You probably don’t think of him as such, but University President Steven Knapp is a revolutionary.
As an English professor at the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1980s, he co-authored an article entitled “Against Theory,” a piece of criticism that revolted against literary analysis itself. At a time when theory reigned supreme, Knapp wrote that effectively interpreting literature was impossible when using the lofty and fallacious theory.
His scholarship turned heads in academia when it was released. But 30 years have passed, and edgy Berkeley professor Steven has become the Ruffles-walking, Prius-driving President Knapp we know today.
But with the National Book Festival taking place on the National Mall this past weekend, District residents and academics have been thinking a lot about literature. And the event has prompted me to think about how Knapp’s theory may apply to me as a student.
Every so often in my classes, I find myself being pushed to the edge, fed up with sophomoric exclamations like, “But what does it symbolize?” or the eye roll-inducing, “We just need to deconstruct the binary.”
During those times, I declare my own Knapp-like revolt against literary interpretation and I try to value reading in my own, less conventional way.
I urge all students to do the same.
We should distinguish between intellectual, scholarly analysis and the innate value of a personal connection to literature. And although Knapp’s writing may seem dated and inapplicable to all but English majors, he teaches us as students something important about the conventional way of approaching literature.
Primarily, that it can be infuriating.
Formal classroom analysis often overcomplicates the author’s intentions, which can obscure the value that a work of literature may have. Though academia certainly has its merits, it trains our instincts to turn toward endless interpretation and a level of subjectivity that makes any form of reading a daunting task.
As soon as we pick up our first Judy Blume books in the third grade, we are spoon-fed literary analysis. We are taught to look for symbolism, and to talk about what characters may be thinking and that interpretation is the key to a critical reading.
But using that as the key ingredient to understanding and enjoying literature can turn any book into an immense beast of potential symbols and meanings, obscuring a work’s inherent value and turning readers away before they begin chapter one.
Knapp and his co-author Walter Benn Michaels believe that “the only coherent goal of interpretation is to understand what the author intended to say,” Knapp explained to me in an email. “And once you see that, you also see that a general theory of interpretation is useless, because it provides no help in understanding what the author in any particular case actually meant.”
That’s why it’s necessary to look past conventional interpretation when reading literature, but also when approaching any art. Try to ignore the beard-stroking, high-brow analysis that is expected of us as college students. Know that there is value elsewhere, such as in a text’s historical and cultural worth, but also in the personal connections that we can forge with works.
Literature highlights epochs in history, shedding light on places and experiences otherwise inaccessible. All literature gives us insight into the time and place in which a work was written, and this historical value is especially poignant and easy to see at GW.
Just pick up a copy of “Watergate” by English professor Thomas Mallon, which made him a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction finalist. You’ll experience the event that happened only blocks from our campus in a way that a history book could never offer.
Next month, E. L. Doctorow will be reading only miles away in Silver Spring, Md., and next semester will bring a new Jewish Literature Live series to campus, which featured famed “Angels in America” playwright Tony Kushner last year.
I have had friends tell me that authors like these have saved their lives. Theory can make a valuable connection with art and literature an impossibility.
So when you walk past your bookshelf and see the novel you read in your University Writing course freshman year, see it not as a source of mental torment, but as a piece of history and culture that can give lonely stories a home in art.
And next time you see Knapp walking his dog down F Street, recognize him not as the University president, but as an academic renegade.
The writer is a senior majoring in English and creative writing.