QotD: Literary Theory

Daniel Mendelsohn:

First of all, I think undergraduates should be kept away from Theory at all costs. I don’t think people should be allowed to even hear the word “theory” until they’re doing graduate work—for the very good reason that it’s impossible to theorise about texts before one has deep familiarity with them (not that that stopped anyone in the 1980s when I was in grad school). Undergraduates should be taught to have a clean appreciation of what texts say and how they say them, and learn how to write intelligently and clearly about that. If undergraduates had to have a model of criticism it ought to be popular criticism rather than traditional academic criticism.

Later on, when they’ve had experience in close reading, when they have a number of works under their belt, they can be introduced to theory—to the wide array of approaches to texts that they already will have “owned,” in some small way. That is exciting. But to flatter the vanity of 19-year-olds by letting them think they know about “theory” before they have read anything in real depth strikes me as preposterous. That very approach bred a generation of academics whose approach to literature is contemptuous.

Indeed, if we have to have Theory, this seems like a better way of going about it. Of course, to the extent that it becomes bad pomo philosophy disguising itself as something to do with literature we might not want to have it at all.

About Josh W

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3 Responses to QotD: Literary Theory

  1. profmondo says:

    I found myself dropped into the Theory Wars when I did my first trip through grad school in the late 80s. It very nearly drove me from the profession. Both Mendelsohn’s advice and yours are useful.

    Merry Christmas, Josh!

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