May 19th, 2012 / 4:35 pm
I Like __ A Lot

Five Works of Theory You Should Consider Reading

It always surprises me when creative people admit they don’t enjoy reading theory. Aside from the bountiful inspiration of ideas it provides, certain theoretical works can also inspire formal techniques. For proof, check out E.M. Cioran’s approach to the philosophical prose poem in something like The Temptation to Exist or A Short History of Decay. Or check out Luce Irigaray’s lyricism in This Sex Which Is Not One. Tons of other examples abound, from Baudrillard’s fragments to Benjamin’s montages, Blanchot’s récits to Bataille’s grotesques.

Part of the aversion to theory, as far as I can tell, comes from the mistaken assumption that the genre we call theory should be read differently than the genres we call fiction or poetry, because it’s “critical” rather than “creative.” On the contrary, I think it’s quite productive to read theory as if it were poetry or fiction, which is to say as if its primary function was to affect rather than educate.

I recognize that my position is contentious. I’ve taken heat in the past for advising people to suspend their desire for comprehension while reading theory. For reasons unknown, some readers still think understanding a text is important. I’m not one of those people. I read theory and fiction and poetry to experience, to consider, to become other, to shift, to mutate, to change. I most certainly do not read those things to understand them.

What follows are five works that lend themselves to a reading strategy conducive to works of fiction or poetry. Granted, between poetry and fiction a demarcation is said to exist, and granted some read the one different than the other, and granted different styles within different genres require different heuristics, I think readers would benefit from considering the following works as “creative” rather than merely “critical.”

University of Minnesota Press, 1994

Syncope: The Philosophy of Rapture
by Catherine Clément

Around the 290 page mark of A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari distinguish between “assemblage haecceities (a body considered only as a longitude and a latitude)” such as a mountain, a marble, or a marmot, and “interassemblage haecceities, which also mark the potentialities of becoming” such as the individuality of a day, a season, a year, a life, a climate, a wind, a fog, a swarm, a pack, etc. In other words, different kinds of thingness. Consider syncope the ecstatic liminal experience of an interassemblage haecceity manifesting.

Clément seeks out syncope as unlikely paradigm and poetic metaphor in music, literature, psychoanalysis, philosophy – and, courageously, in life. She finds it in various physical mental, musical and more far-flung places: held breath, cold sweats, cerebral eclipse, epileptic seizure, delayed beats in a syncopated jazz rhythm, the backward dip in the Tango, orgasm and between urine and feces in Left-hand path Tantric ecstasy, and in a host of related phenomenon, she tabulates the sundry time-outs, disruptions, breaks in linearity and involuntary secessions from the space-time continua wherein syncope gains its foothold and human beings can achieve ecstasy.

The Parasite
by Michel Serres

To become this book, to become any of the books I am listing, to allow the infection of them to circulate through you, the way you greet them is paramount: let go. Do not resist, do not indulge in negative reaction, allow the words to work in you, fall into them in the same way a skateboarder falls into a halfpipe: when standing at the top of the pipe you must lean forward and commit your body to gravity despite the scary sensation of losing control, of imminent threat. Move with the force of the text, not against it, the way you turn into a skid should your car spin out in the snow.

A brief explanation of the title of Serres’s book might help, a book that was originally published in French as Le Parasite. In French this terms has three meanings: 1. biological parasite; 2. social parasite; and 3. noise. Noise is a term from information and systems theory to describe the interference that occurs when a message is being transferred between a sender and a recipient along some channel. Serres argues that noise, which we can also call nonsense, disorder, chaos, is fundamental to the transfer of a message: this would seem contrary to what we would normally understand noise to be, that is, merely a nuisance. Serres draws out the positive quality of noise or interference to suggest that it is out of noise that new systems and patterns, and perhaps even new ways of thinking can emerge.

Glas by Jacques Derrida

“As a piece of writing,” wrote John Sturrock, in his review of the English translation of Glas for The New York Times, “it has no known genre.” I would disagree. I think the genre is clear and obvious: badass, irreducibly singular, anomalous, experimental literature. Unfortunately, you might have to sell a kidney to get a copy of it.

Jacques Derrida’s Glas (1974) may be one of his most important and yet least read publications…variously described as “Derrida’s chef d’oeuvre”, “Derrida’s hypertext”, or “a Fleurs du Mal of philosophy”, makes the boundaries between ‘coupure’ and ‘crochet’, digest and vomit, philosophy and literature, book and electronic media tremble.

Glas (1974) by Jacques Derrida is such an antibook. Each page of Glas is divided into two columns: the left offers passages from Hegel with comments, while the right is a commentary on the French novelist Genet. Paragraphs set in and around other paragraphs and variable sizes and styles of type give the page an almost medieval appearance. There is no linear argument that spans the columns, yet the reader’s eye is drawn across, down, and around the page looking for visual and verbal connections. And the connections seem to be there, as words and sentence fragments refer the reader back and forth between Hegel and Genet.

Crack Wars: LITERATURE ADDICTION MANIA (Texts and Contexts)
by Avital Ronell

The scholar Gregory Ulmer, who happens to be a UF Gator and therefore (I guess) my sworn enemy or something, has said that “Avital Ronell is perhaps the most interesting scholar in America.” Whether you agree or not, Ronell is, I think, unquestionably in the running. I could’ve easily listed other of her books; two I’ve loved in addition to this one: Stupidity and Dictations: ON HAUNTED WRITING. Keep in mind that she studied with Derrida and Cixous, and she was friends with Kathy Acker, so intellectually speaking she rolls deep.

Literature as quintessentially narcotic.

Avital Ronell asks why “there is no culture without drug culture.” She deals with the usual drugs and alcohol (and their celebrities: Freud’s cocaine, Baudelaire’s hashish, the Victorians’ laudanum), and moves beyond them to addictions that are culturally accepted–an insatiable appetite for romance novels, for instance, and romance itself.

Borderlands/La Frontera
by Gloria Anzaldúa

This book has haunted me since my first encounter with it. And perhaps more than any other, this book has had a profound effect on my thinking in terms of identity. Before Borderlands, I don’t think I’d ever seriously thought through what it means to be a middle class straight white guy. Understandably, I reacted passionately against this book when I first read it, probably seven or eight years ago. I took it as a full frontal assault on my identity. At the level of content, it seriously pissed me off; but on the level of form, I loved it. Sometimes when things piss me off, I take that as a sign of the thing’s success. To provoke such a strong reaction, Anzaldúa had to have been doing something right. So I spent time with it. I read it again and again. Over time I came to realize that the reason I disliked it so much was because it held a mirror up to my privilege and when I saw my face in the mirror I was embarrassed and ashamed of my complicity. I was mad at Anzaldúa because she had shown me the Hyde lurking behind my Jekyll. Now, I am so thankful that she did that.

In a radical genre she calls autohistoria, which offers an innovative way to write history, Gloria Anzaldua presents a non-linear history of both the geographical and psychological landscapes of Borderlands. Anzulda’s autohistoria is a genre of mixed media—personal narrative, testimonio, factual accounts, cuento, and poetry—that refutes stasis just as the Borderlands from which Anzaldua comes.

In Borderlands, Anzaldúa tenses racial, class, and sexuality differences to the limit by subjecting them to the category of being female, being poor, being Chicana, and being lesbian, living in English but thinking in Spanish.


  1. A D Jameson

      One quibble, Chris: I don’t think the reason why “some readers still think understanding a text is important” is “unknown.” Communication is a part of using language. If you didn’t believe that on some level, you wouldn’t write posts like this; you clearly intend to communicate something comprehensible when you write the words “Five Works of Theory You Should Consider Reading”!

  2. Christopher Higgs

      Yeah, that was me being hyperbolic and snarky. 

      Could’ve been more balanced.  Could’ve easily written it as, “While some readers find it important to prioritize “understanding a text,” I believe prioritizing “the experience of the text” to be equally important.” Or something like that.

      But when have you ever known me to take the balanced approach? ;)

  3. A D Jameson

      A different question, then. What’s the basis for your beef with deadgod, then? How is he not responding to your writing, and other writing, precisely the way you advise, and claim you yourself do?

      I ask this sincerely from the cushioned seat of genuine curiosity and amicable wonderment.

  4. Christopher Higgs

      I have no beef with Deadgod of Deltona.  I ignore that avatar because it tends to respond antagonistically through the use of sophomoric deconstruction techniques, and if my adventures online have taught me anything they have taught me to avoid antagonism in comment streams.  Makes life easier.

  5. Ken Baumann

      Hadn’t heard of any of these. Thank you!

  6. Anonymojo

      The distinction between theory and fiction/poetry – between, say, ‘philosophy’ and ‘poetry’, or between methodologically-grounded analysis and world disclosure, is that of ideal polarities, neither of which is ever encountered to the exclusion of, or even exclusively of, the other.

      It’s silly when people feel so comfortable with one pole as to self-impose refusal of the other aspect to the point of not reading anything that privileges (or is rumored to privilege) the other pole of, after all, a useful but notional spectrum.

      Kant is artfully argued, Dickinson acutely intelligent about philosophical topics.  There just isn’t a reason intrinsic to their writing that the same person can’t enjoy the subtle analysis of Kant and music, writing-play, and inkindling of Dickinson.

      Plato is an excellent example of both philosopher and poet.  When ‘Socrates’ mentions the “ancient quarrel” between them, one might wonder, with respect to the fictions he appears in, what he means, both in the sense of a recoverable semantic intention and of his effect as a character in stories.  I’ve never heard of somebody reading Plato with no attention to the arguments his characters present discursively, but far too often one hears talk of those arguments unreasonably detached from their art-constituted home.

  7. lorian long

      anzaldua was such a badass

  8. Anonymojo

      Here’s an example – from some time ago, way before the impatient poem in the thread linked to above – of a response of mine to a blogicle of Chris’s (it’s almost at the end of the thread): .  You can read that it’s not remotely a hostile address–quite the opposite.

      It’s a response that asks the basic bundle of questions you ask of this blogicle:  How can “reading” happen without “understanding”?  What does it mean to say – what’s the point of saying – that one doesn’t “think understanding a text is important”?  –for surely it’s possible to say such a thing to interesting and even entertaining effect, whatever contradictions the assertion raises.

      You can see, at that thread, Chris’s prissily supercilious response to hostility (in his interaction with John Minichillo).

      You might also detect a more accurate answer to the question you ask now than you’ve gotten from Chris.  In spite of the joking retrenchment above, it’s a stubbornly recurring commitment of Chris’s:  to assert indifference to and even rejection of “meaning”, “understanding”, and similar categories dependent on and in turn reinforcing the (only notional?) unity and coherence of texts.

      Again, it’s possible to play artfully with such assertions – which are so much the knit of Nietzsche’s textile, for example – .

      But they’re also excitingly intellectual claims… that might promise merciful laxity.  Too darn smart to bother with accounting for self-contradictions in one’s position!  Of course poets don’t have to make logical arguments… but this way, one can be a theorist! doing real theory!  –without falling into that pesky trap of argumentative consistency.

      I don’t think it’s a personal “beef” either.

  9. leapsloth14

      I don’t enjoy reading theory. Except sometimes I do. 

  10. Anonymous

      Deadgod’s right. Higgs is mostly interested in using this site to promote his personal brand of weirdness….that’s it. Did y’all know by now that he’s weird, super-cool, hip, a reader of arcane texts he doesn’t understand, and “experimental”? Everything he writes reeks of this kind of posturing passive-aggressiveness–too “weird” for the rest of us mere mortals who haven’t memorized every line of Finnegan’s Wake, yet not weird enough for him to thrust his “experimental” crotch in our faces non-stop, then retreat when we ask questions, or–gasp!–dare to to be provoked in the comment stream, which is somehow beneath a man who constantly argues for the ubiquity of texts and textual exchanges. The guy is as dishonest as they come. So, without further adieu, here’s my response to your post, Christoper Higgs, which is sure to be approved by all the ass-kissing HTMLGIANT Drones who never have anything to say: 

      “thanks for sharing, bro. i really like this. live ur lief.”

  11. Larry Bierman

      In theory I write poetry. I sometimes wish I could theorize. I understand experience. Best texts have voice. I am and always have been a slow reader, and sometimes I misread just for the fun of it. I agree. Cioran is a personal hero–I mean to be one of his  dilettantes. Then, like Kenneth Patchen, I like having lots of books around, not because I will ever read them, but because it is good knowing so many people have something to say.

  12. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      “It always surprises me when creative people admit they don’t enjoy reading theory.”

      Chris, no offense, but if you believe this is true, you have to come to terms with the fact that creativity does not need to consume certain ideas and media in order to strive.

      Norm MacDonald has provided me more inspiration than the lame-o trying to explain why Norm MacDonald is funny.

  13. Anonymojo

      No no no.  That’s me you’re talking about.  What’s the matter with people??

  14. Richard Grayson

      Yes.  I am so glad I got my MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing by 1976, before theory was invented, and even graduate literature courses didn’t make you read anything like this.

      I couldn’t even read more than the titles of these books to know that nothing short of torture could get me to read them.  And I know that’s true of a lot of my friends and acquaintances who are actually good published poets and fiction writers. 

      It would not surprise me at all to learn that none of these authors recommended her write poetry or fiction or drama themselves.  Back when I used to read manuscripts for the Fiction Collective, from about ’74-’77, the worst novels would come in from literature professors. 

      Obviously there are exceptions.  But I’d be hard-pressed to imagine most of the world’s best living fiction writers and poets getting really excited about books of theory.

  15. William VanDenBerg

      “But I’d be hard-pressed to imagine most of the world’s best living fiction writers and poets getting really excited about books of theory.” – Brian Evenson and Tom McCarthy seem up on their theory, but I can’t recall any others. Anyone know more examples?

      I think there’s also a distinction to be made between reading theory and writing it. The theorist is attempting to communicate his ideas in a complete and direct manner, and it can be difficult to get outside that structure for creative work. Writers don’t usually try to directly communicate ideas in fiction/poetry. The comprehension-minded reader of theory doesn’t have the same obligation — they just need to understand the piece.

      There’s also more of a blurring between creative work and theory, as most of Christopher’s examples show.

  16. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Frank Tas, the Raptor. 

      No offense taken.  I appreciate your thoughts.

      And I don’t doubt for a minute that creativity can strive without theory.  What I was saying is that it surprises me when I hear a creative person say they don’t enjoy it.  Similarly, I believe a creative person could live a full and awesome life without enjoying jazz music, but if that person told me they didn’t enjoy listening to jazz music it would surprise me.  That’s all.  It could be done, for sure.  But I’d find it surprising.

      Your point about “the lame-o trying to explain why Norm MacDonald is funny” is exactly what I hoped to address. For me, theory isn’t synonymous with “explaining why” anymore than poetry or fiction is.  Maybe it’s a matter of conflating the genre of criticism with the genre of theory.  The texts I’ve listed here are, to my mind, “theory” not “criticism.”  Which is to say, they have more in common with Mallarmé and Philip K. Dick than they do with James Wood or Roger Ebert.  I should have made that distinction more clear in my post.

  17. Anonymous

      Theory and literary criticism aren’t always the same. Often, they’re not. Academics are much less “theoretical” today than they were in the heyday of post-modernism and identity politics. 

  18. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Richard.

      You raise a bunch of interesting and arguable points, but the one I want to address is the one where you mention reading for Fiction Collective and that “the worst novels would come in from literature professors, often ones who published excellent works of criticism..”

      First, as I mentioned in my response to Frank Tas, I see a big difference between criticism and theory.  I didn’t do a good job of pointing out that distinction in my post.

      Second, when you mention the Fiction Collective in conjunction with literature professors I think it’s important to point out that nearly every board member of FC2 is a literature professor.  And if you scan the list of authors they’ve published, I’d wager that 80% or more of the authors are also literature professors.     

      Obviously, your statement “I’d be hard-pressed to imagine most of the world’s best living fiction writers and poets getting really excited about books of theory” depends on your idea of who are the world’s best fiction writers and poets.  From my perspective, I’d say the complete opposite: I’d be hard-pressed to imagine most of the world’s best living fiction writers and poets NOT getting really excited about books of theory.  But without these writers writing and speaking about their relationship to theory it would be hard to know.  That would be an interesting series to produce: writers on theory.  The more I think about it, the more I think you’ve inspired me to pursue something like that — thanks, Richard!

  19. Anonymous

      Hi, deadgod,

      You raise some interesting points, but unfortunately, I can’t respond to you. 

      Thanks, and have a great, wonderful day! 

  20. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      Thanks for the thoughtful response, Chris!

      I admit I over-reacted to that statement (was a little drunk, first hot day out here, drink and hot get me a little testy, summer hasn’t started and already I hate it), but, for fun, for the sake of parsing, the idea of being surprised by a person’s preferences, isn’t that constricting people, isn’t the preemptive placement of persons into compartments problematic? I mean we all do it, but is it something we should be comfortable with? Por ejemplo, imagine that some wonderful budding writer mind chooses to focus on what other people like instead of what he likes and ends up never fully realizing his potential because the people lording over him stressed he should read These Things and think These Ways and etc… Idunno feel like I’m starting to unravel. Respond if you think it merits a response, but if not, thanks again for the response!

  21. A D Jameson

      Hi Richard,

      I read manuscripts for FC2 from 2000–1.
      Also, I love your name.

      Nice to meet you!

  22. A D Jameson

      It’s worth noting, though, Chris, in regards to Richard’s FC comment, that there’s rather a substantial difference between being a lit professor in the mid-70s and now. In the mid-70s, it was still possible to make a living as a professional writer of literary fiction. It was in its last days, but it was possible.

      Today, no one really does that anymore, so everyone gets their MFA and adjuncts.

      I think Richard’s point is a unique and valid one. Also, note that he said “lit professor”—and in particular ones who had also published criticism—and not “creative writing professor.” CW is what I wager most FC2 authors (and other novelists/poets we know) teaches?

      (Incidentally, one of my favorite FC2 books ever is Yuriy Tarnawsky’s Three Blondes and Death (1993); Yuriy worked for IBM as a linguist, and in the 80s taught Ukrainian language/culture/lit at Columbia University.)


  23. A D Jameson

      I think the generous reading of Chris’s opening comment is something more like, “I love theory and find it stimulating and I want to share that with others; here are five books I think/hope you’ll enjoy.”

      But the less generous reading is something along the lines of: “I think you need theory in order to be creative”—which is a poor argument in general—and actually an argument against creativity! It suffers from the “other minds” problem—when we don’t acknowledge that others have (and should have) minds other than our own. Hugo breaks up with Lucinda because Lucinda doesn’t care for Andrei Tarkovsky films. A Pitchfork reviewer disdains anyone who doesn’t think Pavement the greatest band of the ’90s. A young self-professed anarchist think that everyone in Chicago should be downtown this weekend, protesting NATO. (Try reconciling that last argument with the meaning of the word “anarchy”!) … Thinking that what you know and do is more important than what anyone else thinks and does is the foundation of all snobbery.

      I just spent a year rewatching every episode of Seinfeld, a pastime I found wondrously enjoyable and stimulating. But it would never occur to me to tell any other living person that they should also do that, or that they would reap the same benefits that I did.

      (Though, seriously, dude, go rewatch Season 4 of that show!)

      (No, go watch Spaced instead.)

  24. Christopher Higgs

      I hear you about the unsettling effects of heat, Frank.  I live in North Florida where you can step outside and feel like you’re swimming in hot soup.  It’s no good for one’s general outlook on life.

      Anyway, yeah, you bring up something I personally struggle with all the time, which is: my role as an authority figure in the classroom or even here at giant, suggesting to people that they should read this or that. 

      On the one hand, I think you’re absolutely right that it’s beneficial for writers to pursue what they like and to create their own system of values, without being directed.  But on the other hand, some direction can open possibilities.

      And that’s how I resolve for myself the inner conflict between being a dictator and being a facilitator.  I think people in general, and creative people especially, benefit from exposure.  Like I said, I don’t think a writer needs to listen to jazz to be a good writer, but I can’t see how being exposed to it would be detrimental.  You know?  Why limit your exposure?

      Personally, I attribute my path in life to the experiences of exposure that introduced me to aspects of living and thinking that I hadn’t yet found on my own.  My dad introduced me to The Doors when I was fifteen, which introduced me to Jim Morrison, which introduced me to the idea that reading and writing books could be something cool rather than uncool (Morrison being a rock star and a poet and an avid reader), which introduced me to Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Nietzsche, which introduced me to….so on and so on.

      As far as whether or not it’s constricting to be surprised by a person’s preferences, that’s something I need to think more about.  I’ll admit there is a part of me that finds it strange whenever someone doesn’t enjoy the pursuit of intellectual and creative unfamiliarity, which I suppose exposes one of my personal prejudices.  If it makes any difference, I’m also surprised when creative people admit they don’t enjoy watching the Lakers. :)  

  25. Anonymous

      I think Barthes’ Lovers Discourse is best read as some kind of fiction as well. The little fragments fit together into a vaguely story-shaped thing about a lover and his beloved, akin to something Robbe-Grillet may have written. Plus, Barthes, a gay man, wrote the book with the beloved as a woman, which makes me think that the process of writing the fragments required a certain fictionalization of his own experiences, the putting them into the head and lives of make believe people, with himself as the aloof but all-knowing, all-analyzing narrator.

  26. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      Yeah, it’s a thin line to walk, certainly. I agree that exposure is always beneficial to a writer, but I guess the issue for me is when the exposure is presented en masse.

      As for the being surprised as a constricting agent, I feel like all you have to do is put your undergraduate shoes back on and remember how intelligent and wise you thought your teachers were, and how much you wanted to impress them, and how easy it was to adopt their stances on anything. I’d posit that “being surprised” — like Adam explained in his comment above — when read without much generosity teeters on being pejorative, because people are surprised by things when they are not of the/your norm, and if people look up to you, they want to be included in your norm SO BADLY, that your “surprise” in their disinterest over something affects them much more than it should. Obviously a very nuanced/neurotic interpretation, but I think when you have the opportunity to have people listen to you, there’s nothing wrong with stressing over every single thing you say!

  27. Frank Tas, the Raptor

      “You are photos and favorite books and music and television shows and
      friends’ comments and youtube videos and popculture nostalgia. But you
      are not late night conversations on a couch or five drinks deep or dance
      moves or jokes or sense of humor or voice or smell or what you do when
      you are searching for something else to say.”

  28. Nicholas Grider

      The degree of passion people have here regarding reading and writing is thrilling, but the way people seem to need to freak out over every last thing regarding reading and writing is disheartening.  Thrilling probably wins out, even though it’s clear these books probably aren’t going to get read by writers here.  

      I’ve read Crack Wars and Glas and found the former a little precious and the latter great precisely because I didn’t know what the fuck was going on and enjoy being shoved around like that sometimes.  Obviously, more straightforward work has different, equal merits.  I even secretly love some MOR fiction that would bother everybody here.

  29. Anonymojo

      The first two names that sprang to my mind were Pynchon and Byatt, but there are many more.  The ‘two cultures’ problem – scientists and artists don’t/can’t/won’t communicate with each other, and few people (of any profession) bother to try to understand both – , in its literary mode, doesn’t seem to me really to be an issue for many writers.

      The theory/criticism distinction that Chris mentions seems to me important to writers who read (more, that is, than to readers generally).  Many writers will want to protect their processes from paralysis-by-analysis.

      But do you think many of the writers you might know, or whom you might meet at AWP – where I’ve never been; I’m just asking – , would refuse to read, say, Marx, on the grounds of its being uncreative?  Political stuff, like the Chomsky-Foucault debate?  –or, to be maybe too catholic with the term “theory”, who don’t get any pleasure from any science popularization?

      If a particular theorist – philosopher, political agent, critic, belletrist – is ‘boring’ to a “creative” person, well, that’s different — some creative people don’t enjoy reading much literature!

  30. Anonymojo

      The “generous” reading seems to me an accurate take on the recommendatory tone of the blogicle:  ‘it’s productive to read theory as if its function were to affect’ – whether it’s fascinating or tedious, empirically, theory does “affect”.  While the blogicle is ‘for’ inclusion, it’s careful not to prescribe inclusion.  One can at least make a recommendation without being a totalitarian!

      Besides, theory is good for you, and Spinoza isn’t Brussels sprouts.  (–which *I guess* some people like…)

      The ‘other mind’ problem – perspective – is a different thing.

      Everybody doesn’t get or have to get their nutrition from the same source, but nutrition is, as well as variable in accordance with different bodies, also regular.  Each liver will process fatty acids slightly differently – I think I have that right – , but every liver processes fatty acids, or is sick.  Organic chemistry is a condition for the possibility of each person’s unique triglyceride profile, not the product of an array of fatty-acid profiles.

      I don’t see Chris saying that creativity must be fueled by theory; he’s saying that it can be.  –and that theory is ineradicably ‘creative’ in itself (though there’s as much weak or boring or ‘off’ theory as there is, say, fiction).

      I’d go farther.  I think people are ‘theorists’.  We aren’t just bent away from our own creativity; I think people are habituated to squelch interest and pleasure in and facility at theoretical investigation — which everyone pursues anyway in the course of, well, coming to understand.

  31. Alexis Orgera

      I think we can make sense of what we read/experience without necessarily understanding it. I appreciate this post.

  32. Stephen Dierks

      i have an aversion to theory, probably because in a college writing workshop we spent time i would have liked devoted to discussing novels/stories/poems, authors, people, life events, emotions instead discussing vegetarianism and the holocaust and highly abstract ideas, due to the theory we were reading.

      while i don’t discount the potential productive influence of theoretical works for myself or for someone else (much as is the case with philosophical works), i see theory, to be reductive and uncharitable, as, along with gender politics and cultural studies, a prong in the effort to strip literature of its unique identity as a distinct artform involved with people, emotions, and its own history, and instead make it a primarily political or theoretical product of and for academics and their obedient students.

      i want there to be literature that is not academic, not Literary Fiction the Bourgeois Genre, and also not airport/genre fiction. some people might think such a thing doesn’t exist, what i’m describing is middlebrow bourgeois Literary Fiction, but i wouldn’t agree with that opinion

  33. Anonymous

      You spent time in a creative writing workshop discussing theory at the expense of workshopping stories and poems? That’s a pretty rare and uncommon experience. Most of the criticisms levied at the workshop are the opposite and complain about insularity and the overemphasis on technique or “craft.”

      There’s nothing about “theory” (or lit crit, since people seem to be using “theory” as shorthand for criticism that might not be what we commonly think of as “theory”) itself that seeks to strip literature of its life. What you and Higgs are really describing is not an aversion to theory/criticism, but an aversion to bad teaching, because “literature” and writers draw energy from numerous sources. When writers typically complain about theory, they are complaining about that teacher they had who did a poor job of synthesizing primary and secondary texts in discussions/lectures. It’s misrepresentative and insulting to suggest that most writers are anti-intellectual aesthetes who are only interested in using one side of their brains. Now, Higgs suggests that he’s one of these types, but we know from reading his posts that he’s lying (as deadgod and others have already shown). 

  34. jonathan peter

      Let me recommend most likely belatedly: George Steiner’s THE POETRY OF THOUGHT: FROM HELLENISM TO CELAN (New Directions, 2011). Steiner, is remarkable, as is Benjamin and Cioran, for being an elegant stylist. This is why there are difficult books I will always persist in reading because I derive great pleasure from the way the book is written. 

      (I hope no one has mentioned him previously.) 


  35. Brooks Sterritt

      Glas IS badass, and well worth the kidney.

  36. Frank Tas, the Raptor
  37. Christopher Higgs

      Yeah, I recently read Gore Vidal’s essay “American Plastic,” first published in 1976 in The NYTBR.  In that essay he writes, “Except for Saul Bellow, I can think of no important novelist who has taught on a regular basis throughout a career.”  Different times, indeed.

  38. Christopher Higgs

      What is MOR fiction, Nicholas?  

  39. Christopher Higgs

      I have Steiner’s Poetry of Thought on my wishlist, Jonathan.  Thanks for reminding me about it.  A friend recommended it recently.

      And YES to this: “…I derive such great pleasure from the way they are written.”  I share this sentiment wholeheartedly, and I think it echoes Sontag’s famous essay (and one of my all time favorites) “Against Interpretation,” which is to say a revaluation of the importance of form (i.e. the way a thing is presented) rather than content (i.e. what the thing presents).

  40. Anonymojo

      What’s the difference between “make sense of” and “understand”?

  41. Anonymous

      I think Christopher is assuming others define “understand” as, “having everything figured out,” which, of course, is complete nonsense. 

  42. Nicholas Grider

      Middle of the Road.  Meaning as much as Kathy Acker or DFW is my cup of tea and I am old enough to be deeply attached to my Judith Butler and my Deleuze and Guattari, I’ve read almost all of E.M. Forster’s novels not once but several times.  So I don’t mean Nicholas Sparks or something, but Forster or someone contemporary like Ali Smith.

  43. A D Jameson


  44. Anonymous

      Nice to see 

  45. William VanDenBerg

      I think it’s more a plain case of people sticking to their interests — I’m not interested in the mating habits of salamanders, so I’m not going to read a book on that. Even if I do, it’s unlikely that the work will affect my process because it’s unlikely I’ll fully engage in it. I might post-rationalize it as some other, more complicated refusal, but it’s just that I have a sphere of interest that doesn’t include it. 

      I’d hate to judge other writers reasons for not reading Marx or Chomsky. I think the surface answer is similar to what I mentioned above, but it goes deeper than that, probably toward the perceived antagonism between creativity and politics. 

  46. jtc

      I was wikiing something the other day and came across Wayne Booth and have since been reading his “The Rhetoric of Fiction” and “A Rhetoric of Irony” and both are way more about understanding a text and how to do that than they are about what understanding means but they’ve been more helpful than any books on craft I’ve ever read, I think, and so would recommend them to writers, like myself, who have maybe read some books and feel that they’re beyond most (mass-marketed) books on craft but always have this nagging suspicion that maybe there’s a way of doing it, a way of seeing, that they’re keeping themselves from discovering.

      I think you should just read whatever you want to read and try your best at whatever it is you’re doing and make sure you’re not killing/fucking someone over in the process. How lame, huh?

  47. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, jtc. 

      While I’m not a big fan of Wayne Booth, I think your credo: “you should just read whatever you want to read and try your best at whatever it is you’re doing and make sure you’re not killing/fucking someone over in the process” is fantastic.

  48. Michael Martin

      Chris Higgs, 

      I deal with many of these questions on a personal level–sometimes, on my more Koethian, Derridean, Ashberyan days I’m assured that the best impetus to creative work is to read everything you can, blind to people-given conditions. 

      Other days, I fear my finitude, and perhaps the paralysis a previous post mentioned as to what too much thinking-about books might have on the potential of one’s own-most books.

      With that, I mean to encourage you for the series you just proposed. In it, I hope to find my own encouragement.

      BTW-Is there really no mention of DFW here? Who spent an entire life wrestling these questions (to a different degree, agreed)?

      BTW–both Jean-Luc Nancy and Derrida’s son are accomplished poets in their own right. As are Kevin Hart, Richard Kearney.  Lest we forget of our own L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, who, when at their best, broke-away with all these distinctions?


  49. Christopher Higgs

      Thanks, Michael.

      I’m not as big a fan of DFW as many of the other contributors here at giant, but you’re absolutely right to single him out as a writer who believed deeply in the value of theory.  And yes, yes, yes, Language poetry is Language poetry because of a committed engagement with theory.  Good points both.    

      I didn’t know about Derrida or Nancy’s sons being poets!  I’m going search out their stuff right away.  

      Hopefully time will permit me to pursue such a series.  Thanks for the encouragement! 

  50. Michael Martin

      For clarity, Chris: Nancy himself has published poetry in France. The name of Derrida’s son is Pierre-Alferi Derrida.

  51. Anonymous

      Yes, because it’s much easier to be passive-aggressive. Deadgod can be annoying, but his questions here (and elsewhere on this particular topic) are definitely valid and worth considering. I’ve had my run-ins with him in the past, but that doesn’t stop me from giving him credit when it’s due…you know, like any intellectually honest person would do. Anyway, you play fast-and-loose with your terms and present an argument with implicit and problematic contradictions. Deadgod properly and thoroughly calls you out for this and–shocker–you completely dismiss him, once again proving just how intellectually dishonest you are, which is quite unbecoming for someone who hopes to be a tenure-track professor one day–someone who is dismissive of compelling questions and runs from challenges…someone who is scared of a little “provocation.” You also have a bad habit of addressing commenters like 12-year-old kids. I have no idea, for instance, why you respond to commenters with a greeting and salutation. Oh, yeah I do: it’s just another passive-aggressive move on your part to smugly assert your supposed authority over others, to pretend like a commenter here is the equivalent of someone writing a letter to the editor of a major magazine, in response to a fancy article you wrote, and not an actual commenter commenting on a blog about your blog post.

  52. Christopher Higgs on Theory « Laura Pazuchowski

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