Current antitheorists have things exactly backward when they oppose theory to tradition and to close literary analysis and demand that we minister to the ills of literary studies by desisting from theoretical chatter and getting back to teaching literature itself. It was the isolation of "literature itself" in a conceptual vacuum that stranded students without a context for talking about literature and that still forces many of them to resort to Cliffs Notes and other such cribs. It is easy to disdain these cribs, but marketing pressures have actually forced their producers to think through the problems facing the average literature student more realistically than have many department curricular planners. Cliffs Notes supply students with the generalized things to say about literary works that the literature program takes for granted they will somehow get on their own.


The irony of the current cry of "back to literature itself" is that it was the exclusive concentration on literature itself that helped create a situation in which the Cliffs Notes on given works of literature are more readily available in campus bookstores than are the works themselves. Perhaps I am naive to suggest that a more theoretically contextualized curriculum would cause such cribs to wither away. I can certainly imagine a Cliffs Notes on deconstruction supplementing the ones on Keats and Dickens.  But for the moment I think we should view this eventuality as a possibility to be recognized and avoided rather than as an inevitability.


Gerald Graff, “Taking Cover in Coverage,” 1986