If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

You, the reader, purchases Italo Calvino’s newest book, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. The Reader soon discovers a problem; the book only has the beginning of the story and then breaks off right at a moment of suspense. The Reader returns to the bookstore to exchange his defective copy. There the reader meets the Other Reader, a girl named Ludmilla, a veracious reader who remembers the details of most of the books she has ever read and who has also come to return a defective copy of Italo Calvino’s new work. The Reader and the Other Reader exchange phone numbers and agree to discuss the book after they both finish. Unfortunately the replacement copy turns out to be a different story, which also ends shortly after the beginning at a moment of great suspense. The Reader calls up the Other Reader to discover she has the same problem. As they try to solve the mystery, they encounter yet more stories that begin, but never end. They journey into the corridors of universities where professors defend their esoteric subjects and obscure books, where feminist study groups rip apart books in discussions while only having read a fraction of the book, where chaotic publishing houses face an onslaught of writers and other shady literary figures, where internationally renowned authors struggle to overcome writer’s block, and even to South America where revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries infiltrate each other’s organizations and falseness pervades everything in society, all while hunting down a mysterious translator named Ermes Marana who wants to fill the world with fake bastardized copies of books and who has some kind of past relationship with Ludmilla. While trying to solve the mystery, the Reader tries to understand his new budding relationship with Ludmilla in the hopes of beginning a romantic relationship with her.

Like other books in the Postmodern tradition such as The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon and Operation Shylock by Philip Roth, there is a conspiracy-type of mystery at the heart of the novel, and the attempt to unravel this mystery not only creates a strong sense of confusion and chaos, but also raises questions about our identity and the character’s identities. As a metafiction, it is a fictional story that directly comments on the nature of reading and authorship. The novel employs the unusual second person perspective in order to address the reader directly and force the actual reader to identify with the Reader-character in the story. This is a metafictional trick to make us aware of the fact that the fictional reader is both like us and not like us at the same time.

The Reader as character is an Everyman figure who stands in for readers in general. This Every Reader represents the general desire of the average reader: to get to the end and solve the mystery underlying the main problem of the story. Traditional reading involves a story beginning with some sort of problem that causes the character to attempt to solve it, reaching an ending in which they either fix the problem, are changed by it, or both. Like the Reader character we, too, experience the frustration of ten separate stories that have beginnings, but no ends. Calvino tempts us to feel disappointed along with the reader since we never get to hear how these stories finish. However, unlike the Reader-Character we can see the real story is the frame narrative around the individual unfinished tales. The problem of the novel that draws the actual reader in is the Reader-character’s attempt to solve the mystery of the unfinished novels and his pursuit of Ludmilla as a love interest. These unfinished stories are themselves a means to an end, a trope that allows us to experience the real story. Instead of thinking of them as unfinished stories, we should instead treat them as clues in a mystery. The real story then is about how the reader character tries to solve the mystery of the unfinished novel and whether he can build a relationship with Ludmilla.

The identification with the Every Reader, emphasized through the second person perspective, is a fictional trick that urges us to consider the boundaries between fiction and reality. The perspective of the novel might encourage us to identify with the reader, but we are also not like this character. It is only a character, not us. The Every Reader captures a generalized version of a reader—in other words, it might capture what we want out of reading—but at the same time it lacks all our individualities as flesh-and-blood people. I have a daughter and I think I’m a pretty good father, I have a wife who I love, and I have a job as a librarian in a school. The Reader Character has none of these specific qualities or background. This reader character is not really me. So it is important to remember then that although the narrative tries to get us to identify with the Every Reader, this figure in the text is still a character at the end of the day; it only captures the real us to a point. By doing this the novel is warning against identifying too closely with a character in any book and forgetting they are products of the imagination. They might seem real, but they are just words on a page. We might see aspects of ourselves in them, but they are still very different from us and often in very different social circumstances. We might see people similar to ones we know, but if you think about it more they almost certainly are differences between the real person and the character on the page that reminds you of them. This point is addressed further in the relationship between the two readers. The reader is constantly trying to figure out Ludmilla. Is she interested in him? Why is she always late for their meetings? When we actually think about it, the reader character barely knows Ludmilla. He struggles to understand her and wonders if she is truly interested in him. Here, the novel is addressing the difficult question about how well we ever know anybody. How much do we truly understand the inner workings of our parents, our spouses, our children, and our friends? How much as readers do we understand what motivates Ludmilla? If the reader doesn’t know much about her and we only see the world through his eyes, how can we know much about her?

The novel offers other views about the purpose of reading. Ludmilla is the ideal reader. Ludmilla wants a pure and organic reading experience. She doesn’t want to know how books are made, revised, cut, changed, etc. She doesn’t desire books to comment on the deeper social world. She wants the final product, the book itself, to read for reading’s sake.

“For this woman . . . reading means stripping herself of every purpose, every foregone conclusion, to be ready to catch a voice that makes itself heard when you least expect it, a voice that comes from an unknown source, from somewhere beyond the book, beyond the author, beyond the conventions of writing: from the unsaid, from what the world has not yet said of itself and does not yet have the words to say (239).”

Reading for Ludmilla is a losing of one’s identity. We temporarily explore other worlds, other people’s experiences, other people who are not necessarily like us, and who have had different experiences from us. Reading for her seems to be about experiencing the world anew through the imagination. If there is deeper meaning to be found in literature it is the way it erases us as individuals and our petty concerns, and lets us experience the lives, worlds, and problems of others. The point for Ludmilla is the experience itself.

Some readers turn to books not to lose their identity and preconceptions, but to confirm and reaffirm their identity and political commitments. This is the case with Ludmilla’s sister, Lotaria, who is presented as a typical left-wing university student. She states at various points in the novel that the purpose of books is not so much to read them as to analyze them for clandestine social impulses and political points. She doesn’t enjoy reading books, but rather the point for her is dissecting and discussing books. She reads books already knowing what she is looking for and then finds it.
Our third model is Ermes Marana, the main antagonist who is behind the forgeries that forms the core problem of the novel. He also has ideas about the nature of books and readers.

“As for him, he wanted, on the contrary, to show her that behind the written page is the void: the world exists only as artifice, pretense, misunderstanding, falsehood (239).”

Unlike Ludmilla who views books as an escape into imagination, which may have the potential to change the way we view the world through new experiences different from our own lives and Lotaria who views books as social products to be critiqued and dissected, and thus are reflections of a certain social order that exists in the world, Ermes Marana believes that fiction is artifice. The world is meaningless, but stories give the illusion of meaning. His character who assumes multiple identities, fake credentials, and travels throughout the world on false pretenses embodies this understanding of reality. We never really learn who this man is in any definitive form. In a way, the character Ermes Marana is nothing but a series of artifices and false personas. Reading for him is about creating a variety of false meanings about the world to cover its meaninglessness. Is reading about the experience of exploring ideas, places, people, and worlds different and unknown to us that helps us open our mind to new experiences in the real world? Is reading about the pleasure of getting to the end of the story and feeling the comfort at the resolution of a problem? Is reading about challenging the status quo and an important political tool for change? Or is reading an act in which people fool themselves into creating false meaning and identity for their lives in a meaningless world? One might also see a hidden metaphor for life itself. Life is a series of stories and different people have different readings of other people’s lives. Ideal stories might always have an ending that resolves everything, but real life often doesn’t work that way and different narratives in our life don’t always have conclusions. Life often is a series of bumps and half-finished narratives, which we then replace with different narratives that matter more to us.


The Poetics by Aristotle (trans. Ingram Bywater)

It’s a testament to the book’s power that the Poetics still appears in many a graduate literary theory course today, even if in some people’s minds newer theories have since replaced the supposedly “outmoded” views of Aristotle. Aristotle opens with the same question as Terry Eagleton in his Literary Theory: an Introduction: What is literature? What falls under this elusive, hard to define category?

Aristotle attempts to answer this question by first separating the different categories of the arts and defining their individual qualities. He distinguishes them by their methods of production. Music for example is a combination of harmony and rhythm, while dance is merely rhythm. The means for producing dance is rhythm. Poetry is the art that “imitates by language” and is also set to meter, hence it combines language and rhythm. While this is a good starting point to begin categorizing art, style is not enough.

It is not merely a matter of a work possessing a meter or being written in verse that makes it literature, but we must also pay attention to its content. Aristotle claims that if you took the historical narrative of Herodotus written in prose and changed it to verse, it still would not be poetry in its essence. He tells us that the difference between history and poetry is that history describes what has already happened and is singular (meaning these events may never happen again or the events may only pertain to that specific society during that particular time period), while literature describes what might happen anywhere and everywhere, and deals with the universal.

There is plenty to disagree with in Aristotle’s distinction. After all, these days Herodotus’s History with its many folktales, speculations, and fanciful explorations is generally considered a great work of literature. In our age of the novel we don’t distinguish between prose and verse as a defining characteristic between what is literary and what is not. Nevertheless, we often hear that great literature is universal and here we see one of our first critics in history arguing for this idea. So how does it capture what is universal in human experience?

The main defining characteristic of art for Aristotle is its ability to imitate life, otherwise known as mimesis. Art is a representation of human experience, it mirrors society and the humans that live in it. The characters who frequent the stage should be judged by how closely they resemble the virtue and vices of real humans. The best plays for Aristotle are the ones that allow the decisions of the characters to control the plot rather than an artificial plot controlling the events and characters from the outside; the characters choices should move the plot, not the plot move the characters like inanimate chess-pieces. The plot should be organic from the characters’ decisions. Aristotle saves a special place in his treatise for Greek tragedy, an art form that combines all the other arts, since Greek tragedy included poetry, music, and dance.

For Aristotle the tragic hero needed to be someone we could sympathize with by being neither too good nor too bad, but a combination of good and bad traits. These heroes suffered from some fatal flaw of perception or judgment, which would allow the audience to identify more closely with the characters’ good traits and imperfections, and leads to catharsis, a purging of emotions.

Aristotle defines catharsis as the feelings of pity or fear that a play brings forth, which we then purge ourselves after watching a tragedy. In other words, the purpose of art for Aristotle is to release our emotions and be therapeutic. David Denby writing in his book The Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and the Other Indestructible Writer of the Western World questions Aristotle’s assertions about Catharsis:

“Such plays as Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and Euripides’Bacchae . . . were much wilder, more irrational, and more alarming than [Aristotle] seemed to realize. I did not feel purged after reading them but confirmed in my initial anxieties.”

Unlike philosophy or other disciplines, art works on us emotionally rather than rationally by imitating life (mimesis). It is through this imitation that we either empathize or sympathize with the characters of a story; this happens when we see ourselves or people we know in the characters, so that their experiences becomes our experiences, their pains and joys our pains and joys, and through their trials and tribulations which we experience alongside them we gain wisdom and knowledge about the real world around us. Like boiling the water out of a syrup to concentrate the sweetness of the sugars, fiction removes all the dullness of quotidian experience from its narrative and concentrates on the most dramatic parts of life, giving us access to a more intense concentrated version of real life.

Unlike Plato who viewed art’s ability of mimesis as deceptive, an image of an image of reality that distorted truth, Aristotle sees art not so much as distortion, but rather as an exaggeration of reality that helps bring us to the truth through its imitation of life. When Aristotle defines tragedy as an imitation of action that is serious and has magnitude what he means is the actions must be significant or important, not the modern “tea-cup” tragedies that pervade so much of today’s contemporary fiction. Although Aristotle believes that characters must drive the action of the story, there still needs to be an actual plot. I suspect Aristotle would have been critical of a lot of modern fiction, which focuses heavily on introspective characters, but with little plot. Likewise, he makes similar comments about language:

“In a play accordingly they do not act in order to portray the Characters; they include the characters for the sake of the action. So that it is the action in it, i.e. its Fable or Plot, that is the end and purpose of the tragedy . . . [Similarly], one may string together a series of characteristic speeches of the utmost finish as regards Diction and Thought, and yet fail to produce the true tragic effect; but one will have much better success with a tragedy which, however inferior in these respects, has a plot . . . we maintain, therefore, that the first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of Tragedy is the Plot[.]”

Aristotle criticizes pretty language as a goal in and of itself. Great diction might make for some beautiful writing, but it needs to be at the service of an actual plot. Aristotle champions plot over character and style, even though he recognizes the importance of character and style in the overall production of a literary work. This might seem contradictory from how I described Aristotle earlier as saying characters should drive a plot, not plots should drive characters. However, I understand him to be saying characters should drive the plot, but they shouldn’t just be standing around speaking lines and revealing their innermost souls while doing nothing! We don’t just want profound characters standing around being introspective. The actions of the characters should be towards some goal or struggling against some problem, which then naturally creates the plot. In other words, the best plays are the ones that the characters actions create a compelling plot and beautiful writing enhances the story; the best plays are the ones’ whose elements are in harmony with each other.

The rest of the text reads like a manual of guidelines on how to write a good tragedy. Stories must not be too long that we lose track of them nor too short that it lacks significance. Plays should be one unified plot with one central conflict instead of loosely attached episodes. Character actions and sequence of events should be probable (contain an internal logic). Certain character types and situations are easier to sympathize with than others (the good man falling into misfortune moves us far more than the evil man obtaining success and prosperity). Aristotle additionally warns against relying on shock value (blood, guts, and gore), thinking such elements to be more monstrous and disgusting than it is tragic.

Aristotle’s text also gives us some unique historical insights into the Greek world of art. We discover from Aristotle that comedy grew out of ‘iambic invective’ poetry, while tragedy grew out of epic poetry. Aristotle claims that it was Aeschylus who first added two actors to the drama and decreased the part of the chorus who used to be the protagonist. Sophocles was the first to add a third actor and scenery. We also learn about some of the conditions for play production. To produce a play the playwright needed permission from the Archon; the play was then sponsored by a wealthy citizen as a kind of community service. Aristotle even reveals that plays existed, such as Agathon’s Antheus that had no mythical background and were completely invented from scratch. He also hints at a thriving community of literary critics during his time whose ideas he is responding to in the Poetics, reminding us that critics disagreeing with each other about art is not a new phenomenon, but has always existed.

No matter what its purpose, Aristotle tells us, art is a natural human impulse that cannot be avoided. He reminds us that since childhood we learn about the world around us from imitation of our parents and teachers. Secondly, we enjoy learning the meaning of things. The literary impulse combines these two human impulses to learn through imitation ingrained in us since childhood and our desire to learn about the world around us.

Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton

(Originally re-read February 7th 2008 for a graduate class. Posted originally written 2008.)

The book serves as an historical overview of all the major literary theories up until 1983 when the original edition was published. Eagleton opens with the question: What is literature? What counts? Who decides? What interests does it serve? Is the Homer we read today the same as the Homer they read during the Middle Ages? How do we account for subjective tastes? (i.e the literary professor who might recognize James Joyce is great literature publicly to keep his job and the respect of his colleagues, but secretly thinks he is horribly overrated). How do we count for the divide in tastes between the average person on the street and academic professors?

Early on, Eagleton clearly sides with the belief that the Western Canon is a construct, reflecting a society’s social interests rather than some immutable Tradition. He goes so far as to suggest there may be a time in the future where Shakespeare or Homer are no longer meaningful and of interest to readers, ceasing to be great literature. He further attacks this idea of deeper truths in literature by trying to show even true statements are a matter of value-judgements. He suggests that different societies will value different truths. What should be our focus when we analyze literature? Transcendental truths? The process of literary production? Women’s eternal oppression and the social conditions of the poor?

Eagleton goes on to document the rise of literature as an academic subject, placing its origins within the Romantic movement. For the Romantics, literature was meant to be a sublime creation of the soul, a thing of beauty, a spiritual celebration of nature that transcended all that emotionless utilitarianism that transformed men into capitalist machines without souls. Literature was seen as a kind of spiritual medicine where man could get back in touch with nature and the world.

Literary Theory as an academic subject really comes into its own with I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, and T.S. Eliot. Richards tended to see literary works as a psychological reproduction of the author’s thought-processes. Leavis continued in the “spiritual tradition” of the Romantics, viewing literature as our pure connection to the ‘Organic Society’, the true spiritual domain of human beings that have become lost in a confusing Modern world. For him literature made you a better, more moral person. According to Eagleton, Leavis thought that literature offered you a way of withstanding the world rather than trying to change it. In other words, literature is a kind of escapism through the imagination, but a highbrow escapism. T.S. Eliot’s contributions were his emphasis on the emotional power of literature and the Tradition (this early idea of a Canon). For Eliot the meaning of literary works didn’t matter so much as their covert way of sneaking up on your emotions, and the gut-wrenching effects language could produce on a reader.

Next were the American New Critics who challenged the ideas of these early predecessors by maintaining the importance of treating literature as an independent object cut-off from its historical context and the author’s intentions. They maintained that treating a literary work as an isolated object would make literary criticism a more “scientific” endeavor. No longer could a reader appeal to an author’s letter as proof of what the author really meant or point to an event in the author’s life as evidence for a certain interpretation. The language and formal rhetorical strategies of the poem itself, in isolation from every other consideration, was the proper object of study. If a poem meant something it needed to be discernible from a close-reading of the actual poem itself and not from an author’s letter. It was the job of the literary critic to unify the contradictions and ambiguities of a text into a single meaning without making subjective “fluffy” statements about the beauty of language or being able to hear the thrusting of the rapier in a poem.

Phenomenology, the philosophy created by Edmund Husserl, is next on the literary theory tour. It was a philosophy which sought to study phenomena, believing it impossible to ever know if independent things exist outside of our subjective perceptions of them. Husserl believed that consciousness is not just a passive registration of the world (like a tape-recorder), but actively constitutes or ‘intends’ it. The philosophy sought to discover the ‘essence’ of things by looking at a particular phenomena and finding what was invariable about it from one person’s viewpoint to another. Phenomenological literary criticism isn’t interested in passing judgements on a Christian poem or a Feminist poem or whatever, but rather simply looks to describe what it felt for the author to ‘live’ it.

Eagleton moves onto hermeneutics, specifically discussing the writings of Gadamer. For Gadamer meaning in a literary work is never exhausted by its author’s intentions, but rather new meanings will be produced as a work shifts through culture and time. There is no way to know a literary text ‘as it is.’ Interpretations of past works are always a dialogue between past and present in which we listen to the unfamiliar voice from the past from the vantage-point of our present concerns. What the work says to us will in turn depend on the kind of questions that are centrally important to us now. The historical distance, however, does not hinder our interpretation, but aids it by stripping away all that was of merely passing significance about the work.

Critical of Gadamer is E.D. Hirsch Jr. Hirsch points out that there are multiple ways of interpreting a text, but that they are limited by a ‘system of typical expectations and probabilities’ which the author’s meaning permits. Hirsch goes on to say that a text may mean different things to different people at different times, but that it is more a matter of “significance” rather than a change in “meaning.” For example, I recently read a book on Beowulf that claimed in the introduction that what the work can teach us about heroism is more important than ever because of the events of 9/11. The meaning of Beowulf is about the nature of heroism, while the significance explains why I should care about heroism and what it means to me in my own historical context.

This leads us to Reader Reception theory, which comes in a wide variety of flavors. Basically it is the idea that there is no singular correct interpretation (i.e. many legitimate interpretations of a literary work are possible) and that the reader is the fulcrum of meaning. The reader is the one to fill in the holes, contradictions, spaces of a work based on their assumptions, background, skill, and past experiences. Literature is a transformative experience always forcing us to question our beliefs. We modify our interpretations of the text by our reading strategies, but similarly it modifies us as we encounter its ideas. Some Reader Reception theorists believe that our different interpretations will reflect our different interpretative communities (someone of black descent growing up in a system of racism will not interpret a book the same way as a white guy would; likewise, an atheist will interpret the Bible differently than a fundamentalist Christian because they each have their own reading communities that apply different interpretative norms and assumptions, and have other people who will reinforce those strategies within their communities). However, this idea of interpretative community doesn’t need to be large ideological groups, but might just be a matter of different classrooms; one college class might read differently from another college class in the same university because the class itself is a mini-community and the two different teacher’s expectations will shape that community. Not all Reader Reception theorists focus on this idea of interpretative communities; some understand it in a more individualist light.

Structuralism and Semiotics comes next, with its desire to bracket off the context of the story in order to concentrate entirely on the form. It is a clinical approach that debunks the mysteries of literature. For example, structuralist Northrop Frye noted that all narratives can be broken down into four narrative categories: comic, romantic, tragic, and ironic. As structuralism developed it broke down literary structures even further. Images no longer had meaning on their own. The sun isn’t a symbol for “life” in and of itself. The meaning of an image is wholly a matter of its relation to other images. A poem about the sun and moon only has meaning as the two images explain and define each other. Eagleton gives an example of how a structuralist would read a story about a boy who fights with his father, heads off to the woods, falls into a pit where the sun shines upon him, and is eventually rescued:

A structuralist critic would schematize a story in diagrammatic form. The first unit of signification, ‘boy quarrels with father’, might be rewritten as ‘low rebels against high.’ The boy’s walk through the forest is a movement along a horizontal axis, in contrast to the vertical axis ‘low/high’, and could be indexed as ‘middle’. The fall into the pit, a place below ground, signifies ‘low’ again, and the zenith of the sun ‘high’. By shining into the pit, the sun has in a sense stooped ‘low’, thus inverting the narrative’s fist signifying unit, where ‘low’ struck against ‘high’. The reconciliation between father and son restores equilibrium between ‘low’ and ‘high’, and the walk back home together, signifying ‘middle’, marks this achievement of a suitably intermediate state.

Literature only reshuffles its symbolic structures. All the elements are replaceable; father and son could just as easily be mother and daughter. This means all literary works are built off universal structures. Individual genius isn’t important to a structuralist because all literary works follow universal structures; all people think alike with the same narrative structures. This has implications for the Canon as well. Structuralism’s method can be applied to all works, lowbrow, middlebrow, and highbrow equally. Its method of analysis reveals that the structure of our Great Works are often no different than the structure of lowbrow pop fiction. For a structuralist all stories are basically the same.

Post-Structuralism takes these ideas even further. This school led by the likes of Derrida believed that since language is made up of an infinite series of differences—for example, the word, “cat” has its meaning precisely because it is not “hat” or “bat” or any other word in the English language — that the signifiers that makes up language will have no end-point of meaning. Literary works are an endless play of signifiers. What a word signifies will only lead you to other words (other signifiers), which will then lead you still to more words. Criticism is the process of structuring a text, of forcing language into distinct meanings or something like that. I blatantly admit this is the school of thought that I have the hardest time with, so my explanations might be inaccurate or overly simplistic.

Eagleton then goes on to Freudian Psychoanalysis, dividing Freudian criticism into four kinds: it can look at the author of the work, the work’s contents, its formal construction, or at the reader of the work. He discusses Lacan briefly, a thinker who brought together Freudian theory and Post-Structuralist theory (a human being is who he/she is precisely because they are not everyone else). I never could figure out what Lacan has to do with literature. He also discusses Kristeva who talks about the revolutionary powers of the “semiotic” to rebel against discourse/father’s law (or something like that).

Eagleton ends not by offering the latest trends in Feminism and Marxism literary theory, but hitting home the point that his entire book has really been one long polemic with the express goal of pointing out that all literary theory is political. He concludes with the provocative suggestion that Feminism and Marxism are the most productive methods of literary criticism since they can actually manage to accomplish real-world change as opposed to all these other “political” methods of literary theory that always seem to cut themselves short of being able to prepare the reader for activism. He finishes by telling us that literature should be seen as part of a larger material culture, and it therefore makes more sense to practice cultural studies rather than literary studies.

Some Thoughts on Terry Eagleton’s Arguments and Literary Theory In General

All this leads us into some of my own personal criticisms of Terry Eagleton’s so-called introduction to literary theory. When I first read the book as a way of preparing myself for grad school I was so captivated by all the new and strange theories that I hardly noticed Eagleton’s biases, but on a re-read for a class during grad school I noticed that the author’s Marxism appears on every page and that he criticizes other literary theories through the lens of his Marxism.

In the book, Theory’s Empire, an anthology of essays criticizing poststructural and politically-oriented literary theory, Mark Bauerlein accuses Eagleton of committing logical fallacies when he writes that the whole book “reads like a textbook case of commentary by genetic fallacy and ethical consequence.” Eagleton is content to dismiss the validity of theories for having the wrong political origins or if they fail to be explicitly political in their effect. Bauerlein also notes that this argument is ridiculous. There is nothing stopping someone who reads Othello in the New Critical method that Eagleton sees as “supporting the status quo” from protesting the unfair wages of the poor the next week or attending a woman’s rights rally or engaging in Civil disobedience. Just because a person prefers to read in a more “traditional” manner doesn’t mean they’re a closet political conservative.

Eagleton attacks the idea of reading literature in an “objective” neutral way. There is obviously practical reasons for him to make this argument; by claiming that all “methods” are political, imbricated in society, and really reflections of ideological interests (even the ones that claim to be neutral), it defends his own questionable undeniably bias political methods of literary criticism. He already has an effective shield up. No matter what objection I raise he can point out that it is my ideological world-view that makes me say it, hence further proving him right and me unable to ever prove him wrong. If I criticize his bias methods, he can just respond that my methods aren’t any more neutral than his. Who has the most to gain by convincing people that all literary interpretation is really ideological and political? The ones who practice an explicitly political interpretation of it of course! It seems to me there is a huge difference between reading a work and knowing what it will contain a priori (i.e. checklist criticism of many Feminist and Marxist critics: workers being exploited, not enough female characters, etc.) versus reading a work and being surprised by what you might find there, to the point where it has the ability to question and challenge your beliefs.

Often literary theory is dismissed as intellectual gibberish. This is mostly due to French Continental philosophers such as Foucault, Kristeva, Derrida, Lacan, etc., associated with postmodernism, post-structuralism, and politically-oriented literary theories; this group in general tend to view all aspects of society and academic disciplines as socially-constructed narratives, including things like science. They tend to borrow from math, science, and other fields to make strange abstruse arguments, but use the ideas in ways that are blatantly inaccurate and show they don’t understand the math and science they are borrowing from.

While Post-structuralism and Continental Philosophy have given literary theory a bad name, I am of the opinion we shouldn’t dismiss the subject completely. As long as literature itself remains important to people, so does the broader questions of literary theory: what is great literature? Who decides? What does literature do for us? Is there a correct way to read? How do we account for different interpretations? etc. These are all legitimate philosophical questions applied to the practice of reading and literary analysis. Many of the other literary theory movements, such as New Criticism, hermeneutics, and reader reception theory make interesting and reasonable observations that do make good attempts at addressing some of these questions. In a sense, literary theory should just be seen as the philosophy of literature, asking important and necessary questions about literature and its relationship to society, truth, its inherent nature, and methods of reading literature.