Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Literary Theory

John McFetridge

There, I said it.

A long time ago in the dark ages of my life I used to talk about literary theory all night. Usually in the Rymark Tavern on Peel after the hockey game ended, drinking pitchers of Molson draft and eating pig’s knuckles out of the big pickle jars.

Then, of course, I realized that literary theory isn’t about literature at all, it’s about the theory – whichever one you’re trying to use the literature to prove. From Marxism to libertarianism to feminism to some kind of realitivism of something, I never really understood.

Back in my day, kids, it was all Derrida and Lacan and deconstructionism – never mind who the author is, pretend this literature just arrived here from aliens if you want, all we talk about is ‘the text.’

Now when I hear someone talk about ‘the text,’ I know it’s time to go looking for a football game to watch (and my Bills are coming back, oh yeah, next year playoffs for sure, you heard it here first).

These days one of the newest literary theories is Darwinian.

I kid you not, Literary Darwinism – Evolution, Human Nature and Literature.

Okay, maybe that does make a little sense, you usually need people in literature and they usually display some aspects of human nature.

A good place to start with this is an article in the new York Times magazine by D.T. Max from November, 2005 available online here.

The theory is new enough that it hasn’t really been genre-fied yet and they seem to be only talking about the classics, but I’m sure Literary Darwinism could be applied to crime fiction.

But first things first.

D.T. Max says that, “Jane Austen first published Pride and Prejudice in 1813. She had misgivings about the book, complaining in a letter to her sister that it was ‘rather too light, and bright, and sparkling.’ But these qualities may be what make it the most popular of her novels... the common reader, Pride and Prejudice is a romantic comedy... On a more literary level, we enjoy Austen's pointed dialogue and admire her expert way with humor... But for an emerging school of literary criticism known as Literary Darwinism, the novel is significant for different reasons. Just as Charles Darwin studied animals to discover the patterns behind their development, Literary Darwinists read books in search of innate patterns of human behavior: child bearing and rearing, efforts to acquire resources (money, property, influence) and competition and cooperation within families and communities. They say that it's impossible to fully appreciate and understand a literary text unless you keep in mind that humans behave in certain universal ways and do so because those behaviors are hard-wired into us. For them, the most effective and truest works of literature are those that reference or exemplify these basic facts.”

Okay, it’s getting kind of musty in here, but let’s plod on a little:

“From the first words of the first chapter ("It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife") to the first words of the last ("Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters"), the novel is stocked with the sort of life's-passage moments that resonate with meaning for Literary Darwinists. (One calls the novel their "fruit fly.") The women in the book mostly compete to marry high-status men, consistent with the Darwinian idea that females try to find mates whose status will assure the success of their offspring. At the same time, the men are typically competing to marry the most attractive women, consistent with the Darwinian idea that males look for youth and beauty in females as signs of reproductive fitness. Darcy and Elizabeth's flips and flops illustrate the effort mammals put into distinguishing between short-term appeal (a pert step, a handsome coxcomb) and long-term appropriateness (stability, commitment, wealth, underlying good health). Meanwhile, Wickham - the penniless officer who tries to make off first with Darcy's sister and then carries off Lydia - serves as an example of the mating behavior evolutionary biologists call (I'm using a milder euphemism than they do) 'the sneaky fornicator theory.'"

So, Pride and Prejudice, in addition to be very well-written and quite entertaining, hits us at a deeper level and confirms some of our most basic instincts as ‘truths,’ maybe even “universally acknowledged,” and that’s why it’s still so popular.

So, what of crime fiction? Do the crime fiction novels that have survived as “classics” also hit us at this deeper level of instinctual truth? Do the moral values held by Holmes and Spade and Marlowe resonate with us? Are the conventions of the genre necessary for its very survival?

The Literary Darwinists might say yes. An important part of their theory is “that literature began as religion or wish fulfillment: we ensure our success in the next hunt by recounting the triumph of the last one.” Or by imagining how we’ll be successful in the next one.

And the most successful “organisms” are the ones that adapt best to changing environments so I would say it’s no surprise that crime fiction is doing so well.

And it’s no surprise that change happens slowly. Crime fiction often walks a fine line between telling stories about really unpleasant people and then offering up satisfying endings. Too much unpleasantness and the ending doesn’t matter. Not unpleasant enough and the story often seems pointless.

A tough balance to find.

The next stage in the evolution of literature is, of course, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is just a cash-grab, though.

And, like the best academic theories, Literary Darwinism is likely to be successful because it’s vague enough to include just about everything and you can argue about it all night.

In the Rymark Tavern with pig’s knuckles and Molson draft.


Paul D Brazill said...

Nice post. Those that can do, those that can't teach, those that can't teach theorise. It's just a version of fat blokes sat at the bar watching the football and saying how the team should have played before they waddle off to the toilet ... I haven't had a bottle of molson for years BTW When I worked in East London, Molson dry was pretty cheap and I really got into it.

Mike Dennis said...

John, I like what you said about changing environments and how crime fiction would naturally do well under those conditions, but does this mean we'll be seeing "Emma vs Crime, Inc." anytime soon?

John McFetridge said...

I hadn't thought of that Mike, but I like it.

And maybe Mansfield Park and the Maltese Falcon...

Hasn't anyone done Jane Austen solving mysteries yet?

Paul D Brazill said...

The Oscar Wilde Mysteries are doing alarmingly well. Written by conservative MP and former TV prat Byles Brandreth just to add to their cool factor...

Sam said...

Great post.

TessQ said...

Indeed, someone has has done Jane Austen solving mysteries! There is a series (I think it's up to about 8 books now) by an author named Stephanie Barron. They're actually pretty well written and entertaining, and she stays (for those of us nerdy Janeites who have the few known facts of her life memorized) consistent with what is known of Miss Austen.

There's also another lighter (in tone) series written by Carrie Bebris that has Mr Fitzwilliam and Mrs Elizabeth (nee Bennet) Darcy solving crimes/mysteries.

Enjoyed your original post, Mr McFetridge, thanks for sharing it and the link to the D.T. Max article.