Re: Carl on theory
- Dear Carl--
Another reply by an academician (now retired). I was trained by third
generation New Critics, for the most part, who did the close readings that
you OK in your most recent letter that I have seen. But let me raise the
problems with authorial intention. I no longer remember the details, but
one of my professors in a course on the history of criticism gave some
examples of authors who fairly obviously exaggerated (lied) about their
intentions in certain works--I think his basic example was the changing
claims that one author made through the years. (Authors also have to make
sales and a claim of some significance or the other may help their
reputations.) My favorite example of something going beyond the author's
intention is discussed by Dorothy L. Sayers in _The Mind of the Maker_, in
a passage in which she is commenting on her Lord Peter Wimsey novel _Murder
Must Advertise_. She says that she planned the two false worlds of that
book, the false world of advertising and the false world of the Bright
Young Things. One of her friends, after the book was published and after
Sayers had said something to her about the two false worlds, said, "Oh, how
clever. Lord Peter is your moral norm, and he never appears in the false
worlds except in disguise--they can't see him clearly." Sayers said that
she hadn't been aware of that symbolic pattern at all, but it grew out of
what she had planned. (In this case, we can find out what she intended and
what she didn't--which supports your position--but what about the authors
who have no obliging friend to discuss the work with, or who leave no essay
about the discussion if a friend does point something out?)
I suppose what I'm saying is that we have to be discreet in our
applications of any theory--authorial intention among them. There was a
even good Marxist reading of _Wuthering Heights_ a number of years ago, for
example (an old-fashioned Marxist reading, concerned about economics). But
the basic rule is Sturgeon's Law, "Ninety percent of everything is crud."
I suspect that applies even more firmly to criticism than it does to
One final point: part of the problem today (as it has been for a number of
years) is that too many assistant professors need to publish articles or
books in order to gain tenure (there's just that much more to apply
Sturgeon's Law to). The university presses are beginning to stop
publishing criticism (which seldom sells well), and I recently saw a
professional article worrying about what can be done if there are not
enough possibilities for assistant professors to publish. Perhaps supply
and demand works in this area also. (The current assistant professors have
compounded their problems by writing very jargon-filled books--the
Deconstructionists especially--which means their books have a very small
possible market; I can't say that jargon is always bad--think of the
influence of Northrop Frye's _Anatomy of Criticism_--but minor criticism
filled with jargon is certainly not going to be popular.)
- On Tuesday, September 3, 2002, at 10:15 AM, jchristopher@...
> let me raise theAs with any evidence, one must weigh it for reliability (among other
> problems with authorial intention. I no longer remember the details,
> one of my professors in a course on the history of criticism gave some
> examples of authors who fairly obviously exaggerated (lied) about their
> intentions in certain works--I think his basic example was the changing
> claims that one author made through the years.
things). But noting that there are some clever/perverse authors who
deliberately lie about their intentions is quite a long way from
proving that there is no way to get at authorial intention (which was
the original claim that I was responding to). There are in fact many
ways to get at that intention, especially for Tolkien; but not for
> I suppose what I'm saying is that we have to be discreet in ourAbsolutely.
> applications of any theory--authorial intention among them.
> There was aMany books will indeed lend themselves to Marxist readings, as they are
> even good Marxist reading of _Wuthering Heights_ a number of years
> ago, for
> example (an old-fashioned Marxist reading, concerned about economics).
in fact concerned more or less centrally with issues of class and/or
capital. Nonetheless, I maintain that the fact that a "theory" is more
or less applicable to _some_ literature is a far cry from the claim
that "All literature is about class/race/gender/etc." It is _this_
attitude that I am speaking out against. Every work of literature is
unique, and must be approached on its own terms. While some
pre-existing tools will be applicable to any given work -- even, in
some cases, the hammers of modern "theory" -- still every work will
also require the development of new and unique tools -- if
understanding a text (as opposed to advancing a psycho-socio-political
agenda) is the real goal.
> The university presses are beginning to stopThere will no doubt arise a school of Marxist criticism of the
> publishing criticism (which seldom sells well), and I recently saw a
> professional article worrying about what can be done if there are not
> enough possibilities for assistant professors to publish. Perhaps
> and demand works in this area also.
publishing process. In fact, I will be very surprised if one has not
- In a message dated 9/3/2002 9:13:09 AM Central Daylight Time,
> Sturgeon's Law, "Ninety percent of everything is crud."Kipling's Law: "Four-fifths of everything must be bad. You have to do it to
get the other fifth."
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- Well, all I have to say on this matter is that you =all= need to read Prof.
Frederick Crews' small but magisterial book, THE POOH PERPLEX, if you
And he has done a sort of sequel to cover some of the newer theories; an
Amazon search ought to bring it up.
I might also however add, regarding theory, this quote which came through on
WINGFOLD, the Geo MacDonald list:
"If I knew of a theory in which was never an uncompleted arch or turret, in
whose circling wall was never a ragged breach, that theory I should know but
to avoid: such gaps are the eternal windows through which the dawn shall look
in. A complete theory is a vault of stone around the theorist --- whose very
being yet depends on room to grow."
Mr. Graham the schoolteacher in "Malcolm"
by George MacDonald
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