Literary theory, according to Wendell Harris, has over the last twenty-five years become increasingly characterized by illogical arguments, an esoteric vocabulary, and gnomic references to what various authority figures are presumed to have demonstrated. Arcane modes of argument and unargued assumptions leave the reader of contemporary theorists frustrated; little of the resulting criticism entices the reader to seek out the literary work itself.
Harris argues that regardless of the specifics of individual theories, the central struggle is between traditional hermeneutics, in which the interpretation of the author's intended meaning is the necessary first step in any response to a text, and the more recent hermeticism, which seeks to deny the relevance of intention, the possibility of determinate meaning, and the reference of language to any reality beyond itself.
With wit, insight, and analytical precision, Harris critiques the misunderstanding of scientific method spawned by the failure of structuralism, the absolutism of poststructuralism, and the confusions over contextualism and historicism. He concludes with an analysis of the hollowness of the current model of professionalism in literature departments.
”In recent years, many observers have noted the thinness and monotony of poststructuralist dogma. No one, however, has done a more assiduous job of pushing intellectual debris out of the way that Wendell Harris in Literary Meaning. This book is at once plain and sophisticated, hard-hitting and constructive. How different our field would be if Harris were required reading for graduate students!”-Frederick Crews,author of Skeptical Engagements
“Literary Meaning is an erudite and well-written book. It clearly presents the arguments of an array of thinkers, whose work is seen in terms of the schools to which they appeal. Rather than dismiss current theory, Harris traces it to its crucial flaws.”-Gary Saul Morson,Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts & Humanities, Northwestern University