Putting Theory into Practice

I’ve been blogging for a while now (just over three-and-a-half years to be precise), but I’m afraid I have something to confess – I’m a fraud.  While I pontificate week in, week out on the literary qualities of the books that come under my gaze, the truth is that I have no literary credentials at all, never having studied literature at any level higher than GCSE back in England (and I didn’t do very well at that either).  I know, I know, I can see the shocked expressions, and hear the stunned silences, from my end of the computer.  I apologise, truly.

I am trying to rectify this state of affairs though.  A while back, in the course of a chat on Twitter, Violet recommended a book which might be suited to a theoretical novice like me, Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory (3rd edition), a text used in undergraduate literature courses and one I might be able to get my head around, despite the dense and confusing content trapped within.  After purchasing the book, I’ve spent the last few months dipping into it whenever I’ve had time between my usual fiction fare, and I definitely haven’t regretted it – but am I actually any the wiser?

Literary Theory is an attempt to put the art of analysing literary texts on a par with other academic endeavours, putting in place a structure to enable critics to explain how and why they are evaluating texts.  It’s not good enough to say that you think a work of literature is good or bad; you need to be able to show why you think this and what methods you have used to come to that conclusion.  It sounds fairly simple so far, but nothing could be further from the truth – as anyone who has ever attempted to come to terms with Post-Stucturalism or Freudian Psychoanalysis will know only too well…

This is where Beginning Theory is such a great book.  Barry takes the reader back to basics, explaining how literary criticism was practised in the past, before guiding them gently through the progressive waves of theories which came to challenge the status quo.  Liberal Humanism, Modernism, Stucturalism, Marxism, Post-Colonialism… all are introduced and carefully explained with practical explanations using authentic literary texts.  The book is designed for a reader who is interested in Literary Theory but has no real prior experience of the subject, and as someone who has been involved in the tertiary sector on both sides of the teacher’s desk, I find it a much more helpful text than most I’ve seen.

As well as going over all the -isms you’re bound to have heard of, the third edition of Beginning Theory also takes you through some relatively recent developments in the field.  Most of you will have heard of Queer Theory and Stylistics, but New Aestheticism and Presentism may be less familiar areas of study – and has anyone heard of Cognitive Poetics?  I certainly hadn’t…  

One such area that I found interesting was Ecocriticism, a field of study which foregrounds the role of the natural environment in a text, seeing it as an important agent rather than merely the backdrop of the story.  This chapter was especially useful as I read it just after finishing a work which was advertised as a work of Eco-Fiction, allowing me to understand what exactly the blurb was talking about.

And this is the beauty of a text like Beginning Theory – it allows those of us without formal literary training to understand just what it is we like and don’t like about the books we read.  There’s no need to use all this meta-language in your reviews (unless you’re attempting to scare off all your readers), but it certainly allows you to approach your reading in a more focused frame of mind.  Hopefully, this will lead to more coherent analyses of the books you’ve been reading.

This isn’t the first time I’ve tried to upskill in this area.  Last year, I read (but didn’t review) Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory – A Very Short Introduction which, while interesting, was far too cursory for my needs.  I also ploughed through the Open Yale series of lectures for a while but gave up half-way through as it was all a little too dry, especially when approached without the support of other university literary subjects.

For me then, Beginning Theory is a great introduction to the field of Literary Theory.  It’s still not all that easy to get your head around (and I certainly wouldn’t recommend racing through it and then tossing it aside), but if approached sensibly, reading chapters a couple of times at a leisurely pace before moving on, the information will gradually begin to seep into your brain.  What’s more, the more time you devote to the book, the more you’ll become aware of your own biases – and that’s a good thing.  At one point Barry asks the reader whether it is possible to analyse a book using all of the techniques at your disposal, and his answer is a definite ‘no’.  If you attempt to do a Marxist-Feminist-Freudian-Post-Structural-Stylistic reading of a text, all you’ll end up with is a superficial mish-mash of vague ideas…

…and speaking of my reviews, I do think that reading this book has helped me understand what I’m doing a little better.  I probably tend towards the structuralist idea of wanting to find a bottom line, a super-narrative, in everything I read.  However, I also dabble a little in Post-Colonial, Marxist and (very occasional) Feminist interpretations, with a little linguistic analysis on the side.  Of course, if I read more widely in the area of Literary theory, I’ll probably discover that my opinions here are completely wrong 😉

Returning to the book, I’d definitely recommend this to anyone who feels a little underqualified to be talking about literature in public – I certainly feel a lot more confident now in the way I approach my reading.  However, I do feel that I still haven’t quite got there.  You see, while I’ve had a little look at the theory side, I still have little idea about the more practical side, the nuts and bolts of writing.  I only have a very hazy idea of concepts like tropes and leitmotifs, so it might be a good idea to do some more reading on literary criticism.  Time to ask for some more recommendations then…

24 thoughts on “Putting Theory into Practice

  1. My favourite literary critics – Borges, Kundera, Calvino, Eco – aren't beholden at all to literary criticism. Their work just exhibits curiosity, erudition, and love for the subject.

    I tried to learn about literature from people like George Lukacs, once, but it was pointless. They had a lot to say about theory and nothing about the books and writers.


  2. Tom- Ah, as I have admitted in the post, you're asking the wrong person – I'm sure anyone with advanced knowledge of Literary Theory will be able to give you the answer.

    If there is one…

    Miguel – I think that's where I was going at the end of my review. Theory is all well and good, but you do need to relate it to practice. This is a problem in too many fields…

    Marg – A lot, yes, but there are many bloggers who have post-graduate qualifications in literature (I follow a few), and I do wish I had the time and money to do the same thing… One day 😉


  3. Impressive! And a good review. It's funny you saying you never had a “proper” qualification in the area, and yet you enjoy reviewing books – with me it's the opposite: I have a Ph.D. in EngLit yet have never felt the urge to white a book blog.The only explanation I can offer is that the more you know about Literary Theory the less qualified you feel to actually evaluate a book. There are too many aspects, too many viewpoints. A book is a book is a book.


  4. I only studied English up to GCSE level too. Part of me thinks it would be good to read a book like this, but another part is really against the techical side of things – I just want to know if a book is a great read, not whether it also contains all those complex theories explained in that literary book.


  5. Margit – As with many areas in life, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing – you feel compelled to put your opinions out there 😉

    Jackie – Having an understanding of the basics does help, especially if you want to follow discussions in other areas. As I know from my own areas of work and study though, knowing this stuff doesn't mean you have to use it. In fact, often it's the people who are most secure in their knowledge who know when not to use it 🙂


  6. Interesting Tony. Does the book have a cultural bias? Is it an American book for example, or British, or more consciously international?

    For that matter, how international are these theories? Do Japanese academics apply similar theoretical approaches? Indian? Italian even?

    Hm, questions, questions. I do think there's a necessary gap between reviews and academic criticism. That which blogs focus on typically is different I think in kind to that which academia focuses on. Same for film. A well argued piece of film theory might be genuinely interesting and intelligent, but if you're reading it to decide whether to see the movie or not it likely won't help with that.


  7. Max – Very British. It was interesting to see how different the examples were in this book and the Open Yale series (which virtually ignored the British side). Often the same trends were viewed from two different angles; however, this book did discuss American schools of thought a little more.

    As for international applications, your guess is as good as mine. On a tangent, I just read Natsume Soseki's 'The Gate', where the writer of the introduction, Damian Flanagan, argues for a Nietzschean interpretation of the novel – one he says was not completely well received by the Japanese academic establishment…

    And you mean that my reviews are meant to make people decide whether or not to read the book? No wonder I get so few page views 😉


  8. Hmm. I've enjoyed your reviews ever since I discovered this blog, so I hope this new-found erudition doesn't change your own personal style. After all, one of my favourite blogs is Winston's Dad, and Stu would be the first to admit that he doesn't have an academic background in Lit. But he gets right to the heart of the books he reads, and I bet he reads more books in translation in a month than most professional reviewers do in a year. I wouldn't have him change a thing, and I don't want you to either.
    PS If you're not getting enough hits it will be because of problems with tagging and categorising, there's nothing wrong with the quality. Come to WordPress!!


  9. Lisa – I doubt it will change my style too much, but I do want to go more in-depth for my own benefit. It also depends on the book – some works invite a closer reading, while others defy it 😉

    As for WordPress, that's not going to happen. I've dabbled with the idea before, but I find Blogger so much simpler to handle. If I changed, it would be for other people, not for me…


  10. I think literary theory is only really relevant in an academic setting. Most lit students learn the theory, write the thesis, and then forget about the theory and go back to reading books for pleasure.

    I think Barry does a reasonable job of explaining how lit theory has evolved and how it's applied when analysing texts. However, blogging about books and writing academic essays are two totally different things. Blogging is personal and creative, whereas writing an academic essay is about jumping through hoops and regurgitating what you've learnt. My personal view is that a lot of lit theory is total bollocks and its real purpose is to give academics something to argue about. Ooh, is that a bit harsh? 🙂


  11. Violet – A little 😉 I'm much happier now that I know the basics, but I'm unlikely to want to study theory in great depth. The problem is that if you don't know this stuff, then someone can come along and make claims about books, and you have no idea whether they're talking rubbish or not…


  12. I popped by to see your response and noticed Tom's question about the cat on the book's cover. I'm thinking it may represent Schrödinger's cat.

    There are other good lit theory intro books around if you want to read more on the subject. Most people get through life just fine not knowing about it though. 🙂


  13. A very good review of one of the best introductory guides out there. I actually LIKE critical theory, but it doesn't mean I lard my reviews with masses of jargon. What it did for me was take the mystique out of writing about a book. When I was an undergraduate, it seemed that the people who wrote good essays just had some sort of unconscious genius that the rest of us could never hope to possess. Critical theory debunks all that by giving you various frameworks through which you can see a book and get some handle on its deeper levels. And I think it's a shame to read a book and not to get the most out of it you can.

    No, theory won't tell you whether you like a book or not, and it's not a measure of literary greatness. It's a way of seeing how the story works, what devices come together to make it so satisfying (or not, as the case may be!). But then I'm someone who gets tired of reading endless opinions about books and really appreciates it if a reader goes deeper.


  14. Violet – Is that the cat in the box? Or am I thinking of Dr. Seuss? 😉

    Litlove – I agree that it's important to enhance your ability to get the most out of a book. While it's good to go a little deeper into what makes a book good (or bad) on occasion though, I'm not too sure that it always makes for a good blog post. As in all things, moderation is the key 🙂


  15. I think I'd like this book though I probably won't ever get to it. I did study literature at university but my courses never really took a strongly theoretical approach .. in the sense that we discussed different critical theories. I don't therefore feel that quite a few decades later I'm reviewing as anything other than an amateur, just an amateur who has a specific reading background!

    As for Blogger, that's interesting. I manage a blogger blog and two wordpress blogs and I find wordpress way easier and friendlier to use, but that's clearly just me. As a reader of blogs, I also prefer wordpress, primarily because blogger blogs (unless I'm doing something wrong) don't let me, using my OpenId credentials subscribe to comments. That means that I will not get notification if you reply to my post. On wordpress blogs there's a little check box that anyone can tick to receive such notification. Or, is there something I'm missing?


  16. whisperinggums – Although I think that theory takes things a little far sometimes, it's good to have a grounding in the theory, even if it's just to follow certain conversations.

    As for WordPress, I really found it hard to navigate. Having started with Blogger, I just find it 'normal', for want of a better word. And believe me, I'm sick to the back teeth of having to sign into WordPress every time I want to comment on a blog – even if I *am* already signed in…


  17. This book does sound interesting, and it might be something I try extending myself with some day. I too have felt under-qualified when reading some reviews (including yours every now and then!) but think I have picked up a few things organically over the last 3 years blogging about books. Since I barely have time to write my reviews at the level they are pitched now, am fearful more technical knowledge might cause even greater procrastination.


  18. I'm the same as you although I did a lot of theory in my graduate studies (more epistemiology + sociology rather than literary). I've got the very short introduction but haven't even read that. But this book certainly looks interesting. I'm actually looking for one of those introductions that use illustrations, like a comic book (there's a series I used as a grad student that distilled all the great ideas from Einstein's relativity to Sartre's existentialism which was great.) Happy learning!


Every comment left on my blog helps a fairy find its wings, so please be generous - do it for the fairies.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.