Maximizing Literary Theories in the Reading Process – Stephen Onimisi Ajinomoh (Litera-steve)

The literary enterprise is a network of activities that spans through time and space. For the purpose of this essay we would classify these activities into two broad domains: The compositional domain and the analytical domain. While the compositional domain deals with the creative process that translates into all the genres available for literary appreciation, the analytical domain on the other hand is purely a matter of interpretation and “meaning-making”; it is the literary space that accommodates all conceptual, notional and theoretical lenses that authenticate value judgements and how we see literature.

The literary enterprise is a field of effect that often spark up interaction between the compositional domain and the analytical domain. What this implies is that where one ends the other begins. In other words, the literary enterprise thrives on the contest between the writer (who operates from the compositional domain) and the critic (who operates from the analytical domain). On this same ground, there are often arguments as to whether the writer is more important than the critic. Our interest however is neither on the critic nor the writer per say but on the interface between both; the reading process and how it ought to be entered.

The literary analytical process often begins with the process of reading. Thus, every reader is a potential critic. However, it is important to mention that only an “ideal reader” gets to attain the status of a critic. A critic might be many things put together, but most importantly s/he must first qualify as an “ideal reader”. Who is an ideal reader? He is one who enters the reading process with a high level of linguistic competence, cultural experience, imaginative insight and inter-textual knowledge. The outcome of ideal readership often translates into the birth of a composite text, an interpretation that not only displays polemics but also expresses logic. This is where the analytical process begins and meaning(s) begin to emerge.
The interpretative process demands a conceptual or theoretical level plain field to qualify as an intellectual activity and/or knowledge. It is in this regard, that theories are often considered as an essential aspect of the literary process especially because they embody possible ways in which texts can be entered whether it is poetry, prose, drama or any other creative genre open to literary investigation. Some of these concepts, movements and theories include; Realism, Naturalism, Romanticism, Marxism, Postcolonialism, New Historicism, Feminism, Formalism, Structuralism, Deconstructionism, etc. The text is an entity endowed with “polysemantic” possibilities since it is often an attempt to capture the complexity of human relations and existence. In this regard, a reader ought to enter the reading process with the consciousness of what the textual space constitutes.

As much as we cannot explore the cumbersome literary interpretative and theoretical frameworks that shape meaning in this essay, it is important for readers to be aware that the complexity of the literary enterprise is best negotiated via the lens of literary theories and that these theories help to ensure that polemics, logic and even empiricism are adequately deployed in the service of literary appreciation, criticism or interpretation.

For the literati, these lenses often determine the depth and value of the interpretative process. In all, theories inspire meaning in four different ways. They include; context, text, reader and author. This implies that literary theories when deployed in the interpretation of a literary work are either, context based, text based, author based or reader based.

In other words, the meaning of a text can be based on what is available in the text, the author’s background or intention, the context within which the text is situated, politically, historically, socially, culturally or otherwise and the opinion of the reader in relation to his/her sense of reality. This network of possibilities that surrounds the reading and interpretative process is not farfetched from why Marcus Aurelius states that “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

The search for meaning using at least one of the grids or coordinates of text, context, author and reader in order to logically arrive at a critical position that expresses reasonable logic, have constantly been confronted by the binary extremes of “opinion” versus “fact” and “perspective” versus “truth”. This perhaps is one of the central problematics of the analytical domain and at the same time the basis of the beauty of literature.

What is essential for literary analysis in this Postmodern age –using the words of Montaigne– is the fact that “we need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things” because in doing so, we are able to maximize literary theories in the reading of meaning into texts and at the same time open up discourses that keep the literary enterprise alive.

Steve is currently pursuing a Masters degree in English Literature at
Ahmadu Bello University Zaria.

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