What is Literature?

After reading Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory, I must admit my concept of "literature" has been somewhat altered. The most important question Eagleton poses, and which question I have adopted, is "Is there such a thing as 'literature'?" When I wrote my original essay, attempting to define this slippery concept, I was operating under the assumption that such a thing did, indeed, exist. Now, after an intense dose of critical analysis, I find, with Eagleton, that there is no distinct "literary qualifier" (my own term-unless previously claimed) to which we can easily point.

In considering each of the critical theories described in Literary Theory, I found myself instinctively drawn to the task of determining the twofold aspect of each, namely philosophy and approach. One can appreciate a number of different approaches to a given text, but, ultimately, there will be only one embraceable philosophy. While I noticed the worth of structuralism and psychoanalysis as approaches to texts, only reader response, or reception, theory provided a philosophy with which I could identify "meaning." I expressed my affinity for this theory in my essay on Les Liaisons Dangereuses when I stated that "it allows the reader a certain measure of autonomy and encourages a participatory attitude towards literature." This same "participatory" quality is not only vital to the experience of (whatever we might deem) literature, but it is sadly ignored by all of the other critical theories, with the possible exception of psychoanalysis.

Eagleton points out the fragile concept of the literary "canon" with which we are all familiar, and by which we are all conditioned. It is at this juncture, however, that I find myself obliged to stand as a bulwark against his attempted deconstruction of said concept. While he is right that this canon is nothing more than an aggregate of historical literary value judgments, of, in effect, shared belief systems pertaining to the written word, and may very well be a tool for the perpetuation of various social ideologies, I must nevertheless defend this much-maligned group of texts as being, for the most part, valuable and worthwhile. No amount of intellectual posturing can persuade me that The Merchant of Venice is on a par with The Silence of the Lambs. Eagleton's point that each of us is a thinking individual and capable of forming our own opinions as to the literary quality of a given work is well taken; I should not, on the other hand, be criticized for coming to the conclusion, via such prescribed scrutiny, that the majority of texts in the accepted canon are, in fact, literature.

In summing up, I wish to thank the instructor for his chosen format in the teaching of "Junior Seminar." The application of specific sections of Eagleton's book to selected works of literature (ooh, ooh-"literature"-can't say that, can't say that!) has been invaluable to my awareness of that murky, treacherous nether region of English studies known as literary theory. While realizing that I have only just touched the surface of this gigantic bad egg of pedantry and pretentiousness, I feel confident that I can escape the onslaught of post-structuralists and mimeticists reasonably unscathed.

©1996 Patrick Galloway

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