Against Any Theory of Literary Theories

Coming to any conclusion regarding the value of any particular literary work or group of literary works against any other standard, whether it be an educational, political, or economic one, is simplistic and ludicrous. It’s as intelligent as rating the quality of paintings by the total number of brush strokes.

Let’s see, that’s Rembrandt with 11,534 strokes versus Jackson Pollock with 0. Or to make a literary comparison: it’s Tolstoy with 450,000 words versus Emily Dickinson with 3,250. Now, how fun is that? But if you want to keep warm during a Boston winter while avoiding news of American deaths in Afghanistan, read War and Peace and feel smug against the comparison with Moscow and Napoleon. If you want your brain to toy with the many times your feelings have reacted to a snake in the grass, read Dickinson’s poem about it. The joy Tolstoy and Dickinson had it creating those writings is there for all to read again and again. There is no way to create a definite product from that, but readers do keep coming back to it.

Ultimately, art cannot be put into any box besides its own creation. It is profoundly anti-establishment, anti-ideological and of course, anti-narrow-minded. Marjorie Garber says: “Literature is a process rather than a product, and if it progresses, it does so in a way that often involves doubling back upon a track or meandering by the wayside rather than forging ahead, relentlessly and single-mindedly, toward some imagined goal or solution.”

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2 Comments to “Against Any Theory of Literary Theories”

  1. Great post, David. I like this one. I even snagged a quote from you, “Ultimately, art cannot be put into any box besides its own creation.” and pinned it to my Quotes page on my website – linking back to here.

  2. Thank you, Lucinda. Marjorie Garber has a lot to say about art and literature in her recent book. It asked me to make a few remarks as well.

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