While literary theory has been in existence for about as long as literature has, and the first known theory originating with Aristotle’s Poetics, the modern form of literary theory dates less than a century back.
In the 1950s, Ferdinand de Saussure’s influence on English language literary criticism, particularly in his structuralist linguistics, grew strong. But with over seventy years since the more modern origins of literary theory, it’s important to define what it means for today.
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What Is Literary Theory?
Literary theory is the act of looking more deeply at a piece of writing, with the purpose of finding correlation or variance between the piece and others of its time, setting, or authors with similarities to the one being studied.
If you ever sat through a high school period on a famous poem, you likely experienced literary theory in your classroom. The teacher guided you and your classmates through an analysis of the poem and the deeper meaning found in one or more of the following:
- Geographic location
- Specific time period
- Other poems written around the same time
- Poets who wrote similar poems or had some similarity to the author
For instance, if you studied a poem written during the Great Depression and the theme was abundance, this dichotomy would provide a foundation to find unique insights. That said, there are many types of literary theories.
Literary Theory: Your List
Employing literary theory can help you in a plethora of ways, two of which are below:
- Understand literature at a deeper level
- Take a more in-depth look at your own writing
Whether you want to learn about literary theory to improve your understanding of your current read or take a more theory-based approach to your work-in-progress, understanding some of the theories out there can equip you for both.
#1 – Formalism
If you’ve ever been to a writing conference and sat down one-on-one with an editor, you may have experienced the literary theory of Formalism in real time. This type of literary theory focuses on the text’s key features, without considering context.
When you use Formalism, you look for grammar, syntax, plot, tropes, etc. Some would argue that a piece of writing cannot be differentiated from the context surrounding it: The author, the intent of the writing, or the time period in which it was written. Regardless, this type of literary theory takes an unapologetic, face-value view at writing.
#2 – Structuralism
Structuralism is a highly debated literary theory that focuses on relating literature to the broader structures it may associate with, such as:
- It’s genre
- Story structure
- Recurring topics
If you want to plunge into the deep end with Structuralism, consider studying up on this literary theory further and then watching the 2017 film, Dunkirk. This film is notorious for not following traditional storytelling structure.
#3 – Reader-Response
Toward the opposite side of the literary theory spectrum lies Reader-Response theory. This theory focuses on the audience, or the reader, and their particular response to the writing, rather than the writing itself.
It may be helpful to approach a text with this literary theory for your own work, after you publish. In this way, you can collect important data on how your readers reacted to your writing and what they took away from the story. This can set you up for future success in coming books.
When To Pay Attention To It
With several types of literary theory in mind, the next question to consider is when should you spend a portion of your reading time evaluating the text through theory?
To Prepare To Write
One of the ways to prepare to draft your next story is by paying attention to the literary theories in previously published works. While not all readers will delve into the theories appearing in their favorite novel, as writers, it’s beneficial to equip yourself with a deeper understanding of popular works.
Not only will taking time to notice particular literary theories help you understand a book more deeply, but it will aid you in drafting your novel in a way that is layered with meaning.
To Add Nuance To Your Writing
There are three types of writers: Writers who plot their story prior to writing (plotters), writers who write to see the story take shape (pantsers), and a hybrid. No matter what type of writer you are, paying attention to literary theory can level up your writing.
Whether you add layers of theory in your first draft or layer one in on your seventh edit, considering writing with a theory in mind adds nuance to your project. Readers love looking for Easter eggs, and literary theory can help provide a similar type of meaning.
When It Doesn’t Matter
But what if you want to sit down and read, or write, and not feel like an academic? What about the moments you want to shut off your thinking, assessing, and analyzing, and simply read or write?
The good news is, there are times when paying attention to literary theory aren’t as crucial. Here are a couple reasons why you may want to turn off this part of your brain at specific times.
#1 – Over Analyzing Can Backfire
Have you ever listened to, or been part of, a Q&A with an author and someone asked something similar to the following:
“You had her boyfriend bring her yellow roses on their third date. Yellow roses signify platonic friendship, yet they didn’t break up in the end. What did you mean by this?” The author may have laughed, said they didn’t know that about yellow roses, and moved on.
While literary theory can be extremely helpful in creating deeper meaning and nuance in stories, sometimes overanalyzing literature can work against you, making you hyper-focus on every detail. In so doing, you may feel paralyzed to move forward and simply write.
#2 – Reading For Pleasure Is A Gift
Do you remember reading your first chapter book and the joy of entering a story world and completely forgetting about your current context?
After you began studying how to write, do you remember the first time a writer missing a writing rule yanked you from the fictional story and back into reality? “They told me she was frustrated. They should have shown me instead.” Suddenly you recognize you’re reading.
Literary theory can do the same. Never underestimate the gift of simply picking up a book and pleasure reading. Analysis can wait. Sometimes, simple enjoyment is the best teacher.
Your Next Step: To Theorize Or Not To Theorize?
You are the creative, so your next step is entirely up to you. If you are a new writer, you may want to stick with learning writing rules and making sure you equip yourself with the basics.
If you’ve been in the game a bit longer, studying a specific literary theory in your favorite books may prove beneficial to you and your future writing efforts.
When it comes to creativity, there is no one size fits all. This is part of the fun that being a creative brings. Writing is subjective. So, creative, take charge! Decide how to move forward, when to embrace literary theory, or if you want to at all. And don’t forget, whichever choice you make, enjoy the process!