Literary Theory: Why Should a Young Writer Care?

Why should I be spending my summer holidays reading Terry Eagleton’s ‘Introduction to Literary Theory’? The unglamorous reason, of course, is to acclimatise myself to the looming rigours of studying English at university. Another reason is anxiety: count yourself lucky if you can sit in one place without your mind running wild. Mine, meanwhile, needs structure to stay sane, and early prep work to cope with the superhuman expectations of university reading lists .

With this summer being the first respite after two years of gruelling A-levels, every novice Literature student like me has the right to ask: why on earth should they compromise on the available temptations of binge-watching Netflix, or rolling out of bed at twelve, that too for dissecting the mysteries of the English Language? Fair enough, maybe I’m that one over-earnest workaholic that nobody wants to be around in the holidays. But hear me out, because I have a case for it.

It’s all well and good to just ‘analyse’ something for a class, and do what feels right, but what about perspective?

What does it mean to write?

So far, I’m three chapters through the book, and I can safely say that the level of difficulty is beyond any of my reading so far.

The uphill climb is worth it – mainly because of the sheer scope of ideas: if you asked me what literature was at the end of my A-levels, I might say something along the lines of ‘the literary canon’, whatever mystical body came to organize that.  

Eagleton’s exploration takes that naïve answer and scrutinizes all its presumptions. Who is entrusted with the authority of defining Literature? Why is there a need for identifying Literature? How do we know when a work is, in fact, Literature?

And for me, this was key to Eagleton’s eyeopener: considering the countless range of approaches with which you can attack the term ‘Literature’. He begins with the Formalists, who identified Literature as a ‘special kind of language’ including certain devices, rather than something that can be defined in relation to reader or text. On the other end, we go all the way to the abstract literary appreciation of the Romantics. Reading this book was discovering that language I had hitherto loved, studied, and written in had a potential that I never thought it had before.

Why should anyone want to know about Literature?

This question in general is one that I get asked, and ask myself, very often. This is perhaps a symptom of a society that’s obsessed with economic profit, and the academic subjects which have concrete contributions to its growth, rather than the abstract critical thinking skills that literature develops.

Yet Eagleton makes it clear over and over again that literary theorists have had an influence on culture, and thereby made it possible for certain value systems to become more dominant than others. An unnerving example is the phenomenologist Heidegger, who encouraged open support for the Nazi regime. His theory made it possible to argue that language, history and Time were beyond human control although humans did participate in them, therefore readers were to simply let the meaning ‘occur’ to them, rather than striving to work it out. At its core, the idea that meaning is somehow intuitive is also authoritarian, presuming that there are some people who can just understand it. This makes it possible to justify a submission to such horrific regimes such as Hitler’s – a troubling real-life impact of a self-centered theory.  

How significant is this in the world of writing?

Why should the writer’s creativity be fettered to the chains of the theoreticians? My personal viewpoint has often been that creativity and such academic theory can be at odds with each other, meaning that in creative writing, what we’re dealing with is a more intuitive sense of “satisfying writing” rather than being confined by the criteria of Literature, good writing, or a similar term. Nevertheless, this book has altered my position somewhat. Reading about structuralism and semiotics, and about all the ways that a story could be analysed from its basic units, was something that made me look at literature from a radically different perspective. Eagleton consistently points out the gaps and paradoxes in each school of thought, highlighting the depth of intellectual exploration that could spring from a writer just jotting down a few words.  It’s the creative process, made better by self-awareness.

Why might all young writers benefit?

By young writers, I am referring to those of us who are in sixth form or higher education as this book demands a great deal of intellectual gymnastics from me, and presumably also from others of a similar ability. But while it may seem simpler to just understand writing in the commonest sense, Eagleton also points out that the real meaning may not be the most apparent one – and often, those who deviated from ‘common sense’ were justified in what they were contending, despite the scorn they received from society. If Literature students don’t think about the underlying structures, values and messages encoded in our everyday society, then who will?

Let’s have a debate, in critical spirit – do you agree that literary theory complements creative writing for novices? Some food for thought, while you…

Read, rejoice, repeat,