Here are the article's first two paragraphs:
The idea that there is literature, and then there is something that professors do with literature called "theory," is a little strange. To think about literature is to think theoretically. If you believe that literature is different from other kinds of writing. . . if you have ideas about what's relevant and what isn't for understanding it. . . and you have standards for judging whether it's great or not so great ([e.g.] a pleasing style or a displeasing politics), then you have a theory of literature. You can't make much sense of it without one.
It's the job of people in literature departments to think about these questions, to debate them, and to disseminate their views. This is not arid academicism. . . . [It's] part of an inquiry into the role of art in human life, the effort to figure out why we make this stuff, what it means, and why we care so much about it. If this is not the most important thing in the world to understand, it is certainly not the least.
I've blogged about this before, but my own training in literary theory was pretty close to nonexistent. I did not take a theory course in college or grad school, and though I was assigned a small amount of theory among the secondary readings in a few of my graduate seminars, we barely discussed them. Theorists must have come up in class discussion from time to time, but no one held forth about Butler this or Foucault that. I had the nagging sense that I should know theory better, but it was like never having studied statistics: faintly embarrassing and probably something I should correct, but not anything I needed on a daily basis.
(When asked, I described my own theoretical approach as "close-reading, I guess" or "historicist, but not really New Historicist." I knew those weren't good answers, when you work on religious prose, no one expects a better one.)
A couple of years after getting my Ph.D., I got serious about teaching myself theory. I read a lot over the course of several years, from general introductions and readers to articles and maybe a dozen book-length works. I wasn't prepared for what I discovered. First, my mind was blown. Like, daily. And I couldn't figure out how anything this urgent and interesting had gotten a reputation for irrelevance and impenetrability.
But second, and almost as surprisingly, I realized that I. . . kinda knew this stuff already. I was using much of it in my work. I hadn't had a name for what I was doing and I couldn't talk about it in detail or trace its conceptual lineage, but my methods and assumptions about how texts work (and the relationship between texts and their authors or between texts and their historical periods) were indebted to a number of very specific figures and movements. Presumably, this is because my own teachers were so deeply steeped in theory that they just hadn't bothered to talk about it.
On the one hand, it was a great relief to realize that "theory" wasn't some mysterious or alien field of knowledge. But I was pissed that no one had made explicit to me that what we'd been doing in the classroom all those years wasn't just us reading stuff and talking about it more of less as people had done since the beginning of time. As Menand says, any way of reading a text that isn't totally naive--indeed, the very criteria for deciding which texts are worth reading in the first place--involves a theory of literature. And all such approaches have a history, and are indebted to their time and place and the values of their age.
I'm still not a particularly "theoretical" scholar, if by that you mean someone who can talk at length about the influence of this dude or that on her work. I would be reluctant to teach an intro theory course. But I teach bits and pieces of theory in many of my classes--and you'd better believe that I let my students know that the ways we think about and value works of art isn't any more static or timeless than the ways we think about or value human beings or the ways we organize our societies.