A while ago, on our way back from a Novacon, Maureenand I had a fascinating conversation about narrative voice. When I wrote about it afterwards, the response was not about the subject of the conversation, but the fact of it. ‘Normally when we’re driving home from a convention all we talk about is where the next services are…’ If that’s your response, there’s really little point in going behind the cut.

You see, Sunday morning saw MKS and I having another of those conversations, this time about the nature and function of critical theory. MKS gave a bravura account of literary theory since, approximately, Philip Sidney. If you’ll excuse the abbreviation, it went something like this: at first critical writing was concerned with pointing out how literature reflected the good and noble in mankind; by the time of Matthew Arnold this had changed to an examination of which books were in and of themselves morally uplifting. By the end of the Victorian period and the early years of the 20th century this in turn had grown into the idea of the canon. It has only been since the Second World War that literary theory has started asking a whole range of other inter-related questions, such as how books achieve the effects they do, how we read a book, how extraneous issues will affect any particular reading, and so forth.

It is in this more relativistic post-war period that the notion of the canon has been undermined, though not yet fatally so since it still appears to be a popular pastime, as witness the recent silliness when people were asked to name the books any child should have read. My own growing feeling is that the whole idea of the canon represents a monolithic view of literature (‘monolithic’ is my critical term of the moment, I find myself using it repeatedly in reviews and conversation, which suggests that it stands for a notion I am still in the process of exploring and do not have fully worked out in my mind yet). By monolithic I mean a view that literature is all one thing, that authors spend their career exploring one idea, that books have one central topic, that all springs from some earlier source which in turn springs from an earlier source which in turn … If there is a canon, a prescribed list of the great and worthy books, then to be canonical the list must be closed, so the notion that literature is an on-going and ever-changing thing, the fact that our responses to the same book might change over time, must be quietly ditched. There was a medieval view of an antique golden age in which everything was known, and all new ideas were simply remembering that perfect past. By the Renaissance that view was being ditched because it was hampering such things as the rise of rational thought and scientific exploration – not to mention the fact that it is hard to sustain an idea of perfect prior knowledge when some brand new fact, such as the Americas, suddenly appears to confound all previous understandings. This monolithic medievalism survives in notions of the canon, and also in some branches of postmodern critical theory (as in the Philmus thesis underpinning Visions and Re-Visions, which I had the displeasure of reading and reviewing recently).

By now, of course, critical theory has proliferated into a myriad of sects, rather like early modern Protestantism. Sometimes these seem less disparate from the outside than they clearly do to insiders: the variation between the (largely American) new historicism and the (largely British) cultural materialism reminds me of the roughly contemporary split between the British and American New Waves in the 60s. But all this diversity raises issues about how one should ‘do’ critical theory. I’m not talking here about using it as an academic discourse, but as an everyday tool in one’s day by day reading. When reading a book (a ‘text’ I suppose we should say), does one mechanistically, retroactively apply the strictures of theory? Is it like learning to drive a car, a set of conscious responses which in time become unconscious? Or is it only an academic discourse, in other words something you bring to bear upon a text only when studying it within an academic or critical context? My own thinking tends towards one or other of the first two, simply on the basis that if it is the latter then critical theory feels artificial and emptied of much of its value for me.

And of course there is the question of which theory one is supposed to apply. Should one be monogamous, true only to one theory within any given text? MKS likens critical theory to a toolbox, from which one takes whichever device is most appropriate to do the job you want. I like this notion myself, though I am disturbed by the possible corollary: that one chooses the tool, the theory, in order to achieve the end result one already has in mind. My own inclinations tend towards something I’ve called ‘absolute relativism’, a view that all theories are accessible and usable at all times upon all texts. This is an outgrowth of my anti-monolithic views. Literature, I believe, is multifarious; no two of us will read the same book the same way, and we will almost certainly read the same book in different ways at different times. Since there is, there can be, no one correct reading of anything, the purpose of reading and the purpose of criticism is the same: to arrive at what makes most sense for us, to derive from the text what, in our current state of knowledge, comes closest to what feels like the truth. The moment you read the first word on the first page of a new book there are myriad routes you can take through its tangled undergrowth. Critical theories, altogether not singly, provide tools (map, compass, GPS) to help us find a way through the book, but they do not define the way through the book.

All of which is more question than answer. I’m not sure I want an answer, but I’m enjoying the process of exploring the implications of the questions.

First published at Livejournal, 6 February 2006.