Writers need literary theory

It is an interesting time for creative writing programs. Three of the novelists recently nominated for the Miles Franklin award studied the vocational RMIT Professional Writing and Editing Diploma, a course that does not include literary theory. Does creative writing absolutely need a knowledge of literary theory to make for the kind of art rewarded by prizes for literature? Apparently not. Yet if we look at the landscape of contemporary fiction we can see how a working knowledge of theory adds vibrancy to literary fiction.

One of the critical and popular darlings of the last few years, mysterious Italian author Elena Ferrante, has made clear the significant influence of literary and critical thought on her writing. In an interview with Vanity Fair last year, Ferrante acknowledged her debt to contemporary feminist theory:

Today I read everything that emerges out of so-called postfeminist thought. It helps me look critically at the world, at us, our bodies, our subjectivity. But it also fires my imagination, it pushes me to reflect on the use of literature. I’ll name some women to whom I owe a great deal: Firestone, Lonzi, Irigaray, Muraro, Caverero, Gagliasso, Haraway, Butler, Braidotti.

It is clear from Ferrante’s interview that contemporary feminist theory allows her as a writer to think critically about contemporary formations of gender and sexuality specifically, and power more generally. Her Neapolitan books are, among other things, an important reflection on not only the intensity of female friendship (itself a rare enough topic), but the ways in which female embodiment is worked upon by patriarchy, how women’s hopes and dreams are stifled by the men around them, how desire works. Such thematics are unthinkable in their sophistication without the influence of the feminist theory Ferrante has drawn on.

Take for instance, the following scene in the first book of Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, My Brilliant Friend, in which Lenu gets her period for the first time:

One afternoon I fell asleep and when I woke I felt wet. I went to the bathroom to see what was wrong and discovered that my underpants were stained with blood. Terrified by I don’t know what, maybe a scolding from my mother for having hurt myself between my legs, I washed the underpants carefully, wrung them out, and put them on again wet.

Here Ferrante undoubtedly creates an ecriture feminine (‘women’s writing’) of the kind argued for by French feminist and literary theorist Helene Cixous in her 1975 manifesto ‘The laugh of the Medusa’. Her writing of the cis female body (and oh do we need a trans women’s ecriture feminine too) owes a clear debt to Irigaray’s philosophical examination of female embodiment and her critique of masculine language. Lenu learns, ‘you wouldn’t die from that wound’ – a recognition that to be female in a patriarchy is to be wounded, that the ways in which we talk about girls and women’s bodies contributes to a masculine conspiracy of silence. Ferrante dramatises this in a visceral and moving way, affixing realistic sensory and emotional detail to the scene in a way that adds depth to Irigaray and Cixous’ theories.

Given Ferrante’s unapologetic feminist politics, it is unsurprising that she would be outed as she was last week by four newspapers, writing in four different languages (apparently one woman’s anonymity is a transnational threat). Michel Foucault once wrote about what he called the ‘author function’, the ways in which authorial persona exerts a presence over the text, and it is Ferrante’s attempt to control this that undoubtedly fuelled the months-long investigation into her private life. As Aaron Bady has said in an excellent response to the Ferrante outing, ‘to strip away her privacy is to destroy the fictional persona she created, and to attack the fictions of these books themselves. This is why it was done.’ To be a female writer is to be subjected to a culture that seeks to negate the author’s self-determination, the craft of the art, the intelligence of the writer. There is a clear misogyny at work in Ferrante’s outing, as well as a painful literalism in how literary works are discussed.

Indeed, Ferrante has in interviews criticised the way that the media talks about novels, saying ‘it’s not the book that counts, but the aura of its author’. Roland Barthes famously talked about the death of the author, inspiring great swathes of literary theory on the subject, but the author has remained tenaciously alive in the present day. And yet, what does it matter to the art who the ‘real’ Elena Ferrante is? Knowing her supposed name tells us nothing about her novels, her characters, the way she imagines the world. She refuses the model of the heroic solitary author, noting that ‘there is no work of literature that is not the fruit of tradition, of many skills, of a sort of collective intelligence. We wrongfully diminish this collective intelligence when we insist on there being a single protagonist behind every work of art.’ Like Barthes’ scriptors, Ferrante disappears from her text into a ‘tissue of signs’, magnificently drawing together disparate ideas and images to create something unique and beautiful in its evocation of women’s bodily and inner lives.

Ferrante is far from alone in her usage of literary theory. In The Novel After Theory, literary critic Judith Ryan has talked about the way various contemporary luminaries like DeLillo, Pynchon, Coetzee and AS Byatt have drawn on poststructuralist literary theory. She says, ‘these novels do not simply incorporate theory, they reflect on it, complicate it and sometimes go beyond it’. Contemporary writers’ engagement with literary theory is not, and has rarely been, a mechanical application of theories, for such writing is unlikely to engage much of an audience. Instead, as we can see in the work of the aforementioned writers – and we could list numerous other writers like Jeanette Winterson and David Foster Wallace, too – a knowledge of literary theory allows novelists to elucidate complex ideas as well as achieve aesthetic brilliance.

In the end, the choice is not between literary theory and nothing. Every writer works from theoretical assumptions about literature, gender, sexuality, race etc, and about the world in general. If we do not understand literary theory, we work from the inherited ‘common sense’ ideas of the world in which we live, a complacency that is death to creative work. This is not no literary theory, it is bad literary theory. It is – or should be – the role of creative writing programs to challenge students’ ideas, to confront and reconsider every assumption a student might hold. Craft matters, but so too does originality of thought, of building on knowledge to produce something genuinely new. Removing literary theory from writing courses is an anti-intellectual move that is ultimately self-defeating, and it is one that de-politicises creative work. Universities are increasingly cynical in offering only vocational learning, a tendency that we in the arts must resist in order to survive.

Naivety and chutzpah can go a long way in creative writing, but not far enough. If we want to produce truly great novelists like Ferrante, a decent understanding of literary theory is imperative. Ferrante’s work is made more refreshing by its knowledge of theory, not less so. Great literature not only reflects the world, it creates a new one. Every great writer is a magpie, drawing on everything they possibly can to make their art, including the intellectual discussions of the day. Art must move us, provoke us, infuriate and inspire us, and every tool in the writer’s box has its use. Good art is intelligent art.


Image: ‘Medusa’ / flickr


This is part of a series responding to our recent Pitch Page query about whether writers need literary theory, a topic that received an unusual amount of interest. Read the other two responses so far:

Emily McAvan

Emily McAvan is an Australian literary critic and theorist.

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  1. Thanks very much for opening up this very interesting literary area for discussion.

    You state that ‘Naivety and chutzpah can go a long way in creative writing, but not far enough. If we want to produce truly great novelists like Ferrante, a decent understanding of literary theory is imperative’

    But why, in the logic of the article, is it either literary theory or ‘naivety and chutzpah’? Why, which seems to be the assumption, is ‘intelligent art’ only that which is informed by literary theory? And why is Ferrante the only example of a great novelist? Because she read literary theory and saw value in it?

    The article does acknowledge that creative writing is more than an engagement with literary theory (‘Every great writer is a magpie, drawing on everything they possibly can to make their art’). But more could be said of this.

    Isn’t creative writing a very mysterious business? What works for one person may not work for another? In other words, What about lived experience? Writers have always produced great works of ‘creative writing’ without recourse to literary theory. American literature of the 1920s and ‘30s was nothing if not politically inspired, what with the Great Depression and critiques of capitalism and Stalinism, and the plights of growing up in immigrant communities. People read the newspapers. People lived the experiences of these things, as women have done are now doing. Lived experience goes a long way, especially when surely the point of literary theory (and Ferrante’s engagement with it) is how it can speak to your own experiences. Otherwise it’s just dead boring. Dry as dust discourse.

    I disagree. Creative writers don’t need literary theory.

  2. Sure, theory is needed in whatever pursuit – the seemingly simple or difficult act or process of crossing a road – for example. Depends too on the sorts and types of theory being taught, and who this ‘we’ includes and excludes, to begin with …

    1. The question can be renewed with each new generation. Sartre asked it and devoted a whole book to it in 1948, called, ‘What is Literature?’ Terry Eagleton has also written extensively on the question. Feminist theory has addressed it too. And you yourself may have read a lot of fiction and theory and come to your own conclusions.

      But perhaps asking what literature is in its nature or essence doesn’t really go anywhere. I think it’s better to ask, How is it useful? What can it do for us (as a society)? Why do we feel we need to keep using the word Literature?

      1. I really like your answer, au contraire. This is something I am trying to get across to my high school students: what does the text tell us about human experience?

        I am being very careful to repeat this question in our look at WW1 literature because the students are simultaneously studying WW1 in their history/geography classes.

        To differentiate the human story from the facts and figures, maps and graphs of their other subjects is, for me, to ask this question of the text.

        It is a similar question to the one Kafka asked in The Hunger Artist, Delillo asked in The Body Artist, and Conrad asked in The Heart of Darkness. How does an event or a way-of-being in the world effect the human subject?

        Thank you.

        1. I like what you said here Andrew about differentiating ‘the human story from the facts and figures, maps and graphs,’ through reading literature. That is a really interesting distinction to make, especially in the era of the internet. We live by and amongst these things and yet we are so much more. And it’s being able to separate out these things and the human story. to see the parts and the whole as best as we can that is a crucial part of critical thinking. When we read literature we get a sense of human life as somehow caught up in things, in history, in society, in relationships, and so on, and that we are often unable to fully see what it is that is happening. The novel brilliantly allows time (social and personal) to work upon the characters, much as it does in our lives, that it is only with time (as ageing, and history) that we might come to see and understand what it is we are living through, who we are, and what matters most. We need the fact and figures, the maps and graphs; but the world is what it is, and we’re just trying to make a go of it. The novel is our language of being (though, Cable TV series are doing it too these days, but that is a whole other area).

          Best of luck.

  3. I think the two questions you ask are very significant. I regularly read Detective novels which do nothing for me ( except for a few hours of mindless titillation ), and apart from lining the author’s pocket, do nothing for society. Where would this Detective novel fit along the literary spectrum. And where would the corollary (gives personal and universal insight) lie.
    I’m sought of being a devil’s advocate here, partly to flesh out my own understanding. Is there a benchmark involved and is there other criteria to be met. Is not the writing itself of value and how is it valued, what is the currency?

  4. I think the two questions you ask are very significant. I regularly read Detective novels which do nothing for me ( except for a few hours of mindless titillation ), and apart from lining the author’s pocket, do nothing for society. Where would this Detective novel fit along the literary spectrum. And where would the corollary (gives personal and universal insight) lie.
    I’m sought of being a devil’s advocate here, partly to flesh out my own understanding.

  5. Creativity does not require academic study of literary theory. Writers that come through MFA programs are required to read other writers widely. Writers, despite academic training need to do this rather than read manuals of structure and rules of literary theory. There is nothing wrong with studying litrary theory explicitly if it feeds a writer’s unique style but there are centuries of writers who never studies literary theory as an academic subject and have made contributions to the field.

  6. I will print the files & reread carefully, but I do agree that creative writers / authors / poets need a good knowledge of critical theory, even a brief excursion into Eagleton would be helpful in an undergraduate course, and should be enriched by a close reading of the Greeks & Latins, as well as having a comprehensive knowledge of the development of a national literature, be it French or Russian etc. All too often when I have been runnign writing groups for U3A, let alone VU literary studies, there’s an ingrained opposition to close reading, to thinking critically, as the vacuous doctrine “Let it all hang out!” neglects to mention that the Russian Futurists and even the Beats were building on over 2 millenia of critical response. Best wishes, Ted

  7. Pity the billions of people around the world who do not have the opportunity to attend university for Literary Theory instruction, guess they are excluded from the literary world.

  8. Theory is a tool; it can be used and abused in any number of ways. Some might find it essential, others useful, others pointless. There is nothing to be gained by generalized assumptions about the universal applicability of any given body of theory.

  9. What an extraordinary reaction, and all from men and anonymouses! Many of these comments, seem to be reacting to the headline which “begs the question,” did anyone read the oped? I cannot tell. But anyone who aspires to write Literature must engage with the centuries of Literature that went before them. Not all of it, but enough, because writing is an intellectual art. And my lecturers at uni have the same view as the author so maybe all lecturers like theory.

  10. The Associate Degree at RMIT is a special beast dedicated to the craft of writing — the toolbox, as it were. It’s not the same as a Creative Writing degree. Many of the students are mature-age and come from other degrees which may include having studied literary theory to varying levels, including, sometimes, PhDs in the stuff.

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