Here’s something I mentioned in one of my classes today… Just a theory I’m working on.

I’d argue that throughout any given literary movement (or, more generally, artistic movement), there’s an ongoing debate of many, many voices, each representing a slightly different approach to defining and realizing the ideals of that movement. The debate isn’t always formal. Indeed, rather than writing or speaking about what literature should do, writers engage in this debate through the works they create. It might be helpful to think of each piece of writing we read not just as a text in and of itself, but as a declaration of what “good” writing should look like. In other words, a writer is never just telling a story. Rather, a writer is both telling a story and making a statement about how a story should be told.

With this distinction in mind, we can think of all of literature (from The Epic of Gilgamesh right through Fifty Shades of Grey* and beyond) as an ongoing conversation about how to tell a story. Writers influence other writers who, in turn, influence other writers still. As the population of writers increases, disagreements over “best practices” are bound to occur, but these disagreements yield new kinds of writing, thus ensuring literature’s continued evolution. Within this context, there’s always a dominant, overarching theory of writing that more or less defines a given age, but there are always other theories and forms lurking beneath the surface, waiting for the right conditions to emerge and assert their own dominance… Only to gradually drift out of favor as time and circumstances dictate.


*I haven’t read it, but I understand that EL James wrote the series, initially, as Twilight fan fiction — so, essentially there’s some degree of conversation going on there, even if it’s limited.

8 thoughts on “Evolution

  1. A good post. I especially like the pluralistic “conversation” model, which helps us to qualify the “dominance” model when it comes to understanding literature. Even though, as your post suggests, some of that hierarchical logic sneaks in as soon as we start thinking about particular ages and movements in the first place?

    • Yes, definitely! I always imagine that there are big voices dominating the conversation, more or less agreeing with each other, and thereby gaining ascendancy, while little voices talk amongst themselves. But the “more or less” part is key, because it means there’s never really a monolithic “dominant” paradigm, just a fluid and somewhat nebulous approximation of one that, due to the number of people involved in the conversation (not to mention variables external to the conversation itself), keeps shifting and evolving. To put it another way, some works can be considered better than others within the context of this conversation, but exactly what’s considered “better” keeps shifting and depends on who’s speaking at any given moment.

      • Right. The instability of ranking (probing for what is “better”) has me convinced that we should always try to move beyond the hierarchical impulse when thinking about literature. Even in thinking that each story is an implied argument for superior storytelling could be problematic in this way. Some stories may only be arguing for their validity to join the plural conversation of literature, and the impulse to see anything more aggressive about this rhetorical entry (what Bloom calls the agon of literature, for instance) comes solely from the critic and not from anything essential to the form. I don’t know. This isn’t exactly my area of specialty when it comes to theory (although it’s not entirely outside of my area either). But these are questions I’ve been returning to a lot lately, with passion.

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