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:
‘Degrees of debt: the failure of creative writing courses’, by Gabrielle Innes
‘Creative writing, theoretically’, by Alison Broinowski