Commentary - A new way of reading

Antony Easthope defends critical theory from its author-obsessed detractors

Lola Young, chair of the Orange prize committee, recently announced that there was only one English writer on the shortlist because the mainstream English novel was "piddling" and "very British". Noting that Young was a professor of cultural studies, Beryl Bainbridge said: "Well, that damns her." The gulf between the literary academy and the literary establishment has never been so wide as it is today. And the reason? In a word: theory.

You can ignore theory but you can't escape it. A play has to be performed on a stage; a novel or a poem is not real until it is read. You can't bring a work to life without interpreting it. And you can't interpret without making assumptions about what you are interpreting and why. Those assumptions are theoretical.

When I went to university a generation ago I didn't know much about sex, but I did know how to read a poem. My job was to enter into the "imaginative experience" of the author and use this to understand the words. For example, one of Wordsworth's so-called Lucy poems: "A slumber did my spirit seal;/I had no human fears:/She seemed a thing that could not feel/The touch of earthly years.

"No motion has she now, no force/She neither hears nor sees;/Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,/ With rocks, and stones, and trees."

So it would seem that Wordsworth loved someone so passionately he thought she was almost immortal. When she dies, his only consolation is the one you couldn't argue with until this century: matter can be neither created nor destroyed, and she lives on with the rock, stones and trees. Who was Lucy? One of Wordsworth's very few lovers? Was she perhaps the spirit of nature? Or - daring suggestion - his sister, Dorothy? If you want to understand a work, ask the author, which is what Melvyn Bragg has always done in his television programmes.

In 1968 Roland Barthes published a notorious but little-read essay, The Death of the Author. It was linguistics that killed the author, not Barthes. Language theory showed that meaning was the product of a system. If you know the rules of modern English - how to discriminate "has" from "had" and "no" from "neither/ nor" - you don't need Wordsworth at all. As Barthes says, "it is language which speaks, not the author". Which is a very good thing, because Wordsworth has not been available for comment since he died in 1850. And all that stuff about him and his sister Dorothy - letters, diaries, laundry lists? Just more texts that we read now, even if they are biographical.

Linguistics led to a crucial break with "author theory". But it was stuck with an empty formalism, unable to address questions of history and power. The Lucy poem hardly seems historical at all. Except that the idea of the universe invoked by the last line was not discovered until the 17th century, this seems to be just an intense, personal lyric. Arguably that escapism is exactly what gives it its ideological force. It imagines a transcendent, private life. It wishes for a world of value, not fact; nature, not society; love and death, instead of the smoke-stack capitalism that was actually taking over England when the poem was written.

It is extraordinary that before the 1970s hardly anyone thought about literature in relation to gender. Gender theory can be divided into three main forms: gender and the author; images of men and women as represented in the text; and the intriguing possibility that the text itself may be gendered, perhaps even as "feminine writing". A principle of feminist theory is that when gender is not specifically pointed out, you can safely assume it's masculine. So it is here, I think, in this poem, even leaving Wordsworth out of it. A male speaker talks about a woman. He presents himself as a subject, while she's an object. He is part of culture, she is part of nature. Even alive she seemed "a thing", and now she is at one with rocks and stones and trees. The brief way to introduce the gender question into discussion of this poem is to ask: "How was it for you, Lucy?"

During the 1930s psychoanalytic theory was hugely popular, and it has come back with new vitality. It can highlight parts of the text other theories can't reach; here, for example, a startling contrast between the first and second verse. Before he saw her only through the eyes of love; now he recognises her for what she is, a part of nature. This is a conventional version of masculinity. To be able to distinguish absolutely between the apparent (verse one) and the real (verse two) shows that you yourself are a "real" man.

Traditional also is the fantasy of the man and his feelings for a corpse (Petrarch and Laura, Romeo and Juliet). Now, with her securely inert, he can say whatever he wants without being troubled at all by her interests, her desires.

Edward Said's theory of "orientalism" invites us to read the poem in relation to postcolonial theory. How does it present cultural and ethnic differences? Well, perhaps this one doesn't. Yet one could point out that the poem does claim to be universal - universal in feeling (and romantic love certainly isn't), universal in imagining the earth in its "diurnal course". Is it unfair to remark that this can only be the point of view of God, a modern satellite, or a late-18th-century European gentleman who knew about Newton?

What's wrong with "reading for the author's experience" is that it is now so familiar that no one thinks of it as a theory any more. It is a theory nevertheless, and in fact Wordsworth did a lot to invent it. Author theory closes down the possibility of criticism or change. It leaves everything as it was, which is bad when lots of other theories are around. The death of the author means that the text belongs to its reader to interpret now. And Lola Young? Well, she's right, I'm afraid.

Antony Easthope's new book is "The Unconscious" (Routledge)

This article first appeared in the 07 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Europe grows after Kosovo