New Formalism 1: The Pendulum Swings

A new candidate for prevailing literary theory has emerged during the last fifteen or twenty years. A popular work published in March of 2019 has pushed that literary theory further out into the reading public and teaching professions. Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode, proposes a return to form as a vehicle for creating fiction. Not the workaday rising and falling arc of the old form, but of a new form—a new formalism—that welcomes narrative structures similar to the structures that inform nature.

Meander, Spiral, Explode is only the  latest crash of the last big series of waves onto the shore of what is being called new formalism.  Soon after the dawn of the new millennium critics began in earnest a return to the study of form in literature in works such as Theo Davis’ Formalism, Experience, and the Making of American Literature in the Nineteenth Century and Samuel Otter’s essay, “A Different Formalism”. Otter himself pointed to seminal works such as Isobel Armstrong’s The Radical Aesthetic (2000), Jonathan Loesberg’s A Return to Aesthetics (2005), and Michael P. Clark’s anthology, Revenge of the Aesthetic (2000).

And of course formalism is nothing new. Its latest great apex was a century ago in the form of New Criticism. New Criticism championed close readings of text and attention to the structure and form of the text itself, not to the extraneous knowledge of history, contemporary affairs, and sociology that a reader had to bring to the text in order to interpret it. Nor was the author’s intention of much concern to the New Critics, as it was the structural form of the text, the relationship of sections of the text to other sections of the text, that held the key to critical understanding.

The pendulum of literary theory had been swinging between some version of formalism and something that was not formalism for centuries. So there are forebears of new formalism: Aristotle’s school of formalism, the Russian formalists, the Chicago school of formalism, the categorical works of Northrop Frye and Wayne Booth among them. The dynamic of this pendulum swing gives us nothing less than our meaning of literariness, of what makes a text literary.

To the new formalists, their movement is more than about what is or is not a literary work of art. Their movement is vital for human self-understanding! This, and other key essays clearly show that new formalism arose in large part due to the hostility towards formalism in general directed at it by New Historicists.

The recent history of prevailing literary theories can be summarized as follows, beginning with New Criticism: New Criticism—Structuralism—Deconstruction—New Historicism. Here one can see the pendulum swing. Given New Criticism as the last apex of formalism, a “new” formalism grew from it as structuralism. Then the remaining arc of the pendulum to Deconstruction, on the opposite side of formalism.

Deconstruction sought to deconstruct the form of fiction searching for clues that the meaning of any fictional text collapses under the strain of language. Language, and particularly the language within a given text, is unstable, too complex, so that it is impossible for a text to sustain a consistent meaning. A deconstructionist critic reads a text to expose its contradictions and points of opposition within itself until he reaches an “aporia”, the point at which interpretive reading can go no further.

New Historicism again brings the pendulum straight up and down at the midpoint between its timekeeping swings. Deconstructing the western canon, largely written by white male authors as it has come to us, revealed underlying assumptions in the text regarding social and economic themes and treatments. The New Historicists read fiction with a view to its cultural context. No text could be written without exposing fundamental political realities, particularly as to the practice and consequences of capitalism. No discourse could possibly access fundamental truths about the human condition as all texts are hopelessly mired in their own times and part of the social, economic, and political conditions when it was written.

Largely lost in this cultural context of historicism were the elements of writing that make a work literary. Form, structure, symbolism, the study of prose as prose and its relation to the story or narration were discounted. Promoted to criticism was knowledge from outside the text, knowledge that a reader or critic had to bring to a fictional text in order to critically comment on a text’s literary value. This is a situation that has prevailed for forty years. Until the advent of new formalism sought to reinvigorate literary criticism with an appreciation of the text itself.

M.H. Abrams identifies Susan Wolfson as “[t]he first major advocate of new formalism in her Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism (1997). Wolfson and Marshall Brown would edit a collection of essays in the March 2000 issue of Modern Language Quarterly, whose focus is on change, both in literary practice and within the profession of literature itself. The rivalry with New Historicism began in earnest.

Next: New Formalism 2: Key Works