Whenever I hear iPhone enthusiasts arguing with Android lovers about which is best, I am always reminded of how attached we can all get to our opinions and how much time and energy we often invest in confirming to ourselves that we are right, and in attempting to convince others that they are wrong. When a person experiences two conflicting beliefs simultaneously or when there is a conflict between what a person believes and evidence which is presented to him, social psychology refers to this as ‘cognitive dissonance’. It is an uncomfortable emotional state but can also be a constructive one which results in genuine and long-lasting mental change as the brain attempts to reduce the anxiety experienced via the dissonance by resolving the conflict somehow.
So why have I been thinking about this you may wonder when I have a manuscript to polish and an MA to complete? That’s the thing. It’s the MA. In specific it’s the literary theory that we have to study this semester and the role it plays in a creative writing degree. Of course I knew that it was one of the modules when I enrolled for the course last September and started my first year. I told myself that I’d worry about it later (never works for me). That I’d have changed my mind about it by the time I started the module (yeah yeah). I’ve discovered over the years that I’m not very good at delaying worrying. If something bothers me I worry about it. Either consciously or unconsciously. My beef about literary theory is not that it’s inherently of no value or dull. I actually find a lot of it fascinating. It’s that a) it belongs – in my opinion – on a literature degree not a creative writing one and that b) it uses an academic part of my brain which conflicts with the creative part. When I’ve discussed my concerns I’ve enjoyed discovering that lots of people felt the same. ‘Exactly,’ I would say to each of them, ‘Glad you agree’. And each time it stoked my resentment and I dreaded starting the module a bit more.
As an aside, it also amuses me that I’ve avoided many of the theories a number of times before on previous courses and now they’ve come up again. I feel like the world is telling me that I need to learn my “–isms”. Psychology has ‘debates’ such as determinism and reductionism, and these include many of the philosophical theories in literary theory. The literature modules on my French and German degree nodded continually at Marx, Foucault, de Beauvoir, Sartre and Lacan. When I did some Sociology and General Studies at school (as a teacher) I learnt about structuralism and post-modernism.
As I now have a 2.5 hour journey to get to Kingston each week, and back, it is important to me to get as much out of my MA as I can. One thing I learnt on my MA Effective Learning was that attitudes to learning profoundly affect learning. This may sound obvious, but actually it isn’t necessarily nor are the ways in which it plays out. So I gave myself a good talking to about my attitude. That didn’t really work. As a fan of preparation, both mental and physical and as an empiricist, I’ve been giving my anti-literary theory prejudices a good airing over the summer holidays and instead of looking for self-confirming evidence I’ve been actively seeking evidence that I am wrong: that learning about literary theory will help me to be a better writer. I think what has helped was that I sat down on Sunday night and read half one of the set text books. I’d told myself I’d read a couple of chapters but I couldn’t put it down.
In the first session yesterday, an introductory one, I listened to what the module leader said, and I was aware that a subtle shift had taken place: whereas before I hadn’t wanted to be convinced, now I did. Prior to the lecture I’d had a chat with him and had aired my concerns. ‘Won’t it make me more self-conscious when I write?’ I asked, feeling rather stupid. ‘Perhaps,’ he replied, ‘but perhaps that’s a good thing.’ ‘Won’t it suppress creativity?’ I continued. ‘Not necessarily,’ he answered, with a knowing smile. Normally these sorts of answers don’t work for me and knowing smiles wind me up. But for some reason, yesterday, they satisfied me. They gave me patience and faith. That I was wrong and that that was okay. And that good things might come of my being wrong in the way that cognitive dissonance suggests, in other words: learning.
I am not entirely sure why this module issue bothers me as much as it does. I am not a stubborn person and I have a good ability to shove myself through unhelpful attitudes and behaviours. If I’m honest it might simply be that the MA is costing me a lot of money and I would have liked something more writing-focussed (but not another writing workshop). I am still worried that the academic and the creative don’t sit well together, that self-consciousness in writing will hinder my creative flow and will invoke self-censorship. But I am prepared to suspend my beliefs, to give the module the benefit of the doubt, as well as people who know waaaaaaaaay more about literature and writing than me, and to see how things pan out over the next twelve weeks.
What we cover on the module is: the author; inter-textuality; the real; history & place; sex & gender; race & empire; politics & ideology. Plus we learn about story theory (which I love). We start formally next week with the ‘author’ material and guess who’s volunteered to do the opening summary of Foucault’s ‘What is an author?’ Foucault Shmooko. I must be mad…. Oh, well. In for a penny … (or rather several thousand!)
I would love to hear from people who’ve studied literary theory. To know how you found it and, for those of you who are writers, what relationship it had with your writing.
Vicky Newham © 2013