What is Literary Theory?

Professor Andrew Bennett, University of Bristol, on 21 November 2000

Over the last twenty to thirty years, the study and teaching of literature in universities has been transformed by the impact of post-modern or post-structuralist literary theory. While such traditional procedures as the close reading of novels, poems and plays, the editing of texts and the biographical study of writers continue, at the same time many of the fundamental preconceptions about literary texts, authors, and the relationship between texts, language, history and subjectivity which ground these approaches have been challenged. The critical movements of feminist criticism, new historicism, cultural materialism, post-structuralist psycho-analysis, post-colonialist theory and queer theory have brought to the fore issues of gender and sexuality, racial and ethnic identity, the `construction' of the autonomous subject, and history. Despite the differences between each of these theoretical schools, they are unified in their questioning of received wisdom concerning fundamental categories such as the human, sexuality and even language itself. The academic study and teaching of literature has been - and to some extent still is - gripped by what have been called the `theory wars' and has for some time now been in a state of what many think of as a crisis.

Andrew Bennett addressed these issues in terms of four key topics in literature and literary criticism - the role and status of the author, the nature of the literary canon, the relationship between literature and history, and the issue of race. In the first place, he explored ways in which literary theory has questioned the conventional idea of the author as origin of the literary work, guarantor of its uniqueness and gatekeeper to its ultimate hidden meanings. In conventional literary criticism, Bennett suggested, the author is a bit like God. He or she moves in mysterious ways and performs wonders. He or she is all-knowing and all-powerful, exerting control over every aspect of his or her creation and acting as the ultimate arbiter as well as the ultimate origin of the literary work. Knowing what a literary work means involves knowing what the author means by it. Literary theory, Bennett suggested, challenges every aspect of this approach to the question of the role and status of the author. In particular, theory suggests that the author is always, necessarily and profoundly absent from the text. Such an approach `decanters' the text, disengaging it from the perhaps illusory notion that it is determined in every way by the controlling consciousness of the author and opens it up to alternative readings which eschew the limits of an interpretation concerned only with the goal of `discovering' what the author `really meant'.

Alongside a rethinking of the role of the author, one of post-structuralism's most decisive and iconoclastic interventions has been in relation to the question of the literary canon - to put it simply, the question of who gets read and who gets valued. Critics have explored ways in which canon-formation is bound up with questions of education, class, economics, race, ethnicity, colonisation, sexual and gender difference, and so on. This has led to a large-scale reassessment of both the canon itself and of how canons are constructed. Post-structuralists suggest that literary value-judgements don't just happen and emphasise the way in which they are subject to social, political and institutional constraints. Alongside more general challenges to Western society's image of itself as ethnically and culturally homogeneous and alongside the emergence of multiculturalism as an educational and social norm, post-structuralist critics have devoted much energy in recent years to discovering or rediscovering neglected women writers and writers from different racial and ethnic backgrounds in order to re-think the predominantly white, predominantly male literary canon.

One of the major changes in emphasis in literary criticism of the last thirty years has been to do with a rethinking of the role of history - both in terms of literary history itself and in terms of the place of history in the study of literary texts. While critics concerned with the relationship between literary texts and their historical contexts tended to describe and analyse them precisely in terms of the text on the one side and the historical `background' on the other, new historicist critics argue that history is textual and reject the idea of literary texts as `autonomous': literary texts, they argue, are embedded within the social and economic circumstances in which they are produced and consumed while history is itself open to the kind of interpretation usually reserved for literary texts. Just as the formation of the canon is bound up with issues of class, economics, racial and sexual difference, so post-structuralist interpretations of literary texts emphasise such issues and redefine the `meanings' of such texts in terms of these discourses.

Bennett closed his talk by taking Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre as an example of a text which has been subject to significant rereadings by post-structuralist critics, particularly with regard to the issue of racial difference. He suggested that in recent years critical attention had turned to the way in which the novel engages with race on a number of different levels, centred as it is around a racially `other' madwoman, Bertha (a Creole from the Caribbean), and a white, English heroine who finally inherits a fortune made in the slave-driven economy of the Caribbean. Rather than expressing these issues directly, Bennett argued, the text represses them and engages with racial difference and slavery in, for example, the apparently trivial discourse of the flirtation and courtship of Jane and Rochester. Post-structuralists read such seemingly unimportant details as a kind of textual unconscious: for post-structuralist critics, it is precisely that which is presented as an irrelevant detail - the marginal, the excluded, the decentered, the repressed or forgotten - which is significant.

Andrew Bennett


The discussion revolved around the controversy as to, whether modern literary criticism was a new subject with its own jargon to enhance literary criticism at the expense of the author, or a revised analysis of what text actually represents in view of psychology and other influences.

Answering members questions, the speaker inferred that in the modern literary critics world, there was no room for authorial intrusion, his/her conscious motivation, or aesthetics, and above all, closure of meaning.

One member pointed out that the turn of the 20th century had been marked by the discovery of the self on an unprecedented scale, as exemplified by Joyce, Kafka and D.H.Lawrence. And since this self was ambiguous and not subject to closure, nor were its medias of expression.

Another member added that this also applied to historical reporting, subject to opinion and uncertain veracity.

Another member stated the purpose of Philosophical writing was not to create literature but to aid in its interpretation of the Author-God by hermeneutics.

The speaker would not be drawn on the important effect of feminism on the previously- suppressed "feminine" text, although he did suggest it should be read differently. Some members felt that the overt feminine text of today, was as matriarchal and anthropocentric as the patriarchal text of the past.

Summing up the convenor quoted Jean Rhys 1959.

"Sometimes I long for an entirely new way of writing, new words new everything, sometimes I am almost there."- and suggested as had others, that although modern literary criticism posed fascinating new concepts, which enhanced perception of the text; they were actually illuminating the monumental changes that had occurred in the arts and psychology at the commencement of the 20th century.

Peter Valentine