Reading expands our social imaginations and literary criticism can tell us why.
Since the beginning of my career I have worked extensively on issues concerning race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, in the context of modern thought and literature. As such, I have been challenged (by students, colleagues, institutional mandates, and other pressures) to demonstrate how literary criticism might contribute to an understanding of these world-making social fictions. This question has been made all the more poignant, on the one hand, by the strides in the natural and social science literature on these issues, and on the other, by the perceived crisis in humanities writ large and the role of literary studies in particular in contemporary education.
What is the power of a work of literature to affect a reader’s perception of his or her world?
When I began graduate school, there was a shared belief among a sizeable portion of the profession regarding the political efficacy of cultural critique. Throughout the late 1980s and into the ’90s, this excitement was manifested in the rock star status within literary criticism of a few academics, of whom Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Edward Said, and Fredric Jameson were the most prominent. But by the late 1990s the shine of these academic luminaries had faded, and the time of theory and its attendant methods seemed to be in retreat. In response we’ve seen a variety of new approaches that constitute nothing less than a field-wide search for method—from broadening the purview of the discipline (to include video games, graphic novels, and electronic media) to pioneering new methodologies (including the emergent field of quantitative literary analysis).
Yet not all literary critics have responded to the sense of crisis by looking beyond the traditional objects or boundaries of our discipline. Some have retrenched, turning their gaze inward, in order to advocate a kind of a “doing what we do, but doing it better.” The questions they raise are theoretical and methodological: What is the power of a work of literature to affect a reader’s perception of his or her world? How might a nuanced and insightful interpretation of a given text affect our perception of that text—and by extension, of the worlds it represents?