- The Novel after Theory by Judith Ryan
In 2009, Beverley Southgate published History Meets Fiction, a first-rate study that examines the role historians play as characters within novels to question, challenge, and reconstruct the discipline of history as well as the historical record. Such novels, Southgate astutely argues, came into being because of a major transformation in the field of history—specifically the growing recognition that history is fiction. As an historian, Southgate welcomes this development, and he does a masterful job of clarifying how that approach has enabled the novel to contribute to the remaking of history. Ryan’s The Novel after Theory is in the same tradition as Southgate’s book, but her focus is on the role that theorists and theories (rather than historians and history) play within novels. Her goal is not to theorize upon particular novels but “to show how novelists themselves [End Page 577] engage with theory” (5). Many contemporary novelists, Ryan convincingly demonstrates, do not just incorporate theory into their works; they test theories, sometimes teasing out their logical and moral consequences, using reductio ad absurdum strategies to debunk them and/or reworking them into something entirely new. The result is a fascinating study of the degree to which theory permeates literary culture, as well as the ways in which contemporary writers internalize and/or resist the findings of prominent theorists.
The book opens with a section on theories of textuality, specifically a splendid chapter about the ambiguous moral consequences of Roland Barthes’s death-of-the-author theory. If, as Barthes claims, the very act of writing signals the death of the author, then it would be worth asking: who are the potential beneficiaries of this theory? Writers like Michael Krüger, Gilbert Adair, and John Banville respond by basing novels on people who had connections with the Nazis, and they suggest that Barthes’s theory let “real authors off the hook of moral duty” (48). This approach certainly resonates powerfully when we note how an author-theorist like Paul de Man, who published pro-Nazi writings as a young man and was instrumental in making poststructuralist theory available to American academics, could benefit from authorial erasure. Not surprisingly, Ryan illustrates how the novels of Adair and Banville specifically allude to de Man.
According to Ryan, the textual theories of Jacques Derrida fare much better in novels than either Barthes’s or de Man’s could. Ryan demonstrates how Derrida’s dislocated and decentered experience as an Algerian Jew contributed to his critique of European culture “as the culture of reference” (53) in his 1966 lecture “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” This essay appealed to many contemporary novelists. Ryan intelligently illustrates how Marguerite Duras, Marilynne Robinson, and Graham Swift bring Derrida’s theory to life in their novels and “spell out more clearly moral issues that were somewhat submerged in Derrida’s early writing” (74), thus advancing the discussion beyond the terms initially established in the theory.
The second section foregrounds the psychological. In French novels, Jacques Lacan’s theories take a significant hit—especially from women writers: Duras exposes his work’s limited resources for understanding “the psyche of a woman” (87); Julia Kristeva uses Lacanian theory to illuminate “larger social problems” (91) but actively transgresses his male-centered approach; and Camille Laurens challenges Lacan’s theory of aggression. If Kristeva influenced literature by underscoring the role of Lacanian theory in her novel Possessions, she had an even bigger impact on literature in her capacity as a theorist. In her essay “Women’s Time,” Kristeva makes a theoretical plea for a feminist “countersociety”: one that imagines female life outside the parameters of “traditional, patriarchal structures” (107). This is exactly what Christa Wolf accomplishes in Cassandra, wherein she enacts “what Kristeva terms ‘aesthetic practices’” that intervene in and shape “political realities” (115). By contrast, in Animal Triste, Monika Maron challenges Kristeva’s approach, deeming it a utopian fantasy that functions at the “expense of historical consciousness” (120).
The final section features theories of...