What is Literary Theory and do we need to study it?

John Phillips


It is possible, even now in the 21st century, to complete a degree course in Literature without doing any literary theory.  You might do perfectly well—even emerge as a star in the firmament of literary study—without ever having to engage with any of the by now canonical areas of literary theory, like formalism, structuralism, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis and deconstruction.  You could even get by, with no damage at all to your credentials or to your understanding and appreciation of literature, without doing any Marxism or feminism.  Literary study remains strong and identifiable in its own right and is composed today, just as it was 50, 100, 150 years ago (but not much further back than that), of all kinds of activities like editorial work, criticism, appreciation and commentary that cope quite well on their own grounds without any interference from what many students would recognize (with a groan) as theory.  Literary Theory might, therefore, be considered as something over and above the normal requirements of literary study.  In the least sanguine sense of this over and above, we might charge it with superfluity.  It is quite unnecessary for us to study theories of literature in order to study literature.  In another, more difficult sense (and here we are now beginning to actually do some theory), theory’s superfluity to the normal requirements for reading and studying literature has proved over the years to be a tremendously productive resource for more adventurous readers and thinkers.  So much so that the field—no matter how independent of theory it remains—has nonetheless been transformed in all kinds of ways by the insistence of a certain dogged theorizing that just goes on whether we like it or not. 

So it would not be strictly necessary to take a course in Literary Theory.  Against this, of course, many programs insist on a minimum requirement—a core course in literary theory, approaches to literature, critical theory, advanced critical reading—you find them everywhere, indicating more than anything else a sense of its importance for people who plan courses, guardians of institutions of literature who feel that without theory there is something not quite valid about a course.  But (and here I’m going to get all theoretical again) taking a course in Literary Theory is often a frustrating experience and, as such, it would not necessarily be very theoretical.  I mean if theory is read in certain ways then no theorizing on the part of the student goes on.  Many people come into Literary Theory believing that there may be tools to pick up, methods to apply (more or less mechanically perhaps) that help to unlock the mysteries of the literary texts.  In other words, despite recent history and the prevalence of courses introducing you to literary theory, there is no guarantee that Literary Theory will be produced.  Oh, you can be sure that literary study, criticism, appreciation etc. will go on unimpeded but the peculiar experience of having taken a course in Literary Theory without it having made much sense and certainly not much difference to the way you read literature remains common. 

This is because Literary Theory needs to be regarded as a separate subject, independently of what goes on in the other areas of departments of literature, before it can be expected to change anything.  The theory (or production of theories) of literature can be regarded as a specialized pursuit and those who choose to follow it often read it for its own intrinsic interest, not simply subordinating it to already extant ways of doing literary appreciation, criticism and commentary.  Only then does it begin to contribute to literary studies. 



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