[[This post originally appeared on September 27, 2012]]
Sometimes literary theory is pretty distant from the practical work of teaching. Think back to that time you brought your panopticon or your phallus (Lacan’s, I mean!) into the classroom, and to the moment in the middle of your excited explanation of the revolutionary ideas delivered to you across the Atlantic and through that one class in grad school when you realized it wasn’t helping your students understand “A Rose for Emily.” The connections between the work with theory that we do in our training and our research often can seem part of another world than the one in which we teach.
I was reminded the other day—on the occasion of one of those curious confluences of events that happen when you’re doing a lot at once and all of the different things swim together in a river of caffeine—that this is not always the case. I’d just read D. T. Max’s new biography of the late David Foster Wallace, and in an interview I did with him (here) asked him about the revelation that Wallace had voted for Reagan. It seems to have been a surprise to many of his readers, who had come, through their reading of Wallace’s fiction and essays, to see him as squarely on the other end of the ideological spectrum. They thought they had a sense of the man from reading what he wrote, and this bit of news blurred the picture they’d constructed of him.
That same day the interview came out, I had a meeting of my course on the rock novel (fiction about, inspired by, and formally influenced by rock and roll, a course I’m teaching for the first time and not at all because I get to play a lot of loud music in class). We were reading Lewis Shiner’s Glimpses, a little-known but interesting quasi-sci-fi novel about a man, Ray, who has an obsessive relation to the history of rock music, and many students, despite the course’s own obsessive concern with that history, were finding the main character’s behavior a bit much. Why was Ray driven to such lengths by his obsessions? One answer to this conundrum—which kept some students from identifying with Ray—was supplied by another student who raised the idea that Shiner, in his presentation of Ray, was actually critiquing the character. That is, maybe there was some ironic distance between Ray’s behavior and the author’s opinion about that behavior. With this issue raised, I played The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” a second time, because it’s awesome, and class was over.
One of the pitfalls of reading (and teaching) fiction is the temptation to think we know an author. Readers of Wallace think they know him, especially because some of his work seems intensely personal. Another pitfall is the tendency to conflate the main character in a story or novel with the author, especially in an autobiographical work like Shiner’s. Decades of literary theory have explored the relationship between author and work, arguing alternately that we must ignore the author, that he is dead, that he is a conduit for the knowledge available given the social structure of his time, etc. In fiction, narrative theory, narratology, and theory of the novel have kicked around different responses to the problem, from Wayne Booth’s idea of the implied author to John Brenkman’s rejection of that concept as, well, a fiction, and not a very helpful one. Similarly, theories of narrative and the novel have worked over the relation of character to text, none better than Lukacs, who understood the relation of the modern novel to its writer as one in which the writer divides his subjectivity between a main character who gets the world wrong and a story that refuses to tell us what right is.
We want our stories to hold together—those that we read and those that we construct about the world. Many of the best stories, however, admit a complexity that challenges their coherence. The picture we have of an author can’t really hold a book together, just as the belief that the author completely agrees with the main character—or completely doesn’t—can’t really hold a book together. Things are more complicated than that. One of the gifts of teaching fiction is the chance to help students see how, for all kinds of stories, complicated ≠ bad. One of the ways to help them see this is to bring in the literary theory that has helped us to see it.