Literary Theory

Posted: January 8, 2014 in Literary Criticism
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Welcome to StreetWraith Press.

For all the writers who have submitted work to us and patiently waited, I want to say thank you. StreetWraith Press is now live. This week, we’re getting the basic content activated: the links and information, etc. Starting next week will be the first of our podcast discussions and reviews. Now, in the splash page, we talked about a monthly article and podcast. As we put the site together, this idea morphed. We decided rather than have a site that only updated on a monthly basis, we would have a site that would update on a weekly basis.

What does this mean to you?

Hopefully, it means you will enjoy the site more and visit often. Each week will feature a short article about a self-published work. This article will explore the literary aspect of the work and offer an in-depth analysis based on literary theories. What theory is used depends on the work. Each book will have a way it wants to be interpreted, dependent on what is happening under the surface. That desire to be interpreted will speak to the theory that we use in analyzing the work.

We will also have a weekly podcast. Initially, we had intended to talk about several works in the podcast, grouping them by a common theme. As we considered the content of the podcasts, however, this changed as well. Now, each podcast will include one work we discuss or one author we interview. This gives us more time to focus on a work and gives us more works we are highlighting each week. I don’t want to talk much about the podcasts here. I had something else I wanted to talk about, but I have rambled on.

What did I want to talk about?

Literary theory. I thought that would be a good week-one discussion, since it is going to be integral to the reviews we feature on the website. I love literary theory, though I favor some schools over others. I wanted to give a brief overview of the ones we’ll most commonly use on the website when discussing works. If you want more information, Purdue has a great resource. It is also the reference for this article. And yes, there will be a topic on the discussion boards as well. Do you have a theory you favor? Do you have certain views about archetypes? Were you scarred by your Literary Criticism course in college? We’d love to talk about it.

What is Literary Theory?

Simply put, Literary Theory is a collection of ideas that form a lens we use when discussing literary works. More or less, the term is used interchangeably with Literary Criticism. The technical reason for this is because the subtleties are so slight and the disciplines intermingle and – we do it because we’re lazy. We also do it based on how we’re approaching the discussion. If I’m talking about the work, it’s Literary Criticism. If I’m talking about the len itself, it’s Literary Theory. Even that line gets blurred, hence my personal feeling on the matter: it’s laziness.

Schools of Literary Theory

Moral Criticism and Dramatic Construction

Moral Criticism follows the ideas of Plato, who believed that any art was just a reflection of nature. Because it was a replica of the world that it presented, if art did not teach a moral lesson, it was harmful to its audience. This idea of a story as a moral teacher has endured through centuries. It is why Jesus taught in parables. It is why we desire children’s television shows to have substance, a lesson. We want to absorb things from our stories.

Aristotle differed from his teacher. To him, art is not merely a way to convey a lesson. For Aristotle, art was a way to create something pleasurable for the audience. To that end, he developed his elements, which we teach now as Dramatic Construction, as a way for the author to convey the pleasure of a work to the audience. These elements are still familiar to us today: language, character, diction, and spectacle are a few examples. Chances are, if you enjoy a story it is because the author made very good use of one more of Aristotle’s elements.

Formalism
Like Aristotle, the Formalists hold that there are intrinsic features of a work that make it good or bad, they just disagree with some of the elements. Formalism’s primary goal is to look at a work as a distinct piece of art, free from its author, era, audience, and environment. The story truly is its world, and its interpretation is found only within. So, for the formalist, there are no moral and ethical lessons in a work to be conveyed to a reader. The artist is not speaking of the ills of his time. None of these things make a work great. What makes a work great is how its imagery and symbolism work within itself. A work is great if it comments upon itself. Form is important and a work, to be great, must truly stand-alone. It is a tough discipline to study and due to its disconnect from the world around a work, it isn’t used very much today. It has elements that are still used, primarily in New Criticism, which still holds to the idea that any text should hold the keys to understanding it.

Psychoanalytic Criticism
Psychoanalytic criticism applies the theories of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to literature. Critics examine a work looking for the interplay of the id, ego, and superego. They also compare relationships in a story, especially familial relationships or ones that suggest paternal/maternal instincts or mentor/protégé relationships with Freud’s Oedipus complex. They also examine a story’s archetypes using Jung’s Mask, Shadow, Anima, and Animus as well as the archetypal figures, Great Mother, nurturing Mother, Whore, Crone, Lover, and Destroying Angel. Psychoanalytics also discusses the mythic cycle and the hero’s journey.

Marxist Criticism
As the name suggests, Marxist criticism examines a work on ideas based on Karl Marx’s theories. In this school of criticism, a work is examined in light of class differences and the implications it presents of the capitalist system. The questions that this school is most concerned with are who the work benefits, the material dialectic, the idea that change is driven by material realities, and the conflict between classes or groups that lead to revolution.

Reader-Response Criticism
Reader-response criticism examines the reader’s reaction to a work and considers this reaction vital to a work’s interpretation. It does not matter if the author intends for a work to explore the depths of communism and its transformative effect on individuality. It matters that the reader interprets the work this way. If the reader interprets the work differently, then that is where the meaning is found. While it would seem that this school would focus on the reader’s emotional response to the story, that is actually secondary. Reader-response criticism tends to consider the reader’s interpretation from the lens of other schools. It may consider the reader’s emotional response based on what the reader perceives of the work’s dramatic construction. It may consider the reader’s psychological response to a story. The most important aspect to this critical school is that the reader takes the central role in interpretation, displacing the author all together.

Structuralism and Semiotics
Structuralists are concerned with theories of linguistics that apply symbols to human language. These symbols reach beyond spoken language, however, extending into everything we do. For the structuralist, a musical performance is a display of complex patterns with meaning. Our economic structures, our architecture, the actions we take, all of these occur in patterns and convey meaning. Semiotics grew from structuralism, examining further what non-linguistic objects signify in a work. It is not just a study of the symbols, but creating a kind of linguistic structure for the symbols.

Postmodern Criticism and Deconstruction
Postmodern criticism concerns itself with the ideas of post-structuralism: how systems, frameworks, and definitions begin to break down. The idea behind post-structuralism is that fictitious constructions (literature) cannot be trusted to develop meaning or order. They are fiction, falsehoods, so they cannot contain absolute Truth. There are, in fact, many truths and many ways to interpret a single work. Out of postmodernism and post-structural theory comes deconstruction, the idea that language itself is untrustworthy. In deconstructionism, language patterns are broken down and distorted, sometimes using binary opposition (exchanging male for female in a text), sometimes exchanging roles of words in a text (switching the roles of nouns and verbs in a sentence to change meaning). The purpose of deconstruction and more broadly post-structural criticism is not to merely break down a work into meaningless jumbles, but to explore meaning in the in-betweens as structures are broken down.

New Historian and Cultural Studies
From the disorder of post-structuralism comes the new historian and cultural studies theories. These two schools hold that meaning is relative to the greater context that a work lies within. The new historian assumes that a work is the product of its moment in history. This idea is the essence of the examination of meaning behind dystopian and utopian works. Cultural studies combines multiple disciplines, such as feminism, social theory, and political theory, to interpret the meaning of a work.

Post-Colonial Criticism
Post-colonial criticism focuses on works produced by colonial powers or by those who are or were colonialized. They look at issues of power, economics, and the impact of colonialism on culture. These works may criticize colonial powers from the inside or from the outside. They may also support those ideas. Post-colonial works make up a large portion of literary canon. For the post-colonial critic, the examination of these works is the examination of the society. This is not a dying discipline, as we can still see today western powers entangling themselves in Africa and the Middle East.

Feminist Criticism
Feminist theory is concerned with how literature reinforces or undermines the suppression of women. This theory examines the role of women in literary works, the expression of female authors, and the interpretation by male and female readers. Feminist criticism also looks for less obvious marginalization of women, including under-representation of women authors in literary canon.

Gender Studies and Queer Theory
Gender studies spawns from feminist criticism and further explores the issues of sexuality, power, and marginalized populations. Where feminism will examine the roles of women in a work, gender studies will look at the feminization of male characters. Queer theory forms from this school as both examine the roles of gender and sexuality. Deconstruction reappears in these theories as binary oppositions involving male/female symbols and archetypes are examined.

So, that takes care of the basic overview of Literary Theory. These theories will form the basis of the articles you will read here. They are also why the focus isn’t really on the emotional reaction to a work. There is not room. Even reader-response criticism is not as concerned with whether or not a reader “liked” a book as it is how a reader interacted with the story. Besides, revealing the emotional reaction to a work has the potential to taint your opinion of the review. If I start out by telling you that I read a work and disliked it, what are you going to think of my analysis of the oedipal relationship in the story? If I begin my review by gushing over the book, what will you think of my discussion of Jungian archetypes or the story’s dramatic construction? By expressing my emotional reaction to the story, I harm my ethos.

Besides, you’ll get those kinds of opinions elsewhere. Nick will likely share his own opinions of a story in the podcast. Guest reviewers on the site may do the same as well. You can always listen to StreetWraith’s “Five Minutes of Hate”. Be careful, though, how you react to the opinions shared, honest or satirical. Too often books are overlooked because of an opinion being expressed such as “I hated this book” or “this book is dreadful,” and I have subjected myself to very unpleasant reads because others gushed over a book. Remember, every book has a reader. If someone here expresses an opinion that they disliked the work, that doesn’t mean you won’t like it. And that doesn’t mean that the work doesn’t have literary significance. Read a book. Expand beyond your enjoyment zone.

My own example of this: Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I hate that book. No. I don’t hate it. I despise it. From beginning to end, I hated reading that book. I hated every grueling minute of it. I don’t know if there is anyone on this earth that shares that opinion. On Goodreads, the book averages 4 1/2 stars. I rated it one. My dislike of the book centers on the narrator, whom we never learn the name of, and how she treats herself throughout the book. The reason for my dislike, however, is also what makes Rebecca a powerful book. The treatment of the narrator by herself and those around her is part of an important discussion about the role and place of women. Its themes still resonate today. If you just took my opinion of the book as gospel, you may never read it, and you would be missing out on something powerf.

Besides, everyone should be as tortured as I was.

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