Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Despite best intentions to take last year off exclusively for writing books, I found that the small amount of private tutoring work I took on to help ‘make ends meet’ while I wasn’t earning commercially blossomed considerably. I should have known better, it’s not the first time this has happened to me. Anyway, among my many students, I gained quite a few taking English Literature at GCSE and A level stages.
While this is no problem for me, I felt I should perhaps brush up on a few things and purchased Jonathan Culler’s guide to remind me of subject areas I’d not necessarily studied since university days (which are, alas, dim and distant memories for me).
The first thing I did was head to the appendix and read up on all the theoretical schools and movements. It turned out to be the best chapter of the book and two of my three stars are awarded for that section alone. I even learned a few new things such as ecological readings and what it means to be ‘post-human’ which were somewhat alien concepts back in the 90s! The appendix is genuinely useful – unlike much of the rest of the book.
The opening chapters are reasonably useful and interesting too and Culler has things to say which are helpful to the student and teacher. The whole argument for ‘why theory’ and the basis for judging ‘what is literature’ were interesting areas and good for giving focus to the task of figuring out what to say about a novel or poem and so on.
But after that both Culler’s wit (which was light and intelligent) and his wisdom begin to wane. The latter chapters are heavy and over-labour the theories discussed. Some chapters – such as that on Performative language – would have been clearer and more useful summarised as a single section rather than given an entire chapter. It felt, at times, as though Culler wasn’t really clear about these theories himself and, as academics are prone to do when trying to hide uncertainty, waffled philosophically, endlessly.
Perhaps I was just missing what he was trying to say? It’s not impossible, for sure. But his opening statements were usually clear and comprehensible and I usually felt like I got the idea and was ready to move on; alas, the author wasn’t so ready.
I feel that Culler forgot that he was writing a guide to Literary Theory, rather than an in-depth treatise, partway through the book and that’s a shame. As I say, the opening chapters and the appendix are excellent. The book will sit on my shelf along with other resources I call on from time to time but I suspect I’ll rarely refer to it. The student or teacher would be better off either purchasing a shorter guide for reference purposes or buying an actual text book for more meat. Culler’s doesn’t quite manage to be either, which is a shame – the book had great potential.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out soon – don’t miss them!
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Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org