Feature 08.23.2021 6 minutes

How to Get Critical Theory out of Your Head


Advice for young writers to cure themselves of college brainworms.

Like all forms of art, creative writing is a means of expression. There can be no official constraints on that expression if it is to succeed. There are formats to which the writer might confine himself, or genres which provide a certain level of structure to the piece. But the heart and soul of creative writing is right there in the name: Creativity. Writers must be free to create.

Today, though, authors are faced with harsh restraints that have nothing to do with artistic taste. I unexpectedly collided head-first with these barriers when I was writing my first novel. The year was 2018. I was taking Political Science and English classes at the University of North Georgia when, one dreary Saturday morning, the entire idea and plot of the book shot into my unsuspecting mind. I saw a Victorian city dominated by gothic towers and dreamworlds that lead seductively to endless cosmic wonder. The imagined world possessed murder and mystery, madness and blood, but at the heart of it all was a main character struggling to find a reason to push on in a world smothered in darkness and dominated by unseen evils.

It didn’t occur to me that the main character, a detective named Thomas Danforth, happened to be white. It didn’t occur to me he was male, either. (I had in mind, after all, a Victorian setting.) . I was utterly focused on worldbuilding, writing dialogue, and pace setting. Preoccupied with these more pressing concerns, I had already drafted the first chapter before I remembered “the rules.”

Those rules had been drilled into me at every class I took in college and university. For example, in my English courses, I was advised to remember the Bechdel Test, which states that a work must meet certain criteria to avoid perpetuating gender inequality. These criteria include having at least two female characters who speak to one another about something other than a man. While this test is usually reserved for filmmaking, my professors would insist on its universality for all storytelling. My entire undergraduate career, my professors taught me to read and write literature through the psychoanalytic lens, the Marxist lens, or the feminist lens. That was just how I was taught to do things.

The minute I remembered rules like this, I felt an overwhelming obligation to critical theories and laws of equity. My story, from the moment of conception, didn’t pass the Bechdel Test. Worse still, as I continued to study my outlines and drafts, there was no way for me to modify the work so that it could pass the test and still be the story I wanted to tell: the characters and the plot as they had come to me just didn’t fit the templates I had been assigned in class.

What struck me was how deeply those templates had been engrained in my consciousness, even when my inspiration plainly called for something else. The culture of academia had so warped my understanding of literature that I felt a twinge of shame just reading back the rough opening chapter of my book. How could this story, which had announced itself in my mind with such natural authority, violate so many of the rules which I had been taught made a story morally good?

My critical faculties had been thoroughly colonized by woke dogma. Before I even thought to ask whether my book was any good, I instinctively asked whether it fit the mold of leftist piety. For my entire life, authority figures sold academia to me as a place where my views would be challenged, my perspectives shifted, and my horizons broadened. Yet the challenges I faced as I embarked on this novel were not ones of misunderstanding and narrow perspectives. Rather, it was that the heart and soul of my idea was, when viewed through the academic lens, inherently corrupt, perpetuating unjust systems of power against marginalized groups of people.

Looking back, I understand that my literary education was dominated by those who sought to enforce doctrine over artistic truth. My art didn’t fit the doctrine because the doctrine wasn’t designed to facilitate art: it was designed to enforce political conformity. I was required to write poetry about people from historically oppressed communities. I was required to read the works of Faulkner while applying to his work the theories of Marxism. As if overnight, every classic in American literature and every epic dating back to Homer was a discussion on systems of power, an example of the perpetuation of racial and gender inequality. The ideas presented in the works themselves were secondary: what mattered was the environment which shaped the characters, their unconscious biases, and their own place in the inherently unjust dominance hierarchies.

I came to find that academia’s ability to manipulate art, and more specifically the written word, bespeaks a fundamental ignorance of artistic truth itself. Academia today does not fashion itself on the moral or spiritual truths that great works of literature offer. Indeed, modern academia relies on narratives of victimhood and oppression, of rigid and immoveable power systems brought about by a history of unjust economics. In this reliance, academic culture has sought to poison the well from which Western civilization drinks, cleverly using the very literature which helped to build modernity to turn its beneficiaries against it. Why cancel an author when you can use his own work to your advantage?

Academia has abandoned its search for the truth that can only be found in beauty. When one views the world without a grounding in moral and artistic truth, it becomes easy to twist a work of literature into whatever one desires it to be. And if you want to feel as though the world and society is set against you, why not use the words of great writers to confirm this affection? Responsibility is a heavy burden, and it can be comforting to assign the blame to a long history of socioeconomic injustice instead of oneself.

The Long Road Home

Thus, the duty of creative writing, of carrying on that tradition of honest storytelling, has become both harder and more necessary. Young writers like me, who feel a call to create, are held back by years of institutional indoctrination. This leaves us wondering how we can overcome the culture which informs us from the first keystroke. On a rainy Saturday morning, staring blankly at the thousand or so words I had just excitedly typed out, I audibly echoed this sentiment: “What am I supposed to do?”

The most obvious answer was and is to read. Read openly, without jumping in to apply one of the many lenses of critical theory that seek to tell an author what he really thinks. Let the author tell you what he thinks. As any university student will know, this can be challenging. College educated writers across the country have been taught that any analysis of a work should be done with critical theory in mind; shaking off this conditioning might seem impossible. To this day, I still have the impulse apply the Bechdel Test to books and films despite myself. Breaking that habit is a daily challenge.

While I don’t know if there’s a surefire cure for a college liberal arts education, I can at least advise toward a treatment: Read with someone who has read. The good news is, you don’t have to know the person you’re reading with. In fact, they don’t even have to be alive. I started by reading the Bible with C.S. Lewis. Instead of relying on a near-instinctual impulse towards critical theory, I chose to focus on the words of one of the 20th century’s greatest intellectuals. Lewis’s various commentaries on Scripture helped me to understand the Bible on a strictly literary level in a way which I had never considered during my liberal arts education. Lewis clarified the Bible in a way that my overly complex theory training never taught me to recognize.

From this first step, I started to chart my path forward, rereading texts and learning their themes with the help of true literary scholars. I read the Gulag Archipelago with Dr. Jordan Peterson. I read Beowulf with J.R.R. Tolkien. I read the Divine Comedy with Professor Jeffrey Burton Russel. Fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry; I realized neither I nor my professors were the first to study these works. There are worlds of studies, pieces, and analyses outside the isolated perspective of current-year academia if you’re willing to look.

This practice reinvigorated my interest in literature, the simple and sincere passion I felt for reading in elementary and middle school. I devoured H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. I could recite Edgar Allen Poe in my sleep. But this was only the beginning. I soon realized I had questions and problems I wanted to address in my own writing. Questions my $300 textbook refused to answer.

So here is my next piece of advice: Find people who write well, and connect with them. If you’re as introverted as I am, this step might be a little intimidating. But trust me when I say there’s a plethora of well-intentioned scholars who want to help new writers. For me, it was as simple as logging into Twitter and reaching out to people who demonstrated an understanding of literature and a disdain for critical theory. Soon I was on video calls with individuals whom I had never seen outside of their profile picture. I asked questions, received advice, and exchanged ideas as I pushed forward with my own work. If you want to write successfully, reach out to someone with experience in your genre and subject matter. Introduce yourself, express your intent as a writer, and politely ask for advice. The worst that can happen is you’ll be told no—and as a creative writer, you should get used to handling rejection.

My last and most important recommendation to all writers is this: Write and write honestly. Write as much as you can. This is the most difficult part of the job, but also the most rewarding. Despite what colleges and universities tell you, moral relativism does not make for the core of a good story. Artistic truth, grounded in a tradition of outstanding literature, is what makes creative writing an endeavor worth pursuing. Writers have a unique gift of insight, a way of looking at the world and its people and seeing the connections between it all. Don’t waste this gift indulging the rules and doctrine of people who sneer at the classics and pervert the meaning of literary fiction. Write what is true, write what is good, and challenge yourself to make every word better than the one you wrote before.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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