Why I had trouble with literary theory

I was an English major in school. My reasons for picking the major were pretty obvious — I’m good with language. I love to read, I enjoy writing, and I can do both reasonably well. I love various parts about the major were getting to sit down and read a novel, or a romantic epic, or a poem and call it homework. I loved getting to seriously think about and engage with what I read, and view it from multiple perspectives. I enjoyed the challenge of finding a new way to look at a work. (To me, essays are and always have been prisms through which literature can be viewed — and no piece of literature can be viewed without some prism, some perspective from the viewer.)

When I reached my junior year of college, all of a sudden someone started talking about literary theory. Huh? Here was something new. So, I attempted to delve into neo-historisicm, feminism, deconstruction, etc. To me, they seemed to be pre-fabricated prisms useful for looking at literature. A feminist reading focuses on the role and implications of women in literature. A historicist reading focuses on the culture and background of a work of literature. A deconstructionist view can pretend that the work was written in a vaccuum and read it accordingly. I have reached these conclusions after struggling with the concept for, oh, years.

My problem with literary theory? When I was encountering it, absolutely no one told me what I just told you above. They said it was important. They had huge tomes on it. They worried about whether their majors were getting exposed to it. They argued about which ones were valid. (I was on the English advisory board, on a search committee, and spent a lot of time with the professors, so I was privy.) But when I asked, haltingly, why theory was important. What it meant. Why to study it. Well, absolutely no one had an answer for me, and they looked at me like I was crazy for asking.

It was at this point I realized that not everyone asks why they are doing what they are doing. I was shocked. How could you possible study literature without asking why the study of literature was important and valid? How could you teach literary theory without understanding why it is important — and I don’t just mean because they also teach it in graduate school. I was flummoxed. I can’t do something unless I understand for myself why it is worth doing. Completely acceptable answers are because it is enjoyable, or I love it, or it gives a useful perspective on life. Unacceptable answers include because there is a large group of people also studying it. Well, why are THEY studying it? To get tenure? Then why is it worth tenure?

So to all you still in college, my advice. On the first day of class, ask the teacher to tell you: why the topic you will be studying is important in the world and why they chose to dedicate their lives to it. See if you believe their answers. And then answer that question for yourself.


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