On literary theory

By and large, ‘theory’ enters into literary studies as a body of texts to be related to the texts that constitute ‘literature’. This process of relating is typically carried out through the production of ‘readings’ of specific works – unsurprisingly, since such production has (since the New Criticism) been enshrined as the central form of specifically literary research. There is little enthusiasm, on the whole, for asking whether a theory is coherent, or whether it is adequately supported by evidence, or whether it is consistent with other things that are known, or whether it explains observable facts more parsimoniously than other available theories. Asking these questions would not amount to a recognised form of literary research; persistent askers might even be accused of philosophy. Implicit in this system is the conception of a good theory as one that enables its user to produce a publishable reading. ‘Good theories’, in this sense, have been found just about everywhere, from linguistics to psychoanalysis and the speculative margins of cognitive science. As Jonathan Culler – one of the most prominent literary theorists to challenge this orthodoxy – argues,

the most important and insidious legacy of the New Criticism is the widespread and unquestioning acceptance of the notion that the critic’s job is to interpret literary works. Fulfillment of the interpretive task has come to be the touchstone by which other kinds of critical writing are judged, and reviewers inevitably ask of any work of literary theory, linguistic analysis, or historical scholarship, whether it actually assists us in our understanding of particular works. In this critical climate, it is therefore important… to take up a tendentious position and to maintain that… the interpretation of individual works is only tangentially related to the understanding of literature.

2001 [1981], pp. 5-6

Although the environment in which I was trained was defined by the ‘critical climate’ Culler decries, I was kicking against it before I’d even finished my Master’s degree. My first four research articles were all works of ‘theory’, but (following Culler’s lead) they contain not one literary interpretation between them – or at least, not one of my own. Instead of taking that more expected path, they examine documented instances of real-world reading in order to ask questions about reading and the cultural work that it is made to do. These instances include cognitive readings of an Edward Bond poem and a Martin Amis novel (Allington, 2005), postcolonial readings of Heart of Darkness (Allington, 2006), fan interpretations of the second Lord of the Rings movie (Allington, 2007), and public discussion of The Satanic Verses at the height of the ‘Rushdie Affair’ (Allington, 2008). Through analysis of these data in terms derived from Michael Billig’s ‘rhetorical’ cognitive social psychology and the school of discursive psychology represented by Derek Edwards, I was able to develop a critique of key theories employed in literary and cultural studies: in the first case, cognitive script or schema theory; in the second, conceptual or cognitive metaphor theory; and in the third, Stuart Hall’s ‘encoding/decoding’ theory of mass media communication. The fourth article’s target is more general, being the idea that literary works are communications from authors to readers, although there is a particular critique of expressions of this idea relying on interpretations of J.L. Austin’s speech act theory and appeals to authorial intention. These four articles were followed by a chapter arguing – in opposition to much recent work by psychologists and applied linguists – that creativity can only be considered to exist in relation to a tradition (Allington, 2011).

The above pieces, written between spring 2005 and winter 2008, mark a complete episode in my career. Since that time, my work has become more empirically focused, and more orientated towards the disciplines of history and sociology. While working on the Discourse of Reading Groups project, I co-wrote two articles with Joan Swann that (from my point of view) play a transitional role between these phases. The first of these critiques the lack of engagement with real readers among literary linguists and provides (by way of contrast) a literature review of empirical approaches to reader study (Allington and Swann, 2009), while the second critiques the assumptions behind many experimental studies of literary reading and (again by way of contrast) provides a thematic analysis and an interactional sociolinguistic analysis of references to ‘language’ among reading group (i.e. book club) members (Swann and Allington, 2009).

Occasionally, I think about writing on these sorts of topics again. Some of the above papers have attracted a certain amount of attention since they were published, and I briefly returned to my theorist roots to collaborate with Ann Hewings on a chapter introducing genre theory, Saussurean semiotics, and visual communication to a student audience (Allington and Hewings, 2012).


Allington, D. (2005) ‘Re-reading the script: a discursive appraisal of the use of the “schema” in cognitive poetics’. Working with English 2: 1-9.

Allington, D. (2006) ‘First steps towards a rhetorical psychology of literary interpretation’. Journal of Literary Semantics 35 (2): 123-144.

Allington, D. (2007) ‘ “How come most people don’t see it?’”: slashing The Lord of the Rings’. Social Semiotics 17 (1): 43-62.

Allington, D. (2008) ‘How to do things with literature: blasphemous speech acts, satanic intentions, and the uncommunicativeness of verses’. Poetics Today 29 (3): 473-523.

Allington, D. (2011) ‘The production of “creativity”’. In: Swann, J., Pope, R., and Carter, R. (eds.). Creativity in language: the state of the art. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 277-289.

Allington, D. and Hewings, A. (2012). ‘Reading and writing in English’. In: Allington, D. and Mayor, B. (eds.) Communicating in English: Talk, Text, Technology. London: Routledge. pp. 47-76.

Allington, D. and Swann, J. (2009) ‘Researching literary reading as social practice’. Language and Literature 18 (3): 219-230.

Culler, Jonathan (2001 [1981]). The pursuit of signs. London / New York: Routledge.

Swann, J. and Allington, D. (2009) ‘Reading groups and the language of literary texts: a case study in social reading’. Language and Literature 18 (3): 247-264.