Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book Review: Literary Theory: An Introduction

Two virtues I appreciate in book reviews are conciseness and objectivity. I have usually tried to keep my reviews concise, but overly personal reactions always find a way of slipping in. I recently saw a friend's reviews on Goodreads and was inspired to adopt his format, which is both concise and objective, of simply giving reasons to read or not to read a book. This seems to me to avoid personal impressions and rants, while keeping the review fairly short. We will see how it works.

Reasons to read Literary Theory: An Introduction, by Terry Eagleton:
  • To get an accessible overview of 20th-century literary theory (schools of thought covered: phenomenology, hermeneutics, reception theory [or reader response theory], structuralism, semiotics, post-structuralism, and psychoanalysis. This overview of the chapters shows, first, that Eagleton gives a more British than American overview, and second, that he gives a wide-ranging overview that helpfully shows the influences of philosophy and linguistics on literature and theory.
  • To gain an appreciation of the different schools of literary theory and their positive contributions. Eagleton, a Marxist critic, does not dismiss anyone, from the phenomenologists to the New Critics to the deconstructionists.
  • To understand the basics of Jacques Lacan's thought.
  • To understand the basics of Julia Kristeva's thought.
  • The previous two points should not be underestimated.
Reasons not to read Literary Theory: An Introduction, by Terry Eagleton (or at least not in its entirety):
  • It does not provide a full history or overview of literary theory (i.e., from at least Plato and Socrates on). It covers little more than the 20th century.
  • It does not provide a current history of literary theory, from the end of the 20th century into the 21st. The essay provided as the Afterword in my 2008 Anniversary Edition slightly mitigates this.
  • It does not provide an overview of Marxist or feminist criticism. Eagleton tries to argue that this was not necessary because all literature is ideology and all theory is ultimately political.
  • Too much attention is given to psychoanalysis--a whole chapter, and a long one at that. This is understandable, though, given that Eagleton first wrote the book in the 80s.

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