Monday, March 2, 2009

"The 'Competent' Reader"

As seems to be the norm with this book, our latest chapter in Literary Theory left me with more questions than answers. After a lengthy discussion of a couple more literary theories, Eagleton ends the chapter with a discussion of “What is meant by the ‘competent’ reader? Is there only one kind of competence, and by whose and what criteria is competence to be measured?” (108)  This is a question I’ve found myself asking a lot as I read Literary Theory, so I was hopeful that Eagleton was finally going to man up and give us a straight answer. But of course not. Instead, Eagleton goes on about the difficulty of deciding “the rules for applying rules” and eventually muses that since there is no unified literary theory or “definition of competence” (109) that is agreed upon by everyone, that just because someone analyzes a text completely differently than you, using a completely different set of criteria, neither interpretation is necessarily wrong, and neither interpreter is necessarily incompetent. This conclusion is more than a little daunting to me as a freshman English student; if Terry Eagleton doesn’t know the rules for analyzing literature, what chance do I have?
              It seems like Eagleton has outlined about a dozen theories, with each one having a different approach to analyzing literature, and these approaches are often conflict. So who’s right? What should I do? I suppose that as 21st century students, we learned a mix of New Criticism and Structuralism, with perhaps a dash of Semiotics. But what does that mean, really? Are these theories necessarily ‘better’ than Phenomenology or Formalism? Are we more ‘competent’ readers than those who have come before us because we learned more modern theories? It seems like every new generation of writers yields a new literary theory, but are we as a society making progress in literature, or just finding new ways to say the same things? If each theory improves upon the last one, then will we eventually come up with a theory that satisfies everyone? And what does all this, in conjunction with our ongoing discussion of the role of technology, mean for the future of literature?

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