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, Continue reading “On literary theory”