Literary Theory, English Major Stuff

I have a bachelor’s in English literature, and I believe that I managed to acquire it without ever figuring out how to write a paper–mostly because I didn’t put in the time, but partly because I didn’t have even a basic grasp on what, in a broader sense, a critic was trying to do. When I took a couple classes in literary theory my senior year, it was a revelation.

Not that I learned what critics were trying to do–rather I learned that they didn’t know, and they had continuous huge, messy, mad, brilliant disputes about it, and I was charged with finding my own place in those shifting sands. More specifically, what I discovered was not “what critics are trying to do” or even “what these particular critics teaching me are trying to get me to do” but the wide range of things a critic could be trying to do–and also that I disagreed belligerently with almost all of it (and found myself far too close to saying “literary criticism is pointless fun, so why not, but please don’t try to pretend it matters” to think I had any place pursuing an academic career).

Since graduation, writing fiction has been my priority, but every now and then I start missing academic reading and writing, and so I haul out one or the other of my weapons-grade theory anthologies and start trying to plow through it. Some of the results?

  1. My dislike of hard postmodernism and my attraction to soft postmodernism have both become comparatively explicit and articulate.*
  2. I pick up philosophical concepts to work with in my fiction.
  3. I get broader perspectives on what writing can be for and what can make it good.
  4. I see ways that the academic discourse and more popular treatment of writing (both reviews and discussions of the writing process) could benefit from more intercourse with one another.
  5. I read cool (or sometimes irritating) stuff that I can introduce to you or talk to you about if you already know it! The caveat here is that, so far, I’m not particularly well-read. I will have read articles and excerpts rather than books, with a few exceptions. Even so I’ve already found inspiring jumping-off points for future blog posts.
Finally, many thanks to anyone who’s following or poking their head in :). Also, merry Christmas, happy Chanukkah, happy Festivus, or just plain happy holidays!

*Hard postmodernism and soft postmodernism are terms of my own invention, as far as I know. Here’s what I mean by the distinction:

Hard postmodernism says, “There is no such thing as truth–just language and power. The very idea of truth is just a way of exerting power over people.”

Soft postmodernism says, “We often aren’t aware of the extent to which the way linguistic categories and social power structures warp our perceptions; in fact, we possibly can’t be fully aware of this. As a result, we should examine what we and others think with this in mind, try to correct for our biases, know we’ll make mistakes anyway, and correct those mistakes when they’re pointed out.”

Hard postmodernism says, “Reality is fundamentally perspectival.”

Soft postmodernism says, “There are as many perspectives as there are conscious beings and wow, they differ from one another–and from the facts–in beautiful, fascinating ways.”

Basically, I see soft postmodernism as the intellectual humility people who are not fond of tying their heads in knots salvage from the total insanity radical epistemological destabilization that is hard postmodernism. I will probably write more on this.


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