Top Ten Literary Theory Tips, for Anyone

This weekend Chicago will host the annual convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA). This year’s gathering will attract more than nine thousand literary scholars and students from around the world, each more eager than the other to make sense of such papers as “Chupacabras and Border Crossings,” “Creative Ontogenesis in Evolutionary and Developmental Biology,” “Making Sheep Sheepy,” and “Fifty Shades of Collaboration.” (Yes, these are real titles.) But why should they have all the fun? Here is a top ten list of literary principles for everyday readers to enjoy.

10. Zombies are over. It’s 2014.

9. Meaning, like beauty, is often in the mind of the beholder.

8. An omniscient narrator may know everything, but it can’t tell everything.

7. Structuralist critics say all stories are based on a very small number of models. Lou Reed once said about music, “One chord is fine, Two chords are pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.”

6. The final paragraph of Toni Morrison’s Jazz is stunning.

5. Language is arbitrary. Why else would chickens in Chicago say “cluck cluck” but “gut gut gdak” in Instabul?

4. Did the author really mean that? It depends on whether he or she is visiting your book club.

3. “Reading with a bias” or “reading with an agenda” is perfectly natural. You’re doing it right now.

2. Fiction is fake, so stick to reality. On the other hand, reality is a fiction, so stick to your story.

1. No, you are not reading too much into it.