Saturday, 17 July 2010

Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction - Jonathan Culler

Like other books in this series, this is surprisingly comprehensive for such a short text – especially given the complexity of the subject. The author takes an unusual approach to the subject, leaving an explanation of various schools of theory to an appendix. Instead, he concentrates on questions and approaches that are shared by these various schools. In this way, he is able to introduce the subject in a way suitable for complete beginners without compromising depth. You come away from this book with a grounding in the subject sufficient to move to more comprehensive introductions, especially those that look in depth at the various schools. For that, this book is to be recommended.

On the other hand, as someone who knows something about the subject, the book simply entrenched my own thoughts about literary theory. But I’m a writer and I have never really understood the vast edifice of literary criticism and theory that has grown up around works of fiction. To me it seems like a Gormenghastian labyrinth encrusted about some simpler core whose goal was to make the reading of works of literature a more pleasurable experience through the medium of a greater understanding of the text. It often seems to me that the subject of literary theory is no longer literature, but literary theory.

For a writer, these things are a distraction. The many different ways in which people pull a work apart makes the assumption they know better, that their view of the world is superior, and gives the impression that somehow they need to (a) find a sense of humour and (b) get a life. These are books they are discussing. They may be important. Some works certainly change the course of history. But the extremes of literary theory treat literature (when it remembers that is the subject) as the be all and end all. This ignores the fact that a huge proportion of the world’s population cannot read, and that of those who can, only a minority read literature for anything other than pleasure.

So, if you are interested, this is a good book to get you started. But don’t take it seriously. By all means think about the things you read and the assumptions that the author seems to be making about the world. But remember also to read for pleasure – elevating small sections of literary output is to create divisions that should not be there. It also contributes to the somewhat absurd situation in which works now touted as ‘literary’ by publishers are mostly vacuous. Many works of the past now considered canonical were popular works. We have, through the literary industry, elevated them to an imaginary strata fit only for the intelligentsia; those in the know; those with the wit to ‘understand’ them properly. People should be allowed to approach books for their own reasons and pleasures, not those dictated by others. Readers should certainly have the basic tools beyond an ability to read, but the relationship they have with a work or with an author should be personal.