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What’s your theory?

AD Jameson commented recently that, upon encountering the literary theory of William Gass, fiction itself was opened up to him in a way it hadn’t been before. In other words, Gass’s thoughts about literature directly changed Jameson’s work. This made me wonder how many of us have had this experience, or something like it, and it also made me wonder whether, among those who haven’t had an analogous experience, there is a sense that something is lacking.

Do you have a theory of literature? Do you adhere to one? If so, was it (whether yours or one you’ve adopted) derived from the organic act of writing, or was it rather devised in the abstract, only then to be adhered to in praxis? Do you feel one ought to have or abide by a theory?

If you do not have a theory, why not?  Is theory, finally, just something to occupy one’s mind while doing “the important work” of writing fiction/poetry/etc? Or is it more vital, a necessary component to establishing, maintaining or unsettling writerly convention? Where would we be without it?

20 thoughts on “What’s your theory?

  1. “I have no claim.”

    I have no theory. My relationship towards literature and writing is pretty consistent with my relationship towards life. I take a little from here, a little from there, cull, have this experience, review that one, reread this, rethink this. I’m an eco-Heraclitian.

    WS Merwin used this quote by Heraclitus in the beginning of his book The Lice, 1967.

    “All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.”

    This spoke to me when I found it and it continues to speak to me everyday.

    1. Would you say your writing is any less consistent for having no (consciously) consistent structure guiding your practice? Also, do you think your writing specifically benefits from being free of prescriptive theory?

      1. I don’t think it’s less consistent, but less consistent than what? It’s a judgement call, right?

        Surely for me, my writing benefits from being free of theory because I’m the one writing. Otherwise I wouldn’t write. I don’t mean to sound coy. I don’t really know how to adhere in the world of writing. I’m by no means a maverick but maybe that’s the best analogy. Wandering around, looking for something. A loose steer.

  2. I feel as though I didn’t understand how to write narrative fiction until I read Viktor Shklovsky’s THEORY OF PROSE (1925, finally translated into English in 1990). There are so many valuable lessons about narration, plot, and character in that book!

    For instance, Shklovsky looks at Sherlock Holmes stories and observes that Holmes is such a great detective, he can solve any mystery—and usually does so very quickly. Every Holmes story begins with someone showing up at 221B Baker Street, and Holmes right away deduces numerous things about them. So he’s insightful and quick.

    But then Holmes takes forever to solve the real mystery central to the story. In fact, he often makes a lot of mistakes along the way, not grasping the real solution until the very last page.

    So Shklovsky asks: What’s up with that? Why doesn’t Holmes solve the big mystery right away?

    His solution is amazingly insightful, and so Shklovskian: Because if Holmes solved the mystery on the first page, then there wouldn’t be any story!

    And so the art of writing a mystery story (or mystery novel) is to present the mystery on the first page (or close to the start), then not have your detective solve it until the last page. In between, the author is free to do anything other than reveal the mystery’s solution. (The Harry Potter novels work the exact same way.)

    This will be obvious to some, but I was a slow student. Once Shklovsky redefined narrative to me in terms of how it reveals and conceals information, I was enlightened. (Not that I can successfully employ these lessons, mind you!)

    1. What did you write before this revelation? (I’m just wondering what’s being opposed to narrative fiction.)

    1. Very cogent, thank you!

      So let me ask you, personally, (not to speak for Gass or Shklovsky): if art fulfills a primary goal by being irreducible–something that may be attained by both Bruegel’s social landscapes and Judd’s plywood boxes (one of my favorite pieces at Dia : Beacon)–why seek to create a system of evaluation for it? And having encountered such a system, how can you define your new state as being “enlightened?” After all, what you’ve learned–that the author reveals and conceals information–is something you will arguably do regardless of whether or not you understand the process in this way, or use these words to describe them.

      What I’m getting at is a strange disconnect I seem to be getting from, on the one hand, your interest in broadening the scope of the art of fiction as much as possible, and indeed pointing toward irreducibility as one of its chief virtues, and another sense that your own work can “improve” based on certain ways of understanding and using conventions such as plot, character, etc.

      Forgive me for putting these questions to you. It’s only because you’re so forthcoming that I keep at it.

      1. Even if an artwork can’t be reduced, one can still say things about it. It’s just that those things won’t completely summarize or replace the artwork. But of course we can talk about it all day long. We’ll probably want to, if we like it.

        After a while, we might find ourselves with nothing more to say about it. Sometimes, with some art, that happens right away.

        As for evaluating it, that’s quite useful: there’s just too much work out there for any one person to experience. And so people should make their preferences known. They help guide us. I listen very carefully to the people whose opinions I respect. My pal Jeremy said, Hey, read Jane Bowles’s TWO SERIOUS LADIES, and so I did, and now I think it’s one of the greatest novels ever written.

        Why do I think it’s one of the greatest novels ever written? Partly because I read it and judge it against the background of the other novels I’ve read—there’s Shklovsky. Bowles amazes and moves me in ways few other novels do. And yet her novel is still a good “novel.” It satisfies me in the way I expect novels will satisfy me. It’s a blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar. So it makes sense, and yet stretches me.

        I like the ways in which it stretches me. Other readers may not like those ways so much. They may have read other novels, or not want to move in those particular directions. For example, I’m sure Cormac McCarthy is amazing, but I don’t want to stretch the ways he wants to stretch me. And having read lots of Preacher comic books when I was younger, his work looks kinda ridiculous to me now. It makes me giggle. Other people didn’t read those comics and so they take him seriously. Or they read those comics and think that connection is cool. They’ll have to speak for themselves.

        All of this is still circling around the question of aesthetics. Nowhere is that principle denied—I don’t deny it, Shklovsky doesn’t deny it, Gass certainly doesn’t deny it, Gardner doesn’t deny it, Wood doesn’t deny it. We may all have different criterion for judging a work’s aesthetic merit, but we all agree that it can be done. No one of us has the whole truth of it.

        (Note that a big part of what Gass is saying is that artworks shouldn’t be judged solely on their verisimilitude, or content of their explicit messages. So he’s trying to broaden the means by which an artwork can be evaluated. I see critics like Gardner and Wood trying to narrow those means. As Gass said, his view is more catholic than Gardner’s—Gardner “hardly lets anyone through the door.”)

        As for aesthetics, I like David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s formal definition of it: that we find most pleasant artworks where the various elements exhibit strong formal unity. So everything adds up in a way such that it transcends its parts. And becomes thereby irreducible. (Curt White calls it “sublime.”) (That’s a quick and dirty definition; check out their classic FILM ART for the whole shebang.)

        …And yet at the same time, I like works that often don’t entirely add up. I haven’t been able to reconcile that yet with the above. I’ve thought about it, and will have to keep trying to pin down my thoughts here. It has something to do with the tension between being predictable (patterned, conventional) and yet retaining surprise (innovation).

        In any case, I don’t mean to deny evaluation or aesthetics. Although I would probably take a broader view as to what’s good or artful than a lot of people would. But I think that’s just a broader view, not a contradiction.

        I’m happy to keep talking about all of this. Lord knows, I’m always trying to figure these things out myself.

        Also, I’ve read enough Goethe, Wittgenstein, and Derrida to know that at any point, any formal system breaks down. I’m positive (although not positivist, har har) that we could quickly find cases where none of what I’ve written so far will apply. And for which we’d need some new measure, or formal system, or explanation, or story. As Heidegger says, more or less, when you enter a darkened room with a flashlight, you cast shadows.

        …You know who I really like here, and who isn’t even close to being understood yet? The hermeneuticist Paul Ricoeur. His model of threefold mimesis is a thing of beauty. See his TIME AND NARRATIVE:
        I’m not trying to namedrop; I think he is really very important, and that his ideas will change the way we regard realism. Mimesis is a very complicated thing! We’ve been misunderstanding it since Aristotle…

        1. “Even if an artwork can’t be reduced, one can still say things about it. It’s just that those things won’t completely summarize or replace the artwork. But of course we can talk about it all day long. We’ll probably want to, if we like it.”

          I wasn’t quite referring to the *discussion* of art, per se–I certainly agree that this is nearly inexhaustible. What I was referring to was the inclination to think progress was being made in such discussions. That a clearer understanding was being accomplished. That art was being *better* understood, rather than *differently* understood.

          It doesn’t sound like you think the theories of Gass and Shklovksy and Gardner are simply their way of making their preferences known. They all feel as though some advance is being made. You, too, feel this way–insofar as your personal anecdotes about writing-related epiphanies suggest.

          Yet if this were true, if there were progress being made, writers who are not drawn to read or write theory–who, in other words, are not drawn into the conversation–those writers could be said to have been left behind. To have not “advanced.”

          So I guess I’m wondering how/whether you reconcile this outcome with what seems to be a spirit of inclusiveness as you’ve elaborated in your post about How Writing Works.

        2. regarding bordwell and thompson’s def, i’m reminded of, and have always been a fan of, leibnitz’s def of perfection which, to paraphrase, is the maximum amount of diversity orchestrated by a cohering principle of unity. that’s something i always have in the back of my mind. and yet, like yourself, i do lean toward the ‘don’t entirely add up’ quality of works, and am actually distrustful of works that add up to cleanly or perfectly.

          in terms of that reconciliation of adding up and incompleteness, tension likewise is a substantial factor in my own reckoning and view of things, that is to say, the tension of the guitar string as an analogy for the existential charge, the dynamic agent, underlying the very fact of being situated in a world of others, and the resulting music of harmony and discord (mediated by a drive of resolving that tension, even though abolishing that tension entirely would result in stasis, death) as we interact with others and the world.

          but also instances of incongruity within an otherwise coherent artwork make use of the power of suggestion, perhaps a variation of ‘negative capability?, by which the known realm of the artwork itself is enlarged by the presence of a discrepancy which thus suggests that the artwork, although seemingly realized in its presentation, is incomplete, and in that incompleteness becomes something more than itself. the power of suggestion enables an open-endedness without violating the architecture or the bond established with reader/viewer. maybe it’s even a point of rupture by which the piece bleeds into the unstated, larger, per-conscious world of experience? despite the interconnectedness of the ‘all’, which is only realized in a theoretical omniscience, small instances of incongruity might bestow a sense of life into the artwork by rendering it more akin to our own experience of life: no matter how we try to order and stabilize our sensible and psychical flux, there is always, and will always be, something that does not conform. despite our preferences, the imperceptible (or willfully imperceptible) ruptures remain. and as always, the discussion could easily lead into the theme of mystery, which, either as an epistemic horizon or ontological condition, is huge beyond huge… and essentially is where i prefer to abide (perhaps this coincides with your insistence on irreducibility?) even while we splice hairs to their infinitesimal limits.

  3. I tend toward Greg’s piecemeal approach. If I have to choose a theoretical framework, I lean toward an evolutionary psychological one, but only in the broadest sense, as I think theorists have only begun to scratch the surface of how the mind interacts with the world and literature comes out of it. I like AD’s point about the predictable and surprising, too, and I think that a lot of what goes on in powerful writing has to do with their apportioning of these in ways that are as subtle as skin conductance.

    A theory of literature ought to be a theory of life, it seems to me. That seems grandiose and dipshittily pretentious, but what I hope to mean is anything but–that it is important to a theory of literature that wet leaves smell rank and you can slip on them into several pasts and skin your ass. I guess what I’d argue is that the reason a novel can seem to defy reduction to any theoretical framework is that it (a great one) is itself a theory, one offering its irreducible sentences for adjudication and penetration rather than offering itself up to the next best theory on the block.

    1. So you would align the refinement of literary theory with a kind of scientific search for truth? With this model, certainly, there would be a place for experimentation!

  4. I do think literary theory and science can have a productive dialogue with one another, and that definitely includes experimentation. When it comes to scientific experiments, I’m impatient and I’d rather read about the results in Nature, and spend my own time experimenting with language. Today in my in-box were two descriptions of studies, one showing that reaction time is quicker than that of intentional action for one and the same activity, and another looking at different brain regions involved in humor and probing into why women, on average, take longer to decide whether or not something is funny. By no means do I see these studies as flawless or as not coming with their own assumptions, and what they explain are minute pieces of larger puzzles. But in aggregate, such studies can help us start to chart the terrain of human nature in a way that is more fine-grained than literary theory based purely on intuitions and casual observation tends to be. I’ve been reading Massumi’s Parables of the Virtual, and even though he seems content to pluck scientific studies out of context (arguing that they retain their “connectability”–about which I have some doubts), he certainly finds great value in using them as leaping off points.

    1. So does our fiction improve with our understanding of human nature? And what of the social impact of this new understanding? For instance, finding a scientific basis for equality between races has arguably helped us overcome racial bias–so is the fiction of a bigot in any real way handicapped for lacking this “progressive” understanding?

      I keep cycling back around to how and whether different theories of literature help us write better fiction. I know it’s a hard sell, but I’m eager to be convinced that theory isn’t just something some people find enjoyable–an aesthetic gesture, in other words–with no real impact on the quality of the fiction it informs.

  5. Shya-

    This will be a short, inadequate answer to your complex questions. I do think that fiction improves with our understanding of human nature, but I don’t know that I can think of a recent instance where theory has really impacted my writing. Maybe bolstering intuitions, which provides one with the conviction to continue rather than getting bogged down in worries about the validity of what one is doing, is one contribution that theory can make. For instance, it is a near-truism that conflict is essential for fiction, and evolutionary theory gives us the best going explanation for why that might be the case by finding conflict to be a pervasive element on various scales from the ecosystem to family dynamics to the individual. You can still get some pretty good fiction by using Freudian theory, although it is more literature than theory itself, and I think you’ll get better fiction (more nuanced, cutting deeper, locating the joints for better lock-picking) by using evolutionary theory. But I keep coming back to this idea of literature as theory, ie. that a novel offers a more fine-grained map of human nature and reality, both in its correspondence and in the rules of representation that it presumes, plays with, bends and breaks. It’s a map closer to the territory, and it might not get you as quickly to your destination but will reveal destinations you might not have known were there.

    1. So we have this thing called literature, which helps us understand ourselves. And then we create this thing called literary theory, to help us understand literature. Is the true purpose of literary theory to help us understand the way in which we understand ourselves? Is it, in other words, some kind of epistemology?

  6. For the moment I’m willing to get on board with that. I’m not sure the word “understand” is adequate, though, since that is only one effect of literature, and the type of “understanding” it affords isn’t exactly that of traditional epistemology. Also, literature helps us understand how we understand ourselves also, maybe better than the theory (blind spots writ large, unreliable narrators, etc.). But, in any case, it’s a starting point.

    I’m reading two books right now which do a great job of thoroughly unhinging the traditional roles of author and reader, Padgett Powell’s Interrogative Mood and Macedonio Fernandez’s Museum of Eterna’s Novel. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this when I get through them.

    1. I see. So it’s your contention that theory doesn’t do anything that fiction itself can’t do better?

      This would certainly support the notion that theory’s central purpose is to entertain people who enjoy theory.

      1. Maybe I wouldn’t isolate the word “entertain,” since that sounds frivolous. I’ll revert to the map metaphor I used earlier. Theory is a less fine-grained map, I guess, but can be useful in some circumstances, maybe for getting a sense of larger trends and connections. But I think you’re hoping that theory will actually make us better writers, i.e. make the more detailed maps richer. I’m skeptical, but I’d be glad to be pointed to a book of theory that you feel improved your writing or transformed it in some fundamental way.

        Writers like Gass are exceptional, it seems to me, because their criticism approaches literature. Gass’s dancing about architecture, to steal that great Elvis Costello quote, is pretty damned architectural. I’d rather live in a yurt designed under Gassian principles than a palace whose blueprint was Greimas; it would be more amenable to my sensibilities.

        Aside from that, the theorists who I take something away from are those who draw connections between many other fields and literature, like Brian Boyd (On the Origins of Stories)and David and Nanelle Barash (Madame Bovary’s Ovaries). Whereas Gass takes his nuance from his own gray matter, they draw theirs from the gray matter of hundreds of studies, ranging from psychology to anthropology to primate studies in the field. Not to say that they aren’t brilliant, but I’d call them, in contrast to Gass, extrospective critics, grand synthesizers.

        I don’t mean to dismiss theory across the board. I’ve tried my hand at it myself, recently in an essay inThe Evolutionary Review which, if you’ll pardon the hubris, tries to bring Gassian flair to evolutionary considerations. So as you can see, I’m still wrestling with these issues.

        1. Actually, I haven’t read any theory. I mean, I’ve read the odd essay here and there, Death of the Author, etc etc. But I’ve never studied it in school, and have not been drawn to it naturally. I’m curious to see why some people are–and what they hope to get from it (especially in an age in which so many theories can be chosen from).

          So I’m not “hoping theory will make us better writers,” per se–at least, not yet. I’m merely pointing out what seems to be a common assumption among theorists and those drawn to it, from what little I know.

          That said, I’ve ordered a couple books (Shkovsky and Gass), and will see what I think of them. If I’m going to spend time on reading a theory rather than reading literature, it should either 1) quantitatively improve my understanding of literature, 2) help me become a better writer, and/or 3) be as enjoyable to read as a novel.

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