THESIS: Introduction

Here it is! At this point, I need to thank my college advisor and thesis reader: Professor Conforti and Professor Ryden. First of all, I need to thank them for reading this stuff over and over and over and over . . . Second, for telling me that the particular battle I am trying to fight is still there to be fought. (I was deathly afraid the entire time I was working on my thesis that some professor somewhere would publish a new tome making my thesis utterly obsolete.) Third, at the risk of sounding snide, I need to thank them for supplying me with opportunities to hone my opinions. Many of the arguments presented in this thesis came about during lectures where I either vocalized my dissatisfaction with a professor or student's opinion or sat stewing in philosophical fury. I may be the last humanities student alive who actually takes academic arguments seriously, but hey, it's gotta be someone!

I need to thank Professor Conforti, especially, for being such a goal-oriented advisor. For employment reasons, I had to get the thesis done within six months or less. Professor Conforti's "let's get it over with already" attitude was a huge asset in the achievement of that goal!

Concerning my purpose in writing the thesis (other than wanting to graduate), the Introduction, which follows, is more or less self-explanatory. Suffice it to say, This is my attempt to bring into the academic study of literature, the kind of in-depth and enthusiastic discourse that fans carry on everyday.

Please feel free to comment, only not, I beg you, on textual errors. At this point, as the thesis is being bound and stuck somewhere in the USM library, I really don't want to know. To reach me, e-mail:

Inside Knowledge: Votary Theory at Work

People who are fond of books know the feeling of
irritation which sweeps over them [when disturbed].
The temptation to be unreasonable and
snappish is one not easy to manage.
The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The first time I forgot myself while reading was in second grade. I barely remember the book now, except that it was an easy reader and about a cat. I do remember that I became so absorbed, I was late for school lunch. It was the beginning of many years of inattentiveness. Ten years later, I would get moved to the front of eleventh grade math for reading Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bears during class. Upon entering the work force as a secretary, I learned never to bring interesting books to my desk. I was liable to bark, "What do you want?" to interrupting supervisors.

My enthrallment with books started before I learned to read myself. I was read to as a child, mostly by my mother, who also told me fairytales, including her own (about a troll named Milo). I developed a predisposition then for audio performances. I would also act out the stories I heard. I would experiment mentally, and physically, with crafting fictions: if you change all the female characters in Cinderella to male and the male characters to female, does it alter the story? Suppose a certain event, crucial to the original text, does not occur? Suppose we add a character--what happens then? Story was a real as well as a made thing.

Despite growing up without a television, I was surrounded by performances: ballet (my sister Ann's interest), plays in the park--Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde--opera, symphonies, Peter, Paul & Mary, black & white oldies (shown at the old-style, downtown theater), Star Wars, The Cat from Outer Space. Once I bought a television at the age of twenty-six, I became equally enamoured with commercials, sitcoms and television dramas (Criminal Minds, Buffy, Star Trek). The remarkable aspect of my youth, however, was not the plethora of art to which I was exposed but the fact that so little of it was accompanied by any valuation.

Sincere Marxists and semiologists will insist that I did unwittingly receive the valuations of a dominant culture. A Caucasian female living in upstate New York, I was inculcated through the shows I attended, the radio I listened to, and the movies I watched with images, icons and concepts that supported and furthered the agendas, opinions, values of my white, middle class culture. The equation is complicated somewhat by the fact that I am a Mormon and was raised as one, but nevertheless, I am, in fact, Anglo and middle class.

Suffice it to say that defending my Anglo, middle class upbringing was not a factor of my childhood. I never needed to defend anything I read to anyone. We went to see Shakespeare because my parents like Shakespeare not because he was valuable or important or canonized. We also went to see the aforementioned Star Wars and scads of Little League baseball games. Every event was approached with the same interest, humor and post-show analysis. The idea of placing books or playwrights or films into hierarchies was never addressed, nor were the books, plays and films linked to political or social agendas. I am still flummoxed when I run across readers who equate their particular likes and dislikes with membership in a specific political party.(Footnote 1) Most importantly, my reactions--despite the post-show analysis--were never formalized or made relevant. No one asked me if I'd caught the symbolism in C.S. Lewis' Narnia series (my comprehension of the symbolism was taken for granted); no one asked me what Shakespeare meant to me. (A lot.) And certainly, no one ever asked me if I intended the novels of Orson Scott Card to form a life-long interdisciplinary reading pattern between religion and science-fiction, although that kind of happened anyway.

Subsequently, upon entering college, I experienced a minor shock. In retrospect, the Humanities program at Brigham Young University in 1989 was, if anything, geared towards formalism, even New Criticism; formalism, I don't mind; what I wasn't prepared for was the high-mindedness attached to literature and the subsequent politics that accompanied that high-mindedness. Reading literature did not just mean that one learned a great deal about the Romantics, Beowulf and Maya Angelou. It gave one clout of sorts. If one read Henry V, one could make comments about the Gulf War. Or women's rights. Or anything.

It occurred to me that the humanities was fighting a desperate, and rearguard, action against the hard and soft scientists who did use their disciplines to comment on such things as women's rights or, in the case of the hard scientists, to address the provable workings of the universe (all while we humanities scholars were nitpicking nuances in The Tale of Genji). Justification for one's discipline appeared to be tied to one's ability to slather the outcomes of that discipline onto the rest of the world. Hence the desire by humanities students, and professors, to use their Insights Into Human Nature to Say Profound Things. Which seemed, to my twenty-year-old mind, unbelievably dumb. I gravitated towards professors who emphasized authorial intent and historical context and who were, as well, overwhelming engaged by their particular specialties (I am happy to say that they were there to find). In the meantime, I developed, as twenty-year-olds are wont to do, a Theory in which I condemned every artistic work that meant something. Author makes statement equals bad literature, I decided.

That lasted right up until I realized that I'd condemned C.S. Lewis and Dostoevsky amongst others. I tried to fit exceptions into my theory and then gave it up. But my dissatisfaction with the search for Meaning or Purpose in literature remained, a dissatisfaction that has been exacerbated by current trends in critical theory. The compulsion by humanities students to Talk About Life appears to have intensified in the last ten years. In issuing pronouncements on race, class and gender, the humanities discipline appears more and more like an extension of the Sociology Department, its language a blend of labels and jargon and a rather excessive use of the word "ideology."

Power lies at the core of this abandonment of aesthetics for "relevance." As in the game of hot potato, humanities students breathlessly follow the exchange of power from discipline to discipline, group to group. Now, women have it (who will get it next? where did it go?). Now, it's back to the white males. Oops, it crossed over to the resistant ideology. Nope, the dominant ideology snatched it back. A discipline intended for the study and enjoyment of literature has turned works of art into sociological springboards--what can we do with Jane Austen? Do we love her because she is a feminist? Do we loathe her because she isn’t feminist enough?--a type of blatant self-promotion fraught with irony, considering the anti-capitalistic tendencies of humanities departments. Straightforward commodification would bother me less, but I refuse to hand Pamela over to scholars who will claim great insight while deploying Pamela in their gender wars. (Although to be fair, I doubt Richardson would have minded.)

Where, I wonder, are the scholars who love literature just because it is literature? Who don't need to dismantle it or politicize it or defend it in terms of "real-life applications?" Who experience, as Roland Barthes called it, jouissance, the fun of the thing. I know these scholars exist. I have myself been in thrall to artistic works, in love with words, images, dialogue, faces. Moreover, I have encountered amongst my friends and relations (and through them, other lovers of artistic works) a fondness for entering fictional worlds. My friends and family and I will discuss film and novel characters as real people, not bothering to preface our remarks with "according to the author" or "as seen through our eyes." I have also witnessed a flexible and objective independence by which fans will reject an event within the "canon" story because it doesn't ring true while remaining faithful to the author/director's overall characterizations and design.(Footnote 2)

Too often, this type of creative involvement is perceived by humanities scholars as a nice, but useless, side-effect, not the principal response to the arts under discussion.(Footnote 3) Again and again, they return to the value of a work as a source of historical, sociological, even personal change. In her book on the Oprah Book Club, Kathleen Rooney echoes an idea common amongst many scholars (and readers) when she writes, "[I]n many cases the very impulse to read [amongst high brow and low brow readers] may very well be delineated in terms of . . . . self-improvement." It is foolish, Rooney argues, to attack Oprah for doing the very thing promoted by academe. She continues, "One of the things--but certainly not the only thing--genuinely good books can do for us as readers is inspire us to higher levels of morality, in the sense that they put us through the paces of moral awareness and affiliation, and disaffiliation." Rooney, I should state, makes a valiant effort to not reduce the literary search for self-improvement to mere platitudes or lessons. Nevertheless, her attitude that literature should mean or do something--should feed us in a practical rather than creative way--is at the root of not only Oprah's Book Club but contemporary academic approaches to the arts.(Footnote 4)

The search for a usable purpose in the arts is hardly new to Western Civilization. It extends back as far as Plato. Many groups and cultures consider that the arts are only palatable if they contain a moral lesson. However, the issue I wish to address is not, Do people believe that art should educate? but, What is the job of the humanities scholar in regards to the arts? Is it our job to fight over artistic works, pushing and molding them until they say the "right" kinds of things, the things we personally approve of and hold important, insightful and necessary to society? Should every production of Taming of the Shrew be preceded by a lecture on the evils of chauvinism, or, contrariwise, on the resistant aspects of feminist ideology? Are humanities scholars condemned forever to hold the position of cultural judges: this is acceptable because it addresses race, class and gender; this isn't acceptable because it promotes capitalism and other nefarious ideologies?

I hope not. I believe the job of the humanities scholar is to understand an artistic work on a creative level. Political commentary, gender commentary, social commentary may be entertaining, but they are not our primary responsibility. Rather, the artistic works of any age--be they popular, middlebrow, classical or indeterminate--are themselves the scholar's responsibility: a wide and deep area, hence the need for specialties. Our responsibility is not one of judgment, although judgment is not always out of place. Rather, our responsibility is to acknowledge, comprehend and just plain care about artistic works--literature, plays, poems, films: the outpouring of creativity throughout the ages.(Footnote 5) We should learn their contexts, learn how they have been used, how analyzed. We should understand their audiences. Most importantly, we should look for the creative desire, manifested throughout these works, in both the artist and in the reader/spectator.

Once again, hopefully with more success that when I was twenty, I have developed a theory. In this case, the theory is meant as a tool, a way of approaching artistic works that will address them at the creative level. I call this tool votary theory.(Footnote 6) Votary theory, while not ignoring historical or social realities (the influence of context), focuses on the creativity within artistic works rather than on their power-related or usable applications (social, political, personal). More precisely, votary theory postulates that power is not, in fact, the overwhelming determinant that so many critical theorists suppose. People do not watch plays, read books, listen to music, go to movies for the sake of reinforcing political (and therefore power-ful or power-less) positions. Finally, votary theory presents a set of tools with which to address individual works. Hopefully, through votary theory, the worst excesses of critical theory can be avoided. Artistic works should never be subsumed by signifiers, ideologies or political labels, languages that do almost anything except understand the things they describe.
1. A secretary (and political science major) I once worked with informed me that Republicans don't like Harry Potter. Since I know a number of Republicans and since most of them have read and liked Rowlings' books, I was at a loss as how to answer. "Uh…."

2. Many Buffy fans were upset by a last minute cancelled wedding that occurred in the second to last season. As a result, some fans, like myself, re-imagined the script to accommodate the unexpected ending while others simply ignored the event as "non-canon"; however, no fan abandoned the story line for that season as a whole. Like it or not, the characters didn't get married.

3. Reader response theorists being the notable exception. The current trend in reader response, however, is largely sociological, i.e., Elizabeth Long's Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003) and Janice Radway's Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature (Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 1984, reprinted 1991).

4. Kathleen Rooney, Reading With Oprah: The Book Club That Changed America (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 2005), 76. "[T]ruly great novels," Rooney writes in the same chapter, "result not only from an author's intellectual, political, social and cultural seriousness"--yikes!--"but also from an author's ability to evoke a kind of enigmatic, philosophical and almost spiritual quality," 98-99.

5. There is a beautiful passage in Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose (New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1980) in which the narrator imagines books conversing through time: "Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves . . the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialog between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors," 342-343.

6. My use of the term "votary" comes from a 1946 review of The Duchess of Malfi by Brooks Atkinson in which he refers to playgoers as "votaries of horror." I prefer "votary" to "fan," not because my conceptualization of a votary is very different from that of a fan but because "fan" carries a somewhat single-minded/popular culture connotation. I needed a broader term.

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