got Marxist theory, which might sound familiar, and you might think, 'Oh, communism, what?' Basically, Marxist theorists analyze texts through the lens of class relations. It's named after Karl Marx, the famous theorizer of socialism. He was all about the rise of the proletariat, or the working class, against the bourgeois. So Marxist theorists are interested in how current texts and historical texts reflect the social conditions in which they were produced. They might look at portrayals of class, race, or gender. They might look at anything in terms of social condition, like a Bruce Springsteen song might be rich in Marxist theory potential or a Dickens novel about orphans - anything that reflects social condition.
Finally, the last thing we're going to talk about is post-colonialism, which you might also have a guess at what that is. Post-colonial theorists really dive into this idea of 'the Other,' but in a geographic or cultural sense. They look at how nations, like Great Britain in the height of the British Empire, exert dominance over others by colonizing them either culturally or physically, like by going and taking over their land.
A key text in the post-colonial canon is Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre where there's this insane 'savage' wife in the attic who's from Jamaica. She's living up there, and she's crazy. She gets in the way of Jane trying to marry Mr. Rochester. Critics have a field day analyzing the cultural implications of this woman, who is this colonized being, essentially. Jean Rhys, who's a writer in the 60's or so, wrote a whole book from the madwoman's (Bertha Mason is her name) perspective - her back story in Jamaica. It's called Wide Sargasso Sea. It's almost like a novel that is a work of criticism on Jane Eyre that's in the post-colonial vein.
You also might look at Heart of Darkness, and look at portrayals of natives versus English people and how that all plays out. Big name with it is Edward Said, who wrote a book called Orientalism (you can probably guess what that's about). It's sort of saying that as we study Islamic society (is what he's talking about, but you might be able to extend this to other things), we do so in such a way that affirms our ideas about the West; so that even as we study the Other, we're still being Euro-centric. There's a lot of subtle workings-around in these kinds of criticism - are we still being Euro-centric? Are we really being not? It's often hard to figure out.
That's a big crash course run-down of a bunch of different schools of literary theory. There's a whole mess of them. There's even more that I didn't talk about, but I'm sure you probably want me to stop at this point. We looked at how the schools of thought examine texts based on things that they consider really important: Marxists take a look at class relations and feminists at marginalized gender roles.
No one theory can encompass a text fully - that's a really important thing to keep in mind. You don't want to embrace one and not look at any others. You want to approach a text from multiple perspectives. Not all texts call for all types of reading, like Jane Eyre lends itself well to post-colonial analysis and maybe not so much to deconstruction, but you could still try both. The idea that the author's intent shouldn't be paramount - it shouldn't matter so much - that's really important. That gets going in Russian formalism and New Criticism, and it paves the way for us being able to say whatever we want about books. It develops into postmodern critics, which look at inherent differences in texts and the marginalized Other and all these things that the author maybe doesn't intend to be there, but that are there and that we can look at.
So, if you want a good 'in' to looking at texts from this postmodern perspective, an easy way to do it is to look at a book and say, 'Where does conflict exist here? What's weird? What doesn't match up? What sticks out?' For any of these things, that's a good way to get going and looking at texts and starting to think of what your theoretical perspective on it is.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Differentiate between 'criticism' and 'review,' and explain what criticism means in terms of literary theory
- Identify and summarize the major types of literary theory
- Name and describe the literary theories that focus on the role of 'the Other'