Sunday, August 09, 2009

prepping for school

Lo these many years ago when I was in graduate school—we’re not saying how many years, but over twenty anyway—you had a choice of taking “History of Literary Criticism” (LitCrit) or linguistics. I had taken linguistics my senior year of undergrad, and the syllabus was so nearly identical to the class that was being taught at my grad school that they waived the requirement. I didn’t get any credit hours for it, but they checked off the box that said I had taken either linguistics or LitCrit. So I have no idea what was covered in LitCrit. My impression was that we were going to read Aristotle, Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold, all of which I had read in courses covering the relevant era, so I didn’t think it was a big deal to skip it.
But it appears in the years intervening that either the study of literary criticism has entirely changed, or I was dead wrong about what it was. Literary Theory, as it is now called (and apparently it is more accurately called simply “Theory” since it is a multidisciplinary approach), is a complex and nearly infinite field of study which involves calling into question every assumption you ever had about opening the pages of a book. Does it matter what the author intended? Does it matter what kind of attention the reader pays to the work? (which reminds one vaguely of Schrodinger's poor cat, alas.) Does the historical context matter? Can you assume certain things about the nature of gender, race, or social class, and/or is it even possible to speak objectively about these topics? What exactly is literature, and how is it different than any other printed matter? All this and more awaits if you enter the exciting world of Theory. I started with a brief 130-page introduction aptly called “A Very Short Introduction to Literary Theory” by Jonathan Culler and all I can tell you so far is: it's a mind bender. I’ve always thought of myself as an intelligent reader, but apparently I’m just one of the masses of the literary ignorant. I love it when I learn new stuff that totally turns my previous ideas on their oblivious little heads, but I have to say I’m a little worried this time. If I keep reading this stuff, will I get to the point that I can’t just sit down and enjoy reading a novel? Will my head be so filled with reader response theory and intertextuality and foregrounding that I can’t get sucked in to the latest Tres Navarre? Because that would be a real problem for me. I’m not sure I want to go there, but if I’m off to grad school (they still haven’t let me in), that’s what’s ahead.

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