Negative Poetics

Negative Poetics

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343 pp, 16 figures

"This is an extraordinary book: brilliantly conceived and argued, by turns splendid and outrageous in its observations but, overall, compelling in its insights and persuasive in its program."—Arthur Kinney

"Negative Poetics is an important book, probably the most cogent attempt in modern times to defend the notion, variously expressed by Plato and by Tolstoi, that literature in its very conception is fundamentally evasive of the truth. Jayne addresses his hard-hitting arguments, which are radically challenging, to high literature as forcefully as he does to popular literature, basing himself on an intricate analysis of the psychodynamics of literary constituents as they affect the reader. In the process he assimilates and revises the most important modern theorists in America, France, and Germany who have addressed such questions. While analyzing literary effects as defense mechanisms and arguing for the resemblance between fiction and the paranoid syndrome, he makes telling points about the work of many writers, including Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Melville, Frost, Coleridge, and Stein."—Albert Cook

Edward Jayne takes on the literary academy with his startling new theory based on the deceptively simple premise that intentional misrepresentation is the primary function of narrative form—the lie is fiction's single most important ingredient. Unless the truth is meaningfully warped, distorted, or reorganized, fiction cannot by definition be fiction. Here is a new hyperreductionist model of literary form as cognitive evasiveness, as a homeostatic tension-reduction strategy, as paranoid fantasy that plots self-justification, and, most fundamentally, as the pursuit of affirmative alternatives to deny (or designify) unacceptable experience. Jayne convincingly demonstrates how the static declaration of falsehoods featured by most theories of literary deception is less important than the vital enactment of a lie that takes place when a story's closure reverses its origins. Literary truths are needed to give credibility to untruths, but a text's primary appeal depends on making these untruths come true.

Jayne illustrates the dynamics of literary misrepresentation by exploring homophobic evasiveness in such texts as Heart of Darkness, Hamlet, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," "Mending Wall," "Young Goodman Brown," and even "a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." In Hamlet, for example, he explains tragic denouement as the denial of androgynous tendencies expressed by metaphor, while in "Mending Wall" he shows how these tendencies oblige continuing vigilance to avoid transgressing heterosexual barriers.

At the level of metatheory, Jayne maintains that literary criticism is no less deceptive than the fiction it interprets; the central role of literary deception demands modifications in most current approaches to literary criticism, including Marxism, response theory, deconstructionism, and new historicism. In general he takes issue with poststructuralists by explaining plot as a centered context of narrative denial that creates sufficient determinate structure for effective communication to occur between authors and readers.

Jayne also explores narrative denial in the overall career of a particular critic—Barthes—and in the advancement of literary criticism from its emphasis on authenticity during the sixties to the pursuit of indeterminate cognitive alternatives over the subsequent two decades. Provocative, insightful, and ultimately controversial, Negative Poetics will be of interest to everyone who seeks to escape the current impasse in literary criticism.