Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Follow the Trail

Literary theory is one of those subjects that most people think is best left to navel-gazing academics more at home among dusty library stacks than the real world. After all, it may be fun to banter about Derrida and Rorty, but their theories don't impact our lives -- right? Well, maybe they actually do. As a recent book review by Newsweek's Jennie Yabroff shows, your chosen literary framework makes all the difference when encountering a text.

The title in question is Joshua Ferris' The Unnamed, a novel about a lawyer struggling with an undiagnosed compulsion to endlessly walk until he keels over. An odd and evocative premise, one that Yabroff wrestles with mightily. She initially wonders if the affliction may be a metaphor for environmental destruction or the search for the divine or the nature of addiction, but concludes that it doesn't really matter. "What if the book is about nothing more than a man who takes really long walks?" she muses before launching into a discussion about the dangers of overanalyzing:
When we evaluate a work first and foremost for its subtext, we can overlook the power of the text itself. "To interpret is to impoverish," Susan Sontag wrote 50 years ago, arguing that the best way to engage with a work of art is not to analyze or unpack it, but to take it at face value.
Anyone who has survived a lit class taught by a pompous professor knows Yabroff has a point, but it needs to be riddled with as many cavets as Sonny Corleone had bullet holes after his infamous toll-booth stop. The biggest one, of course, is that often authors want us to interpret their work. None less than T.S. Eliot spoke of how we ought to sift through layers of significance, moving from basic plotting to character conflict to the subtleties and rhythms of language to overarching themes. And we know Hemmingway wanted us think about more than a fishing trip in The Old Man and the Sea.

Perhaps the key to Yabroff's confusion is her use of the word subtext, a squishy term that can refer to, say, a work's structuralist subtleties or its Brechtian transgressions or psychoanalytical archetypes or some such highfalutin concept. Usually, it doesn't concern itself a whole lot with an author's intent. No wonder, then, that such "interpretation" would ultimately prove impoverishing, deadening, dull. Those ideas don't write books. People do, scattering words like breadcrumbs, laying trails into delight and danger and the deep things of life. Sure, we can stop from time to time to admire the critical scenery. But our first work lies simply in following where the path leads.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


Unknown said...

Subtext, as they say, is just 'buttsex' rearranged.

This is why slash fiction is the only acceptable form of literary criticism.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

I love literary theory, all the way, but I admit that it can ruin my reading experience if I let it go too far. Sometimes it's just good to sit down and read a story as-is and leave the theory for a third or fourth reading.

I'm an English major, what can I say?

pattinase (abbott) said...

The lens to look at a story through changes so much, is so trendy, especially since the idea of post-modernism, I gave it up long ago. It either works for me or it doesn't-which is more often the case lately.

B. Nagel said...

The problem with critical reading is that you can miss the forest for the trees. But sometimes, if you look closely enough, you get to see the phenomenal fauna that populate and enhance the beauty of that forest. It's a balance issue.

SC, subtext is buttsex in most prison film/novels, true. But well-played subtext enhances the reader's identification with/against the character. Subtext simply means 'under the text.' The entire substance of the show/tell discussion is one of text v. subtext. *A potent weapon to add to your anagram arsenal: Paternal=Parental=Prenatal.

When I was highly involved with technical theatre in HS, attending church became annoying. Light cues, off balance monitors, poor scene arrangement/costuming/script-writing. Sometimes you get too close.

Loren Eaton said...


That is an ... interesting mnemonic. I wish I'd have known it when the prof who oversaw my senior thesis insisted that we mix up our literary frameworks. Actual quote: "Now, I don't expect you all to become Marxists overnight."

Loren Eaton said...


Me, too. Alas. That choice of a major is part of the reason why I'm getting an MBA now. A guy has to eat.

Literary theory is fun, especially if you honor the author's intent first. Looking into historical contexts and structural niceties is useful, but we can't ignore why the author wrote it in the first place.

Loren Eaton said...


I think "trendy" is the perfect word choice. A professor once said that he thought perverse ingenuity ensured academic success more than serious inquiry into the truth of a matter.

Loren Eaton said...


I did an interesting little experiment before I posted this. I took my electronic copy of Thrall and Hibbard's A Handbook To Literature (1960 edition) and searched for "subtext." It isn't there. Now, there's a lot of stuff on symbolism and allusion and various critical theories. But I'd prefer to use the specific terms rather than a catch-all like subtext. The term is so vague that it's almost meaningless.

Unknown said...

I had the misfortune to be an English major at Oberlin in the past decade. The author is dead, you see, and therefore 'literary criticism' ends up just being your pet ethos rammed into every orifice in the text that looks like it would accommodate an idea half that size. Also, somehow, despite the fact that there is no actual authoritative interpretation and no truth of any kind to be found anywhere, the BEST interpretation somehow ends up being the professor's. Funny, that.

I am an English major and I love to examine a text for its bits and bobs and layers of meaning, and college damn near killed my love of literature. Most of my term papers were subtle and not-so-subtle digs at ridiculous things I'd heard in the class. Sometimes I would just write a paper explicitly arguing precisely the interpretation most decried just to see if I could. This is one of the reasons I only had a "B" average.

I resolutely maintain that just because you can interpret something a certain way does not mean you are obligated to do so. Or to share it with others if and when you do.

Unknown said...

To be blunt, Loren, you are hopelessly outmoded in terms of literary criticism. Not only is authorial intent completely irrelevant, but so is the cultural and historical context. The ONLY point of view that matters is the reader's (the professor's), because each reader perceives a wholly unique text which no other reader can ever truly perceive or understand because there is no truth and all communication is lies and misdirection. Also the patriarchy and something about race.

Loren Eaton said...

The author is dead, you see, and therefore 'literary criticism' ends up just being your pet ethos rammed into every orifice in the text that looks like it would accommodate an idea half that size.

Ah, now I understand your anagram a bit better.

I had a reader-response prof at school, and it was one of the most frustrating literary experiences I've ever had. Mainly, it oonsisted in allowing pretentious students to vent whatever spleen they desired. Also, there was lots of Freudian stuff bantered about.

By the way, I know I'm hopelessly outmoded. I like vampires of the non-sparkly variety, horror in general (also cyberpunk), and philosophy and theology by dead white Europeans. Relevant I am not.

B. Nagel said...

From my cursory research in the OED, subtext (in this meaning) was an acting term from Hapgood's translation of Stanislavski's Building Character (1950). From there it transferred to plays, then literature in general.

Loren Eaton said...

Ah, I stand informed! Methinks there's a Wikipedia page that needs some editing.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I just bought a book called THE ART OF THE SUBTEXT (Charles Baxter-whose writing I sometimes admire). Part of a series on writing. Maybe it will clarify what it is.

Loren Eaton said...

Hmmmm, interesting. Let us know what you find out!