Literature makes a comeback

Postmodern literary theory is mutating rapidly in an attempt to survive, writes David Kirby in the Christian Science Monitor. Literature is making a comeback.

Large numbers of the last two generations of English majors have been instructed not to experience novels and poems directly, but rather to view them through the lens of some kind of theory — Marxism being one of the most popular.

The idea was to move away from viewing literature as having any innate “truth” of its own, and rather to study it in relationship to larger schools of thought. But the approach left many students complaining they spent more class time with dry theoreticians than with the great authors they had hoped to encounter.

Some academics are sick of theory. S.E. Gontarski, professor of Irish studies at Florida State University, says the old-line theorists who dominate universities will have to retire to produce real change.

But in the meantime, where Marx once ruled, today more down-to-earth literary explorations seem to be on the throne once more.

The Duke University English department’s spring courses include such homey-sounding subjects as “Victorian Literature,” ” ‘Ulysses’ and Irish Modernism,” and “Music in Literature and Philosophy, 1800-1945.” The on-line list course offerings run to nearly 35 pages, and Karl Marx isn’t mentioned once.

Theory turned out to be too boring. At least, that’s my theory.

About Joanne


  1. “Theory will persist, but in altered forms, predicts Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.”

    That is, in new packaging? Course titles don’t necessarily reflect course content.

  2. Theory is, unfortunately, alive and well, and from what I’ve seen, the old-line theorists are doing a damned good job of cloning themselves amongst the current grad student population.

    I rather suspect that theory is telling tales of its own demise in an attempt to ward off its detractors.

    And, as Amritas points out, course titles are not always telling. What are they reading in Victorian lit? You could easily tailor the reading list of such a class so that Marxist readings, for example, are the most plausible ones. God knows there are plenty of Marxist leaning novels from the latter part of the period, and social reform emerges as a major theme.

    How many times is the word “postcolonial” mentioned in the course listing? How many classes are devoted to women authors or “minority” authors?

    There are a number of ways to play fast and loose with literature courses so they look reasonable but contain a great deal of theory and politics.

    I mean, c’mon–the next big thing the MLA is trying to push is disability studies.

  3. Winston,

    Are you serious about that last line of yours? Oh, never mind, I just Googled “MLA” and “disability studies.”

    I suspect that the deemphasis on theory is a marketing strategy (ooh, how capitalist). Theoryspeak may not sell as well as it used to, so it’s been toned down in catalogs to avoid turning off potential students.

  4. English classes have long been the biggest reason many adults never pick up a “serious” book after high school or college. Literature has always been about the stories. Sometimes they last, sometimes they fade, but the best ones tend to have been examined to death.

    As for Marxism, feminism, or classism: they’re just as legitimate or illegitimate a way to ruin a good read as any. But the theorists are missing the best place to examine their pet ideas: science fiction, where any crackpot theory can exist in a “real” world.

    (Feel free to mention Harrison Bergeron, now.)

  5. My theory is that pomo theory is easy — as Alan Sokal showed, no one knows what they’re talking about, and as long as you drop names and use the words “transgress” and “hegemonize” and their derivatives, you’re good to go!

    Of course, those who aren’t lazy and who have no intention of trying to ride the ever-disappearing academia train aren’t interested in spending money on learning how to say nothing. One could get that lesson for free by volunteering on a political campaign.

    I didn’t have any theory courses in college (one composition course and one course on Science Fiction), but I have done lots of reading since then. I managed to go through all Dickens’ novels and I reread them regularly. Most of classic literature is accessible to those who read regularly — there’s nothing terribly difficult about Austen, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Scott, Poe, etc. These do not require an intermediary (maybe some annotation to explain references to obsolete technology and social custom — but there are plenty of good editions out there, and in the case of Austen, lots of online help).

    I suppose when authors tried going “deep” by being obscure, literature professors are necessary. I agree with Joanne here — these texts are boring. Why would anyone bother with it if they’ve got something more interesting to do (like quantum physics or microeconomics)?

  6. Wacky Hermit says:

    Jon, I did have the misfortune to once pick up a book of politically correct feminist non-discriminatory science fiction. It was a complete mess. The author spent so much time pointing out how fair and balanced he or she (I forget which) was being by having characters of every gender, orientation, major racial group, disability, etc. represented in the story and interacting in ways which were totally non-offensive to any other character. Since so much space was devoted to pointing this out and making it entirely fair to everyone, it had a plot as deep and interesting as that of a porno.

  7. Eric Akawie says:

    As a survivor of the Duke University English dept. I could attest that those classes were likely being given in 1990 as well, at the height of Stanley Fish’s influence.

    Marx was rarely mentioned, actually – he’s far too close to being source material himself- the Marxism was all filtered through 2nd and third generation theorists – Derrida, Lacan, and Levi-Strauss were very popular, I remember.

  8. What’s important in Lit. is easy: If it’s not in the “Great Books of the Western World” it’s either not western, not important enough to the “big picture”, or a better example already exists within the ‘Great Books..’ (and yes, Marx is there too!)

  9. Curt Wilson says:

    One thing I believe universities really need to start thinking about is whether humanities programs really need to be structured along the same research-university model as the hard sciences. That is, you presently really cannot teach at the college/university level unless you have done significant “original research” (for your Ph.D.) in your subject matter.

    Forcing all budding scholars to jump through these hoops and come up with something “new” in their field is bound to end up skewing the field in a bunch of ways. There are a lot of people who love the field and could teach it very well that are going to get weeded out just because they can’t or won’t produce an original take on an old field. Those that remain in the field spend the formative years of their professional lives trying to produce a new theoretical treatment on some small aspect of their field.

    Is there all that much new and original to be said about Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, etc.? Not that there isn’t anything new that could be said, but to make this a requirement for continued work in the field is, in my view, asking for trouble. Regardless of the ideological bent of most of the people going in, you’re going to end up with some pretty strange stuff.

  10. Wacky Hermit,

    At least in a porno something happens. You had the misfortune of reading some bad sci-fi and have my sympathy. As with any genre, there is absolute crap out there. Good luck avoiding it.

  11. I applaud any effort to get back to teaching lit as lit and not drowning it in a stew of theoretical gobbledigook. However, it is also true that you cannot tell a course by its cover. I remember my days as an English Lit major at Wesleyan in the mid-80’s. I signed up for a survey course in medieval French literature – Chrestien du Troyes up through Rablaise. Instead, got an earful of Derrida. Want to take a tour of the Bizarro World? Try deconstructing Percival.

    One of the major reasons why I did not ever think about going into academics was that I knew I would be bombarded by this sort of thing.

  12. Richard Brandshaft says:

    1) Any literature study involves wider context and literary/political theory. The ones you notice are the ones you don’t agree with. When I was in school (I was born in 1941) one of the defining characteristics of literature was that few students would read it voluntarily. Anything fun to read was mere popular entertainment.

    2) Since several people mentioned science fiction, I have a question: How does Heinlein read to someone under 40? Or even under 30? I ask because SF doesn’t age well. We have space faring civilizations without PCs, e-mail, or even pocket calculators. One of Heinlein’s characters wore a slide rule (ask your grandfather what that is) on a lanyard outside his space suit. I have a sentimental attachment to old SF. But how does it read to someone younger?

  13. Richard,

    You can answer your own question about sci-fi. How do you read H.G.Wells now? Or Edgar Rice Burroughs? How about the adventures of Buck Rogers from the old b&w serials? These were the sci-fi stories our parents grew up with. Yes, they’re dated, but they were the first stories our parents encountered, and they have good memories associated with them even if the ‘science’ is badly dated. They can still be enjoyed in the context of the time in which they were written. So it is with Heinlein, Clarke, Vonnegut, etc. Yes, the science is dated. But well-written and well-plotted stories retain their attraction, just like historical or biographical literature, when viewed in context.

    And sci-fi is fun to revisit, and view just how far off some of these ‘predictions’ ended up being. Gives you a good dose of scepticism for all those self-appointed ‘experts’ who confidently predict things like the stock market, doesn’t it?

  14. Richard,

    Good SF should be about more than the props. Props age; good ideas don’t.

    BTW, I read HG Wells when I was in elementary and middle school in the 1980s. Not my thing, to be honest, but they didn’t seem all that musty to me. And it’s not as if time machines are a reality yet.

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