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Jonathan Culler and Literary Competence

A Liturature Research Paper on Jonathan Culler and Literary Competence holds that the process of interpreting the meaning of a literary text is one that is learned over time, through one's exposure to and cumulative experience with a variety of texts.

The act of approaching a poem or a novel assumes that a reader has some experience with the form and understands its basic conventions and properties. Culler and Literary CompetenceBy acknowledging that there are some readings that are more correct than others in the degree to which they adhere to conventions of literature, Culler provides a linguistic basis for the practices and beliefs of literary critics such as the formalists and the New Critics. However, unlike critics such as Brooks, Wimsatt, and Beardsley, Culler's approach is more realistic, as it recognizes that the determination of which interpretation is correct is actually a result of a kind of tacit agreement between the author, the readers, and the literary establishment.

Literary meaning is not intrinsic. In contrast, the New Critics and formalists seem to believe that this fixed, correct meaning is something inherent in the structure of the poem itself which can be unearthed like an archaeological artifact, but only via the process of a thorough structural interpretation.

One of the central concerns of literary competence, of course, is what makes a certain set of literature archetypes qualify as genre.  Northrop Frye writes that “the study of genres is based on analogies in form.” The analogies in form often take the following forms:

  • Genre as an exercise in form is the dominant view as to what constitutes genre among the general populace;
  • A mystery is supposed to follow certain conventions of form, an epic another, a tragedy still another. 
  • The result of equating form with genre has led to generic texts being looked upon as a lesser form of literature because they are thought to be formulaic. 
  • Formulaic writing is further considered unworthy of serious critical engagement because it is often considered to be written in response to commercial expectations rather than literary expectations. 

One of the lasting effects of genre theory is that it has resulted in a significant re-evaluation of the literary worth of generic literature.


Literary competence must still continue to divide and categorize literary works according to conventions based on historical expectations, but today’s criticism as well as the postmodern movement toward mixing and defying genre expectations has led to a new awareness of textual reading that in a manner combines both solid Aristotelian criticism with a dollop of new Criticism techniques.  Genre expectations are indeed manifested by analogous formulations so that a western novel must contain cowboys and a science fiction novel must meet certain expectations.  But the postmodern move toward playing around with genre conventions have allowed more latitude toward authorial intent.  A novel that used to be described as defying genre conventions has now become a subgenre itself.  An author who places wild west cowboys into a futuristic setting is no longer necessarily accused of defying genre conventions; he could equally well be setting to the task of writing a sci-fi western. 

This trend toward combining genres rather than defying them or upsetting them perhaps owes a debt to non-Aristotelian criticism.  Writers influenced by the movement toward the reading of text from an author-centered point of view to a reader response have quite possibly either consciously or unconsciously been motivated to make the reader response critic work harder to find meaning apart from his own intent by working in foundations from a multitude of generic conventions.  Today the genre theorist can potentially face a novel that meets even the strictest requirements for a gothic novel, a suspense novel, and romance novel all the same time.  Literary competence research papers written today must take into account not only authorial intention, but also a reader response mode in the form of piecing together those very same historical analogies of which Frye wrote.

Genre theory has succeeded making what had been viewed as inferior modes of literary expression and turning them into viable works for serious criticism. The way it has done this is by turning the conventions of the New Criticism on its head; if authorial intention is the primary importance in establishing the content of a work, then no literature should be viewed as existing solely for its commercial means. After all, as the famous saying goes, nobody writes to get rich; they write to express themselves.  Under those rules, then, everything ever written—including the most formulaic of writing—should contain at least a nugget viable expression ripe for critical engagement.

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