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Friday, February 8, 2013


My facebook friend Robert Archambeau posted the following:
Publishers keep sending me these little guidebooks to critical theory, hoping I'll use them in my literary theory seminar. But I just can't get behind the idea of having students read little chapters on Structuralism or New Criticism or whatever, instead of having them read actual essays by Roland Barthes or Cleanth Brooks. I mean, would you have the students in your poetry class read a guidebook with chapters on Elliptical Verse or The Movement, but not read any John Ashbery or Philip Larkin?
That accords perfectly with my sense that there are "primary texts" of theory. Just last night, a social scientist friend of mine said he preferred to read other people's digests of theory, rather than the original texts. Of course, I objected strenuously. My exact words were "no, no, no, no, no, no, no!" I hope he was not offended.

This came after we were talking about how we discover new things each time we read a text. If you are reading a secondary text, you aren't going to discover anything new in the primary text that the commentator did not see. You are also missing the stylistic values, the rhetorical slippages, and other literary qualities.


Leslie B. said...

Just say no to guidebooks. It's just one step from there to "applications" of theory. And of course, the idea that you can "learn theory" in a semester.

Shedding Khawatir said...

Personally I like to read both, plus articles discussing theory, which are somewhere between. I feel as though they all help me, although perhaps I will feel differently when I am more advanced in my knowledge.

Vance Maverick said...

Presumably there are cases (as in philosophy) where students need to read a crib or digest as a starting point, before engaging with the text itself.

Jonathan said...

I would say yes, but not as replacement for the text or engagement with it.