This is no. 85 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I entered my English PhD program in the fall of 2016 knowing that I wanted to write criticism—I felt excited to dive into prose and formally shape what I had learned about reading and writing literature over the course of nearly two decades. I wasn’t as excited about theory. My experience reading Heidegger during my MFA involved extreme disagreement, to put it mildly—disagreement with both classmates and my professor, not to mention Heidegger himself. This time around, as I read Foucault and structuralist texts, revisited Derrida and Baudrillard and Plato, I realized that their theories didn’t quite align with mine; when I tried to apply their thinking, it rang false. I came to different conclusions around what was important in shaping meaning within a text. Their texts are foundational, but they didn’t seem capable of even conceiving of the work I wanted to analyze—particularly literature by Black women. I also felt that the books I was assigned to analyze in class, works by John Ashbery and Ralph Ellison, for example, could benefit from a fresher, more updated approach to their work—an approach that didn’t take their being classics for granted, but examined, with feminist, queer and critical race theories in mind, how they approached both content and form.
The literary criticism class I took was aggressively white, misogynist, and dead. The language of analysis favored rather violent words like argue, interrogate, force, demand, impose, rupture. The more I read, the less I understood why literary analysis had to be so painful. I loved literature! Why couldn’t I love analysis as well? I wondered, too, why literary analysis couldn’t reflect the love that we as writers and thinkers and readers have for the work. Objectivity felt like a farce; the so-called rigor felt like busywork, fake and antiproductive. The language of literary criticism (and the field overall, frankly) is steeped in imperialist hierarchy and exclusivity. If I wanted something more inclusive, I needed to read into the present and future as well as the past with, to paraphrase Audre Lorde’s famous quote, all new tools.
I found myself approaching more feeling-centered analyses, in direct opposition to objectivity, which didn’t stand up to scrutiny as a default praxis, in my opinion. I decided to compile and add to a new critical framework to approach the work I wanted to study. Upon the recommendation of my advisor, Dr. Tayana Hardin, I found kinship, brilliance, and wisdom in Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Revolutionary Mothering, and the interviews with Toni Cade Bambara, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, and Sonia Sanchez in Claudia Tate’s hard-to-find 1984 treasure Black Women Writers at Work. I revisited Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and Toni Morrison’s The Origin of Others. To help me articulate what I wanted to express about literary analysis and the field of literary theory, I drew inspiration and training from Edward Said’s Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation, Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return, and—surprisingly—Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text. By foregrounding enjoyment, aesthetically and content-wise, I could access nineteenth-century authors like Herman Melville in ways that acknowledged underlying queerness and class concerns in the work, as well as my own perspective as a Black woman.
After reading and hearing about the nightmarishly racist and damaging experiences of my peers who had undertaken doctoral study, I was determined to enjoy my experience. I had to fight to identify and create that enjoyment, but once I did, I cherished and nurtured it. If you find literary theory inadequate for your needs, too convoluted, too dead—you aren’t alone. You can imagine new thinking methods for yourself, and trust your responses to theories that may be established and entrenched, but have outlived an unquestioned existence.
Asking questions of one’s own work is part of any professional writing practice; it follows that our thinking about how writing works—in terms of craft, theory, and the work we choose to canonize—also benefits from periodic reexamination. If a work cannot stand up to such questioning, it is not only valuable to articulate why, but to point to works that do hold up to scrutiny. When we search for alternatives to problematic texts—alternatives that past critics may have overlooked or even actively dismissed—we expand the reach, influence, and richness of literature overall. Instead of lamenting “the death of the canon,” we can celebrate the power of human creativity to evolve for the better. We can recognize that we’ve always had examples of that power—all we have to do is remain open to changing how, and where, we look for and analyze it.
Khadijah Queen is the author of six books, including Anodyne (Tin House, 2020) and I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On (YesYes Books, 2017). Her writing has also appeared in American Poetry Review, BuzzFeed, Fence, Poetry, and Tin House, among other publications. Holding a PhD in English from the University of Denver and an MFA from Antioch University, she teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and for Regis University’s Mile High MFA program.Thumbnail: Jaredd Craig