Before we go anywhere with fancy words like “structuralism”, “postcolonialism”, and the highly-anticipated “psychoanalysis”, let’s start by looking at the idea of “theory” itself. I’m sure you’ve seen the word before, and have used it (or derivations of it) in your day-to-day speech: “oh yes, Communism is perfect in theory”, “I’ve quite forgotten the Pythagoras Theorem”, and “theoretically speaking, eating all this chocolate will only motivate me to jog for three hours and so it can only do me good.” But when it comes down to it, what is theory? And more specifically, what is literary theory?
The trouble with the term is that not everyone seems to be able to agree with a single definition, though there’s a general consensus as to what it means. We have “literary theory” in its purest form, we have “literary theory” that more or less means “critical theory”, and we have “literary theory” which is used interchangeably with “literary criticism”. (Is your head hurting yet? Deep breaths, and lots of water.) Of course, I’m going to be telling you about my versions here (which are more or less representative of public opinion, so you should be safe with these definitions even if you have a literary academic over for dinner, in which case you shouldn’t get them started on their areas of expertise in the first place).
So, theory. In its most basic form, theory simply means a set of ideas or suppositions, which some bloke came up with while they were having a bath or taking a walk. Literary theory, then, just specifies that those ideas and thoughts pertain to literature, and indeed, the original intent of literary theory was to study the nature of literature itself, rather than look at specific texts. Of course, as the years passed and the bright and bubbly academic folks started to realise they were getting way over their heads with theoretical subjects that went beyond the literary scope, critical theory emerged to encompass interdisciplinary topics from the humanities. And then, the term literary criticism was coined for the practical application of literary theory (remember, the theories themselves were just abstract ideas floating from one head to another). From now on, I’m going to use the terms “literary theory” and “critical theory” interchangeably (because life’s too short to be picky about which ideas—already fairly abstract in themselves—belong to which categories), but I am going to make a distinction with “literary criticism”. Why? Just in time for one of my analogies.
To better understand the roles of literary theory and literature, let’s pretend they’re two different people called Theo and Litty (yes, that was the best I could do). Now, you’re very good friends with Theo and Litty, both of whom you’ve known since you were fairly young. Theo is a very nice lad who’s charming and courteous, and whose only flaw is his tendency to drift out of conversations every now and then, as if he’s lost in his own little world, and then start rambling about something completely different and over your head (but of course, he continues to claim he’s making a related point). Litty, on the other hand, is always the practical girl, who likes to create pretty things in her spare (and sometimes not-so-spare) time. She’s not afraid to delve into different topics, and whenever she tells a story, she always manages to hold an audience in rapture. Her only flaw, however, is her insecurity: deep down, she doesn’t really know who she is, or what she wants to do with her life, only that she wants to make a difference. Your two good friends, completely autonomous and carrying out their lives independent of each other.
One day, Theo and Litty meet (perhaps at your directive—quite the matchmaker there, aren’t you?), and they instantly fall in…to some kind of tense relationship. (Really, did you think I would go for something cliched? We’re talking about some difficult concepts here—be serious!) Neither Theo nor Litty had ever met anyone quite like the other before, and although they’re obviously both quite interested, they don’t really know how to approach each other. They decide to meet up a couple of times and engage in some pretty serious conversations. When Theo tells Litty about his abstract ideas, Litty finds some of them fascinating and is influenced into making some shiny things (pieces of craft, I would imagine; I haven’t spoken to Litty in a while and we really ought to catch up). The stories she tells to her other friends, though not dramatically different, start to take on some characteristics of Theo’s ideas. Theo, on the other hand, takes the time to look through Litty’s creations and listen patiently to all her stories. Sometimes, he drifts away during one of those excursions, and starts to think his wonderful, wild thoughts, and smiles because his inspiration comes from Litty. But even after several years of their adventures together, you can still sit with them individually, and they are still autonomous, independent individuals. You’ve also discovered there is never a dull moment when you invite them both to a party.
Theory and literature are exactly like Theo and Litty. They are both wonderful by themselves, and can be studied individually as two separate disciplines. More often than not, you’ll might find an overlap of ideas between the two, where one has drawn from the other. But the most interesting things happen when you approach the two separately, but simultaneously, and this is where we’ll look at the second analogy, about literary criticism.
Imagine you have a teacher (primary school, high school, university—take your pick, but we’ll make her female, because I say so) who has the most amazing pair of purple glasses which she made with her very own hands, complete with sparkling frames and purple lenses. Not only are they awesome on her, but she claims the entire world looks different when she has them on. Of course, you want to experience this awesomeness for yourself, but unfortunately, the glasses only fit on her, and the only way you can get a pair is to make it yourself. So you ask your teacher for some advice, and she gives you a list of where to look. Although you find the list fairly comprehensive, you find that procuring the materials is time-consuming, and while some of them are easy to get, others can be quite elusive.
After the first week or so, you’ve managed to fashion yourself a pair of decent purple glasses, though they’re nowhere near as cool as your teacher’s. You put them on, and you start to see the world a bit differently, tinted with a slight purple hue. Maybe you start to lose interest and decide to make do with your current pair of purple glasses, lacklustre as it is. Maybe you’re determined to get the coolest purple glasses to rule all purple glasses, and continue searching for the correct materials and find different ways to put them all together. This process could take weeks, months, even years. Perhaps a lifetime passes, and you’re still not content with your pair. But your efforts are rewarded, and every time you put those glasses on again, the world becomes simultaneously clearer and more purple. You hold your glasses close to your heart, and whenever someone expresses an interest in making their own, you give them a list of where to start, just like your teacher once did.
And then one day, you see someone with a pair of magnificent orange glasses, and you know you just have to get yourself a pair…
The different glasses are the different branches of literary theory, which we call “schools of thought”. When you put on a particular pair, the world takes on a different shade. And if you wear those glasses when you read a particular book, you’ll notice quite a few interesting things that hadn’t been there before. Switch those glasses for a pair tinted with another colour, and you’ll find different things jump to your attention. In this way, we can read a particular book over and over again and view them from a bunch of various perspectives, and always find something new.
So there we have it, the concepts of “literary theory” and “literary criticism” demystified. To recap, the former deals with a set of abstract ideas (which exists separately from literature, but can both influence and be influenced by it), and the latter is concerned with the practical application of theory to understand literature in various ways. And we’re off to a good start.
If you have any questions, comments, or would simply like to tell me off for my atrociously amazing analogies, please let me know. My next “Theoretically Speaking” post will be on structuralism, where we get to find out how a single man questioned the very existence of meaning itself, and propelled the world into one with literary theory.