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Book Review: Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler

When I read the Very Short Introductions (VSIs) they can fall into a few categories. They might be on subjects I know well, where I am seeking a refresher and may wish to critique how well the subject has been communicated (as was the case with Mathematics) or they may be on subjects that I know little to nothing about (as was the case with The Roman Republic). Literary theory falls very firmly in the latter of these two categories.

If someone had asked me beforehand to give either a one line synopsis of what I thought literary theory was about, or write a paragraph or an essay, I would have been wholly unable to do so. I read it because I wanted to find out what it was all about, to continue my daily battle against ignorance by means of self-education. It was also noticeable for the fact that it was one of the very early VSIs to be published, this being number 4 in the series. For contrast, one of the more recent ones I read, on Robotics, is number 330. So this seems to be some way foundational to many later VSIs, as indeed I recongised the titles of others in both the names and the topics covered here.

As with many VSIs, this is not necessarily a simple introduction. As I started reading it, it dawned on me just how alien literary theory is to me. Indeed, it was, and remains, difficult to define. The author tries to be more general and talks just of “theory” as a subject in itself. Now this is very far removed from either the common notion of theory as conjecture or hypothesis as well as being different from the more scientific view of theory (see here for more detail).

Having attempted to define “theory” Culler moves on to the question of “what is literature”. Here, the answer, to a non-expert in the field such as me, seems obvious, but wary of a kind of hubris of ignorance, I gave it a go. That said, Culler does seem to unduly pedantic, though the link between literature and language is interesting enough.

There follows a short chapter on the relation between literature and cultural studies. Here, we really get to see that what Culler is doing is presenting topics that are covered by literary theory rather than examining in any depth various schools of thought. There is a list of schools of thought listed in the appendix and these are referred to at various points throughout the text.

Of these topics, probably the most interesting was on ‘poetics v hermeneutics’ as hermeneutics is a topic I’ve encountered in theological readings. This serves a gateway to the rest of the book (which rumbles on in a similar tone) about how we read things.  For example, if we read Midnight’s Children, is it a book about a group of children born at the same time or is it a story about the history of India? A close reading will render the former while a more metaphorical stance will lead to the latter. So if we ask “what is it really about?” then we have no single answer.

One thing that I gained a lot from was a discussion near the start of the book about the wide-ranging nature of literary theory and how it just doesn’t seem to end. He puts forward a hypothetical situation where one friend says to another, “how can you claim to know about x if you haven’t read y?” when another pipes up, “ah, but you can’t possibly consider y without having read the rebuttal by z.” And so on. I have, from time to time, been part of such conversations (see the comments below this blog piece from last year) and I frequently find them frustrating.

Similarly, some of the schools of thought seem to indicate the opposite of a close reading, but more of a ‘reading through’ a text. For example, I recall a discussion with one atheist (I forget who it was, sorry) who said they loved reading the epistles of Paul because they liked to read into them Paul’s personal psychology. It was a comment that stayed with me, but which made little to no sense. While I would disagree with their view that Paul’s writings are “nothing more” than a way of reconciling his own personal guilt at the murder of Stephen, Culler’s work here has allowed me to see why some might think that a legitimate way of reading a text – in other words, by basically ignoring what is being written and imposing upon a text one’s own worldview.

So, while I may disagree with many of the views that are elucidated in this work, Culler’s own thoughts are well-hidden behind his citation of the thoughts and works of others. So it is really with them that I disagree (and I unwittingly have already done this with my take on a Marxist view of history) rather than with Culler. It is not at all the clearest book I’ve read in the VSI series, but it seems that that may be because of the muddy waters of the subject, rather than any obfuscation on the part of the writer. It’s a tough read, but for an outsider to the subject, it is a window to a whole new world. One that may be explored, all in good time.

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