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Against Readings?

May 7, 2009

In an article recently printed in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Edmundson suggests that literary scholars give up the practice of theoretically guided readings in favor of readings that treat the text as the author intended.  While I cherish my theoretical readings, this article was equally frustrating and enlightening.

Edmundson begins his argument stating that the study of “the best of what has been known and thought,” in full Arnoldian fashion, is a second chance to throw off the shackles of a student’s learned socialization and learn to form individual thoughts which, despite the hat tip toward Matthew Arnold whose theories of poetics I find to be elitist, I find to be quite valuable.  He argues that by applying a lens of theory over our reading we are inhibiting the power of the author to reach out to the reader and reveal a great truth through his or her fiction.  He writes that good scholarship should make what is implicit in the literature explicit–and little more.  This observation, too, holds some truth and can be useful for scholarship, but I believe it sells the role of the scholar short.

Literary critics are not, as Matthew Arnold desires, the arbiters of what is worthy of study.  Instead, their goal should be to study the interaction of a text with the world in which it exists.  Sure, this includes giving preferential treatment to one text while slighting another, but it does not include dictating to the greater society what is “the best that has been known and thought.”  Aesthetic value is a wholly individual concept and any supposed scholar (even Harold Bloom) has no right to govern what has or lacks value.

One of Edmundson’s primary problems with theory is that students are often taught theory without actually encountering the works of the theorists.  Professors teach a Marxist reading of, say, Homer without bothering to have their students read the writings of Marx.  This critique is valid, but can be easily remedied with a thorough grounding in the history and importance of literary theory.

Edmundson concludes with the charge to befriend a text and, in criticism, relate what we best feel that author intended.  The role of the critic, as per his example, is a friend who is relating a story of great emotion told by one friend to another friend: the critic is the medium of emotional expression.  This model of criticism, in my opinion, lacks any teeth.

Instead of watered down story telling or strict theory-driven interpretation, critics must find a happy medium.  A reading should be grounded in the text itself but must engage with current theory and academic pursuits.  It is far too easy to bring out of texts what is not there, but at the same time, it is just as easy to eschew a critical eye in favor of a happy retelling.  Critics would benefit from working to relate to the greater populace and more basically interacting with their texts, but can’t they at least keep a bit of theoretical jargon?

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