Why You Should Be Reading Literary Theory


It’s dull. It’s academic. It’s pretentious pish-posh. These are some of the stereotypes people associate with literary theory and criticism. Freud is about the only exception to the rule because at least he talks about sex and not the symbolism of the colour of a curtain. But if you’re a serious reader or casual page-turner and you’ve never dipped your index into the theoretical pool, then you’re missing out on a whole spectrum of literature that’ll change the way you read and think. And it’ll only do so for the better.

“If you do not resist the apparently inevitable, you will never know how inevitable the inevitable was”

To put a definition on it, literary theory is the field of study concerned with the principles underlying the analysis and understanding of literary works. It examines what’s behind the immediate contextual meaning of the words contained within the literature.

To Kill a Mockingbird is not about mockingbirds. Trainspotting is not about trains. A Clockwork Orange is not about a clockwork orange. These titles represent larger concepts than what’s touched upon in the immediate story of a novel. We often ask why an author has done this and what it all means if we haven’t puzzled it out for ourselves.

As is Barthes 101, ‘the author is dead’. This idea by the French theorist invites the reader to create interpretations of the text, separate from any authorial intention. In this school of thought, the meaning of a topic or whole novel is whatever a reader thinks it is. Ghosts, nature, colours, race, desire, God, sexuality. If it’s in your book, literary theory has an answer.

“If the masses are not thrown a few novels, they may react by throwing up a few barricades”

Whilst literature can imprint upon, move and change you, literary theory can dismantle it, almost like revealing the “magic” behind the trick. The unravelling of its makeup can be disappointing compared to what you imagined as a tangle of complexity only understood by its author.

Magic enchants young children and they accept its existence without question. Adults don’t walk away from magic shows disappointed it wasn’t “real”. The tricks are satisfying even though they’re not magic. They induce curiosity and make you wonder. Consider the work the magician has done to create that feeling. Studying a work of literature doesn’t ruin the illusion, it enhances your appreciation of it.

Critics in pop culture are infamous for their meanness, but they’re not all like that. Some of the best deconstruct literature without tearing it down. This frees you up as a reader to discover and track themes and techniques throughout a novel. Meaning multiplies from the original contextual sense, allowing you to take more from a novel than you did before. It’s like putting pennies in a jar makes you richer. Why wouldn’t you want to get more bang from your book?

“There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labour of thinking”

You don’t need to know your Foucault from your Farquaad to apply what you learn outside of the pages. Thoughts and ideas pop up when you watch an advert, read the cover of a cereal box, or gaze at a sunset. People, pictures, TV, literature – they’re made of concepts and symbolize an infinite number of things. Life is more interesting when you interpret what’s around you.

If you’re inspired by all the zeal, don’t go willy-nilly into a bookshop and pick up Plato’s complete, unedited works. Literary theory and criticism is an unforgiving genre and can be daunting to delve into. A good starting point is with “introductions to” but you don’t have to start before Christ’s teachings. Modern ideas were born of already established ideas, but they’re not exclusive so it doesn’t always matter what order you read them in. Pick a topic and go for it.

Suggested reading:

1. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory by Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle. First published in the ’60s, its 38 chapters are in the episodic style of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. Revised five times, it includes modern concepts and examples like “voice”, “mutant” and “comedy”. Suggested readings are at the end of each chapter for whatever takes your fancy.

2. The Art of Fiction by David Lodge. First written as a weekly column for the Independent on Sunday, Lodge dissects 50 topics with close-readings of great novels. The topics range from “lists” using F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work to “the exotic” with Graham Greene. The order doesn’t matter, so peruse at your own pace.

3. How Fiction Works by James Wood. Wood’s treatment of the novel provides a more focused examination on essentials like “language”, “character”, “and form”. Although a more challenging introduction, Wood explains with wit, charm and is something of a genius.

Words by T.J. Davies

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