Barry Mauer and John Venecek


We discuss the following topics on this page:

We also provide the following activity:



A theory is an idea or model about literature in general (rather than about a specific literary work). A theory can account for:

  • What things are
  • Why they are the way they are
  • How and why they work

Theories can be about physical things, like people or books, or abstract concepts, like patriarchy, love, or being. The English word theory derives from an Ancient Greek word theoria, meaning “a looking at, viewing, beholding.” In contrast to practical ways of knowing (which are about how to do things), theory usually refers to contemplative and reflective ways of knowing (which are about what things are).

Theory is full of terminology, which often makes it challenging for beginning researchers.  The terminology in theory is a kind of shorthand for concepts. These concepts are similar to those little capsule sponge critters that expand when you leave them in water. The theory term is the compressed critter in the capsule and the fully explained concept is the expanded sponge critter. Advanced theorists and critics often use just the terminology (or the capsule, in our ‘sponge critter’ analogy) as a kind of shorthand conversation with one another. However, researchers who are unfamiliar with a theorist’s terminology have to expand their knowledge of the terminology (the capsule) by conducting additional analysis. By completing this additional analysis, researchers can come to understand each concept’s relationships to other concepts (or the expanded sponge critter in our analogy). Once we have expanded the terminology (capsule) into the concepts (sponge critter), we can realize how valuable and significant these concepts are to our particular field of study.

Example [Theory]

Below are a few terms (and their definitions) that start with the letter “A” selected from a single book by theorist Gregory Ulmer (who borrows terms from many theoretical discourses and even invents some of his own):

  • Abductive reasoning – from thing to rule.
  • Abject – a formless value, not yet recognized.
  • Alienation – separation from one’s capacity to act; the basis of compassion fatigue.
  • Allegory – like a parable, a story with a moral linked via metaphor to another story.
  • Aporia – a blind spot, an impasse, a dilemma, an inability to move ahead, or conventionally, an inability to choose between sets of equally desirable (or undesirable) alternatives.
  • Apparatus – technology, institutional practices, and subject formation.
  • Arabesque – an ornamental design of interlaced patterns of repeated shapes (floral or geometric) said to be the most typical feature of Islamic aesthetics.
  • Aspectuality – an image whose intelligibility is determined by the aspect of the viewer: the duck-rabbit, for example.
  • ATH (até) – blindness or foolishness in an individual: calamity and disaster in a collective.
  • Attraction and repulsion – two poles (the sublime and the excremental).
  • Attunement (stimmung) – the feeling that this is how the world is; results from mapping discourses.
  • Aura – a sign of recognition.[1]

We don’t expect you to learn the terms in this list; we provide them to show how dense and complicated theory can be. Notice how the definitions for each theory term above contain even more terms – like “formless,” “compassion fatigue,” and “blind spot” – that need further unpacking. Theory tends to be very dense; it crams lots of ideas into every page. Entire dictionaries are devoted to literary theory terms (see for instance Joseph Childers and Gary Hentzi, The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism, Columbia University Press, 1995). There are entire dictionaries dedicated to the terms used by a single theorist (see for instance Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Routledge, 2006).

Literary scholars use theories to frame their perspectives of literary works. Each theory is like a different “lens” through which to view a literary work and changing lenses gives us very different views of a work. Below are a few examples of major literary theories: (Note: this list is nowhere near complete.)

Major Literary Theories

  • Audience studies look at how a particular text was received in its day. Such studies might involve reading critical reviews from the period, looking at promotional materials, overall sales, and re-use of a text by other writers or artists. More recently, it could involve studying online communities and their uses and responses to a literary text.
  • Cultural studies theories, such as New Historicism, Post-colonialism, or Multiculturalism, look at how texts use discourses to represent the world, social relations, and meanings. Cultural studies theories also examine the relationships of these discourses to power: how groups in power use particular discourses to justify their power and how those with less power negotiate these discourses and generate their own discourses.
  • Ecological studies examine the ways that human and natural environments are represented in texts.
  • Feminist studies examine the way gender and sexuality shape the production and distribution of texts, or they examine the representation of gender in texts.
  • Genre studies explore what features constitute a literary genre and whether or how well a text meets these expectations, deviates from them (successfully or unsuccessfully), or establishes new genre expectations.
  • Linguistic studies examine the specific uses of language within a text and can include regional dialect, novel use of terminology, the development of language over time, etc.
  • Marxist studies examine the way historical and economic factors operate in the production and distribution of texts, or in the representation of social and economic relationships of people in texts.
  • Post-structuralist studies make claims about instabilities within a text – particularly at how its binary structures, such as male-female, black-white, East-West, and living-dead, start to break down or take on one another’s features.
  • Psychological studies look at a text, its author, or the society in which it was produced in terms of psychological features and processes. These features and processes might include identity formation, healthy or unhealthy qualities of mind, dreams and symptoms, etc.
  • Queer studies challenges heteronormativity in texts and focuses on sexual identity and desire.

Theorists find unanswered questions or return to key questions with different answers or different approaches. By and large these questions are about things in general (for instance, they ask about category systems). Theory is often counterintuitive, meaning that it does not align with common sense. For instance, it was common sense that the Earth was stationary and the sun moved across the sky, rising in the east and setting in the west. Copernicus theorized, counterintuitively, that the Earth rotated, which made it appear that the sun was moving. Theorists change our picture of how the world works. In your writing, you should clearly communicate how your chosen theorist(s) change our pictures of the world.

Before you write your research paper (or project), you should do some broad research into the theory you are assigned (or that you choose) as well as some deeper research into the specific concept(s) you will be using from that theory. Broad research can include Wikipedia entries or the various “For Beginners” or “Introducing” books, such as Lacan for Beginners by Philip Hill, (1999) or Introducing Lacan by Darian Leader and Judy Groves (1995). Once you have a good general understanding of a theory, then dive into a work written by the theorist. Most literary critics combine two or more theories. They choose their theories based on their interests, their audience, or their research question. Consult with your professor or a more experienced researcher about which theory or theories to use for your research.

Each theory entails particular research questions, methodologies, and methods. For instance, Ecological theory, also called Ecocriticism, entails questions about the representation of human culture and nature. How or where does a text draw a line between the two? What assumptions does a text make about culture and nature? What consequences do these assumptions produce in terms of moving us towards ecological destruction or sustainability? Ecological theory employs methodologies such as studies of the environment and historical research into ideas about nature and culture and how they have changed over time. It also also entails particular research methods such as close readings of literary texts and research into the scholarship of literature and nature.

Note: in literary research, a theory is not an “unproven fact.” Rather, it is an explanation of how facts relate to one another. For instance, Marxism provides a theory of various values (such as labor value, sign value, exchange value, use value, and so on). These theories explain certain facts, like why a necklace made with diamonds and an identical-looking necklace made with costume jewels can have the same sign-value (in other words, the same power to impress) but different exchange values (one being much more expensive than another). The difference between sign values and exchange values plays out, for instance, in Guy de Maupassant’s short story titled “The Diamond Necklace.” Facts are things we can observe but also include the reasoned inferences we draw from those observations (i.e. that jewels are valuable); theories explain “the bigger picture” (like why humans came to value jewels).


Methodologies (not to be confused with methods – more about that later) are positions and behaviors that researchers within a theoretical paradigm use in their research.


Criticism is a specific treatment of a literary work. It often uses theory to make a case about the work. For example, we might start a work of literary criticism by selecting a short story by William Faulkner and considering it in terms of one of the concepts from Gregory Ulmer’s work such as abject, alienation, allegory, aporia, apparatus, aspectuality, assemblage, ATH, attraction and repulsion, attunement, or aura. Any of these ideas could make for a valuable and interesting approach to Faulkner’s work. Trying to write a paper without such concepts is unlikely to yield valuable and interesting results. Theory concepts give us lots of great material! By using the concepts and terms common to our area of study, you connect your work to the ongoing conversation, making it relevant!


Method is the procedure that researchers use to answer their research question. For instance, a paper investigating Faulkner’s use of allegory may involve methods of historical research that reveal how literary authors have understood allegory and used it over time. The project could also involve methods of close reading of a literary text to notice details other critics have missed. We will address both method and close reading more fully in the following pages.

Research Skills

Research Skills are the knowledge and practices you need to gather the evidence to answer your research question and to support your argument. These skills can include things like how to use search engines and finding aids, how to use citation management software, and how to evaluate sources.

Exercises [Discussion]

  1. What theory or theories will you be using for your paper? Why did you make this theory selection over other theories? If you haven’t made a selection yet, which theories are you considering?
  2. What specific concepts from the theory/theories are you most interested in exploring in relation to your chosen literary work?
  3. What is your plan for researching your theory and its major concepts?
  4. When you do your assignments about theory and methodology, you should refer to your earlier work – the literature you chose, the problem, etc. We are in building mode.
  5. If there are any elements of your assignment that need clarification, please list them.
  6. What was the most important lesson you learned from this page? What point was confusing or difficult to understand?

  1. Barry J. Mauer. “Introduction, ”A Glossary for Greg Ulmer’s Avatar Emergency,” and “A Glossary for Greg Ulmer’s Electronic Monuments.” Text Shop Experiments, Volume 1. 2016 


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