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Re: Carl on theory

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  • jchristopher@tarleton.edu
    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
    Message 1 of 4 , Sep 3, 2002
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      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
      science fiction.

      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.)

      Best wishes,
      Joe
    • Carl F. Hostetter
      On Tuesday, September 3, 2002, at 10:15 AM, jchristopher@tarleton.edu ... As with any evidence, one must weigh it for reliability (among other things). But
      Message 2 of 4 , Sep 3, 2002
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        On Tuesday, September 3, 2002, at 10:15 AM, jchristopher@...
        wrote:

        > 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.

        As with any evidence, one must weigh it for reliability (among other
        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
        every author.

        > I suppose what I'm saying is that we have to be discreet in our
        > applications of any theory--authorial intention among them.

        Absolutely.

        > 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).

        Many books will indeed lend themselves to Marxist readings, as they are
        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 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.

        There will no doubt arise a school of Marxist criticism of the
        publishing process. In fact, I will be very surprised if one has not
        already arisen.
      • jamcconney@aol.com
        In a message dated 9/3/2002 9:13:09 AM Central Daylight Time, ... Kipling s Law: Four-fifths of everything must be bad. You have to do it to get the other
        Message 3 of 4 , Sep 3, 2002
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          In a message dated 9/3/2002 9:13:09 AM Central Daylight Time,
          jchristopher@... writes:


          > 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."

          Anne


          [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
        • Stolzi@aol.com
          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 haven t. :D
          Message 4 of 4 , Sep 3, 2002
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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
            haven't. :D

            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

            Diamond Proudbrook


            [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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