(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

“What is difficult about Bakhtin,” his biographers, Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, have noted, “is the demand his way of thinking makes on our way of thinking, the demand to change the basic categories that most of us use to organize thought itself.” Wayne Booth clarifies the specific nature of that demand: “No critic of recent years [has] more effectively perform[ed] that essential task of all criticism: prodding readers to think again about critical standards as applied to various canons and anti-canons those standards lead to.” What Bakhtin does, at least in part, is to undermine those naive equations upon which so much of modern literary criticism rests: that the fictive world corresponds to the real world (naive realism), that the author corresponds to some actual man or woman (naive biographism), and that the reader corresponds to oneself (rather than to the role of reader which one adopts when reading a novel). Rather than simple correspondences, Bakhtin calls attention to simultaneous dialogic relationships. He posits “a dialogic both/and” rather than “a dialectic either/or.” In other words, the dialogism of language, of word and world and of self and other, is neither dualistic nor dialectical but is dialogical. (Bakhtin has a strong aversion to dialectics, which he faults for its desire to dissolve the specific in the abstract.)

Bakhtin bases his theory of dialogism on the concrete utterance, on both what is said and what is assumed by addresser and addressee about what is said. All utterances, whether of speaker or of novelist, are directed toward a listener/reader and toward that person’s response. No utterance is therefore ever autonomous. The same holds true for the literary text, which may be construed as a macroutterance. Its meaning also depends on the dialogic, or intertextual, relationships among text, author, and reader.

The individual novel is therefore essentially dialogic, essentially open and indeterminate in its meaning. The same may be said of the novel as a genre. “The genre of becoming,” as Bakhtin calls it, is also incomplete, unformed and still developing. Implying “a world-in-the-making,” it is itself in the process of becoming what it is. Instead of asserting its own rigid identity, it seeks to liberate itself from convention, including the convention of assigning to the author the ultimate authority for the meaning of his or her work. Bakhtin’s author exists not above his...

(The entire section is 1008 words.)