“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How you mean, "Wrong"?

The conventional wisdom is that when someone claims a reading of a piece of literature is wrong what is meant is that it goes against the claimants own reading. The reading isn't wrong per se; it's just a case of clashing theories. Really though, it's remarkable how much room there is for competing theories when it comes to what a text means--they aren't really competing at all. Instead, it's like a utopia for theories. They are all safe from everything save the fickleness of fashion.

Terry Eagleton, in his book Literary Theory, responds to the complaint that theories get in the way of reading, creating a barricade between the readers and the text, by pointing out the all readings are based on some theory, though it may perhaps be implicit.

But there are people out there who have never been trained to apply Freudian psychoanalysis to a text, or feminist theories, or poststructuralism, or new historicism. Granted, the number of readers who have only passing awareness of these theories but who nonetheless have the education and comprehension to appreciate great works of literature is somewhat smaller than the audience for Tom Clancy or Nicolas Sparks books. But I believe they're out there--primarily because, until recently I was one of them. (Though I had applied Freud's theories to stories before, I gladly fell out of the habit.)

I propose as a definition for a wrong theory of literature, or a wrong reading of a particular work, the following: the reading provided by a theory is wrong if no one not conversant with the theory would experience the work, at any level of consciousness, in the way spelled out by the critic suggesting that reading. And a literary theory is wrong if the readings it inspires are wrong.

5 comments:

caynazzo said...

Dennis: "I propose as a definition for a wrong theory of literature, or a wrong reading of a particular work, the following: the reading provided by a theory is wrong if no one not conversant with the theory would experience the work, at any level of consciousness, in the way spelled out by the critic suggesting that reading."

I must be missing something, because it sounds almost like saying knowledge plays no role in aesthetics. One might need their consciousness expanded to fully appreciate all the possible ways to interpret a piece of work.

Dennis said...

By no means am I discounting knowledge. I am definitely and unequivocally discounting theories of the type I describe as wrong. For instance, a theory could successfully account for how readers experience a work of fiction. But if the theories refer to mental processes or arcane meanings that no one who doesn't know the theory would experience or notice then all that's going on is confirmation bias.

Knowledge is a different topic. And this bears on New Historicism and Culture Studies criticism. I believe these schools, insofar as they eschew other, invalid theories, can be very useful. They function like essay-length footnotes. I maintain, however, that once one of these critics starts arguing that the footnotes are more important than the actual piece of literature, they're wrong.

Dennis said...

One exception to my definition would, I suppose, be if the author was consciously applying a theory to the work. Then a critic interpreting that work according to the same theory wouldn't be wrong.
Of course, if the theory the author is applying is wrong, the work won't be any good.

caynazzo said...

Dennis: "They function like essay-length footnotes."

I completely agree.

I'm still unclear on your take on how one judges a theory's success.

Dennis said...

I'll have to post more on how a successful theory would work. It's a topic definitely worth exploring further.

Briefly, we know, for instance, Lacan's theory is wrong--despite it's "successful" application to numerous works--because it finds hidden meanings no one who isn't familiar with Lacan's theories would ever find or respond to on any level of consciousness.

William Flesch's theory of Social Monitoring and Volunteered Affect, on the other hand, suggest that people respond to fictional characters pretty much the same way they respond to real people. And he cites evidence that what goes on in our minds as we're reading or watching fiction isn't fundamentally different from what goes on in real interactions. This describes responses we actually have and therefore the theory, until proven otherwise, is probably right. Insights inspired by it are infinitely more useful than those imposed by Lacanian theories.