Novelist - History - The Novel and The Global Market of Texts: 20th- and 21st-century Developments - Writing Literary Theory

Writing Literary Theory

Many of the techniques the novel developed over the past 100 years can be understood as the result of competition with the new 20th- (and 21st-) century mass media: film, comics and the World Wide Web shaped the novel. Shot and sequence, focus and perspective have moved from film editing to literary composition. Experimental 20th-century fiction is, at the same time, influenced by literary theory.

Literary theory, arising in the 20th century, questioned key factors that had been matters of agreement in 19th-century literary criticism: the author wrote the text, he was influenced by his period, by an intellectual climate the nation provided and by his personality. The work of art eventually reflected all these aspects, and literary critics recreated them. The ensuing debate identified a canon of the truly great works brought forth by each nation.

20th-century literary theory challenged all these notions. It moved along with what philosophers called the linguistic turn: the artifact to be read was primarily a text. The text unfolded a meaning in the reading process. The question was, what made the literary text so special? Its complexity: a simple answer that immediately called for a complex science to describe and to understand these complexities. The literary theorists argued that the literary criticism of the 19th century had not truly seen the text. It had concentrated on the author, his or her period, the culture that surrounded him or her, his or her psyche – factors outside the text, that had allegedly shaped it. Strict theorists argued that even the author, hitherto considered the central figure, whose message one wanted to understand, did not even have privileged access to the meaning and significance of his or her own work. Once the text was written it began to unfold associations, no matter whether one was its author or another reader. The theory debate stepped forth in redefinitions of its project: Formalism (1900–1920), New Criticism (1920–1965), Structuralism (1950–1980) and Poststructuralism (late 1960s through 1990s) became the major schools. The modes of analysis changed with each of these schools. All assumed that the text had its own meaning, independent of all authorial intentions and period backgrounds. Each of these schools proposed a criticism that directed its attention to an understanding of this meaning.

James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) became the central text that explored the potential of the new theoretical options. The 19th-century narrator left the stage; what remained was a text one could read as a reflex of thoughts. The "stream of consciousness" replaced the authorial voice. The characters endowed with these new voices had no firm ground from which to narrate. Their audiences had to re-create what was purposefully broken. One of the aims was to represent the reality of thoughts, sensations and conflicting perspectives. William Faulkner was particularly concerned with recreating real life, an undertaking which he said was unattainable. Once the classical authorial voice was gone, the classical composition of the text could be questioned: Ulysses did that. The argumentative structure with which a narration used to make its points lost its importance. Each sentence connected to sentences readers recalled. Words reverberated in a worldwide circulation of texts and language. Critics would understand more of the possible allusions and supply them in footnotes.

Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Samuel Beckett's trilogy Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951) and The Unnamable (1953), Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (1963) and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) all explore this new narrative technique. Alfred Döblin went in a slightly different direction with his Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), where interspersed non-fictional text fragments enter the fictional sphere to create a new form of realism.

Authors of the 1960s–Robert Coover is an example–fragmented their stories and challenged time and sequentiality as fundamental structuring concepts.

Postmodern authors subverted the serious debate with playfulness. The new theorists' claim that art could never be original, that it always played with existing materials, that language basically recalled itself had been an accepted truth in the world of trivial literature. A postmodernist could reread trivial literature as the essential cultural production. The creative avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s "closed the gap" and recycled popular knowledge, conspiracy theories, comics and films to recombine these materials in what was to become art of entirely new qualities. Roland Barthes' 1950s analysis of popular culture, his late 1960s claim that the author was dead while the text continued to live, became standards of postmodern theory. Novels from Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980) and Foucault's Pendulum (1989) opened themselves to a universe of intertextual references while they thematized their own constructedness in a new postmodern metafictional awareness.

What separated these authors from 18th- and 19th-century predecessors who had invited other textual worlds into their own compositions, was the interaction the new authors sought with the field of literary criticism. 20th-century metafictional works expect literary historians to deal with them; literary critics and theorists become the privileged first readers that the new texts need in order to unfold. James Joyce is said to have said this about the reception he designed for his Ulysses (1922): "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality." – a statement to which Salman Rushdie referred in 1999, according to Paul Brians's Notes for Satanic Verses:

Asked about the possibility of "Cliff's Notes" to his writings, Rushdie answered that although he didn't expect readers to get all the allusions in his works, he didn't think such notes would detract from the reading of them: "James Joyce once said after he had published Ulysses that he had given the professors work for many years to come; and I'm always looking for ways of employing professors, so I hope to have given them some work too."

Novelists such as John Barth, Raymond Federman, Lance Olsen, and Umberto Eco crossed the borders into criticism. Mixed forms of criticism and fiction appeared: "critifiction", a term Raymond Federman attempted to coin in 1993.

While the postmodern movement has been criticized at times as theoretical if not escapist, it successfully unfolded in several films of the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century: Pulp Fiction (1994), Memento (2000), and The Matrix (1999–2003) can be read as new textual constructs designed to prove that we are surrounded by virtual realities, by realities we construct out of circulating fragments, of images, concept, a language of cultural materials the new filmmakers explore.

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