One of the side-effects of James Wood’s widely reviewed book How Fiction Works (Jonathan Cape) is that it has renewed talk in the literary pages of theory. Er, which theory is that, the ingénue asks? Oh, do keep up, the postmodernist replies. You know, theory.
Why is this ridiculous affectation so universally indulged? Why do we not simply laugh when Terry Eagleton writes a book called After Theory (and he is not the first)? Now yes, it is true that we are now living in an age which postdates quantum theory, and Darwinian theory, and chaos theory, and, hell, Deryaguin-Landay-Verwey-Overbeek theory. But these people are not talking about theories as such. To them, there is only one theory, indeed only ‘theory’.
All right, we are talking here about literary theory, or if you like, cultural theory. This is not, as you might imagine, a theory about how literature works, or how culture works. It is a particular approach to thinking about literature, or culture. It is a point of view. It is in some respects quite an interesting point of view. In other respects, it is not terribly interested I the business of writing, which is what literature has (I hope you’ll agree) tended to be about. In any event, it became in the 1980s such a hegemonic point of view that it dropped all adjectives and just became ‘theory’, and even in general publications like this one, literary critics no longer felt obliged even to tell us what it says. Sometimes one feels that is just as well. But when critics now talk of theory, they generally tend to mean something clustered around post-modernism and post-structuralism. You can expect a Marxist tint. You can expect mention of hermeneutics. You had better expect to be confused. Most of all, you can expect solipsism of extravagant proportions.
Eagleton’s review of Wood in the latest Prospect is a good example. It makes a few telling points, but on the whole speaks condescendingly of Wood’s ‘A-levelish approach’, pretending to be a little sad that Wood’s determination to read the text carefully is ‘passé’. Eagleton doesn’t quite tell us what is wrong with Wood’s book, but assumes we will know exactly what he means, because are we too not adepts of ‘theory’? It bemoans the absence of any reference to Finnegan’s Wake, which (this is no value judgement) is about as relevant to the question of ‘how fiction works’ as is Catherine Cookson. I am no literary critic, and I’ve no idea if Wood’s book is any good, but I know a rubbish review when I see one.
In any event, ‘theory’ is all very much in line with ‘theory’s’ goals. It takes a word, like ‘theory’, and scoffs at our pretensions to know what it means. It appropriates language. This doesn’t seem a terribly helpful thing in a group of people who are meant to be experts on words. It is a little like declaring that henceforth, ‘breakfast’ will no longer mean the generic first meal of the day, but the croissant and coffee consumed by Derrida in his favourite Left Bank café.