Essay written by Kallen Mohr from her Intro to Literary Theory course, Fall 2022
Since my time as an elementary school student, I have felt the need to defend my interest in stories. Of course, when I was younger, it was easier. Finding importance in the made-up was an expected part of childhood. However, as I grew older, my interest failed to diminish. I found myself increasingly in the position to justify the importance I placed on made-up people and the made-up world to those around me. I have especially found this to be the case when I tell fellow students, adults, and family members that I am studying English. Although there is no outright dismissal of my study of literature, a hint of wonder and concern is ultimately conveyed. When they respond with “Oh, really?” I know they are asking themselves, What could she possibly gain from studying that?
I will admit that in the face of such doubts, I too have questioned the importance of literary studies. Here, I must also admit that I did not sign up for Dr. Gruenler’s “Intro to Literary Theory” course to find the solution to these doubts. I initially took the class because of grad school plans and my own imposter syndrome as an English major. In other words, I wanted to alleviate the sneaking feeling that I actually had no idea how to analyze a text to the level an undergraduate with an English degree should. Suffice it to say I have since learned that I was more prepared than I knew. Like Robert Dale Parker wrote in his introduction to How to Interpret Literature, we each have learned literary theory without knowing it.
As I look back on the course, I am struck by the ambiguity of literary studies. Like I said before, I am frequently asked to defend the study of literature. To realize that even the literary theorists cannot agree on the “proper” way to study literature is not necessarily the defense I wanted to give literature skeptics. However, I must say that this is what has stuck with me at the conclusion of the class. To that end, I am not sure I can say with confidence that this course answered all the questions I had, but instead left me with even more questions about the future of literary studies, English education, and my role as a literature student.
I believe we have landed on another moment in time where current theories are called into question and new theories are due to become the next “big thing.” But I find that this is what I have come to love about literary studies and literary theory. If there were one way to interpret literature, there would be no study, and there would be no influence. Literature resides at that unique intersection of culture, history, and emotion. The study of English literature is, at the end of the day, a study of humans and how we see ourselves and one another. To study that across time is the most important and the most necessary. Without it, how do we place ourselves?
Reflecting back on the many theories covered in my “Literary Theory” course, I find it difficult to pick the most valuable. Each theory has left me with the urge to place it on my bookshelf and loan it out to friends. However, I must stand by my opinion of New Criticism as antithetical to the value of literary study. As the 20th-century literary theory which focuses on a literary text in detail and isolated from external influence, I believe it dismisses the intimate interaction between writing, culture, identity, and place. When it comes to what I consider “valuable” literary theories, I gravitate towards those theories that emphasize history, culture, identity, and upsetting the status quo. I believe this is what literature is inherently meant to place emphasis on, and I cannot stand by a theory that refuses to acknowledge such connections. With this in mind, I view new historicist, feminist, Marxist, queer, disability, postcolonial, race, posthumanist, and reader response theories as the most influential in our study of literature and stories. Such theories focus on the power dynamics within literature, specifically in the ways power is abused, flipped, or equalized in a text. This focus is exactly why literary studies must continue to exist as an essential area of study for students and the public.
When I look at my time past this course, I find myself wanting to dive deeper into posthumanist, disability, queer, and reader response theory. Since all of these theories are still relatively new compared with the long history of literary theory, I want to engage more with the current conversations occurring both in academia and in popular culture. On the topics of queer and disability theory, I feel that we have just started scratching the surface of the potential each holds for reimagining our future as more queer and anti-ableist. I also see great potential in posthumanist and reader response theory in thinking about technology and our own place in the world as humans, but especially as readers. At the conclusion of this course, I feel that I hold greater confidence in my ability to analyze texts, apply theory, and, most importantly, defend my passion for literature.