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The Problem of Literary Critical Theory

In September I will again be tackling a module on literary theory, and as usual I am beginning to experience the kind of pre-module jitters that only literary theory can produce.  I need to convince myself again that it is worth covering the topic.  There are many reasons why if should be worth covering:
  • It gives students a critical palate for reading texts in new and alternative forms; 

  • it encourages students to re-assess the social structures and values which underpin the idea of 'literature'; 
  • it encourages students to re-assess the very definition of 'literature' in the light of them. 

All these things are very good things, and I certainly have no trouble generating the right amount of enthusiasm for them.

The problem is when it comes to teaching the wretched stuff.  Like many English degrees, the one I teach reserves 15 credits for literary theory.  That means 12 weeks of teaching and 3000 words of assessment.  What can be done within these limits?

A Question of Content

When I first started teaching the subject, my aim was to cover a few key theories that were still largely current and relevant: At the time I decided to focus on Feminism, Post colonialism and Cultural Materialism - three which I thought worked well together because they were essentially derived from the same structuralist paradigm.  The problem with this approach was that without understanding the paradigm of structuralism, students did not find it easy to understand the interrelations between the theories, and so tended to look at them as isolated.  This not only made the individual theories harder work than they needed to be, it led to a very categorical approach to theory in those student's later work (essays be either Feminist or Marxist, because they had not a chance to think about them in terms of synthesis).  So, in later efforts I decided I needed to include Structuralism, to provide a framework for the interrelations between theories.  But how do I introduce Structuralism?  The easiest way I could think of was as a reaction to the New Critical formalisms of the early twentieth century...

You see the problem?  The less content I focused on, the more difficult each individual element became.  The more content I focused on, the more I felt I needed to focus on, and the less scope students had to explore any one theory in detail.

I was in danger of going down the line of the online course which Yale University have made available.  Professor Fry explains a range of theories on this course beautifully, but the focus on the content of the individual theories turns them into abstractions: Each lecture leaves me wondering what, exactly, the students are meant to do with the knowledge except write an essay about it?  Focusing on the issue of content meant that I had almost forgotten to think back to that issue of purpose: On exactly what critical skills I wanted students to have the chance to develop. 

Prof. Paul Fry. Great communicator, but too much content.

Gradually, over time, I have narrowed the range of theories I teach on this module rather like one might tinker with the quantities in a cake recipe: A little more Shklovsky here would balance the flavour of Derrida there, while Barthes is overpowering in the cream filling so I will reduce that and add a little Saussure instead.  The balance of content started to settle down.  This, though, left the question of the purpose.

The Single Text Approach

The easiest way, it seemed, to demonstrate the functions of these different theories was to focus on a single text, and thereby to show how layering different theoretical models over the same text results in often dramatically different interpretations.  Professor Fry does this by using a children's story, and certainly there are countless fairytales which would work similarly well - but what is the point of showing students how to do something with a children's story and then expect them to be able to do the same thing with King Lear?
It was at this point that I was sent a copy of Michael Ryan's  Literary Criticism: A Practical Introduction.  Up to this point, texbooks on literary theory were a bit of an irritation.  Yes, there was always Terry Eagleton's seminal Literary Theory: An Introduction, but while this text contained easily the best explanations of both theory itself, and of some theories in particular, it was neither very practical nor very comprehensive.  Jonathan Culler's Very Short Introduction was beautifully written and a great starting point, but again not something which really showed students how to do it.  Larger compendiums and readers, like Patricia Waugh's Oxford Guide were comprehensive, but theories were considered in isolation and often addressed in more detailed than was really needed at the introductory stage.

What was so good about Ryan's book was that each chapter had a section in which different theoretical approaches were applied to a range of texts - and there was largely a consistency between them as well.  Most theories were considered in relation to King Lear, The Matrix and the poems of Elizabeth Bishop.

What I loved about this was not only the consistency, but the range of genres used.  It seems to me that one of the skills which students of English could / should be reasonably be expected to take with them into the outside world is an ability to read different layers of meaning and significance in the things around them - and by 'things' I mean more than the conscious constructions of 'literature'.  English students should be able to read between the lines of a newspaper headline, appreciate the symbolism of a film and even understand the narrative constructions of a shopping centre.  Ryan's use of The Matrix added a popular culture aspect which suited my ideas.  It was a book which was structured in just the way I wanted to teach.


I'm sorry Mr. Ryan, but it was not as well written as it could have been.  It's chapter's and practical exercises were convoluted and unclear.  Even though it's publication date was 2007, it was not particularly up-to-date.  There was, as well, a rather eclectic division of theories which was almost counter-intuitive (the separation of Feminism and Gender into two chapters not close to each other).  In addition, it was difficult to relate the chapter contents to the critical texts related to them. I wanted the practical examples to shine a light on the process, but also on the books and essays by Shklovsy and Derrida on which those processes were built.  The structure of Ryan's book was excellent, and certainly in terms of provided students with what I though would help students the most, it was the best I had seen.

But I was still looking.

I think I might have found what I want.  It's by Michael Ryan. is, for my purposes, the perfect core textbook for a literary theory module.  All of the problems with the Practical Introduction have been addressed: The chapters are in an order which makes sense; there are new chapters on scientific theories, film studies and cultural theory; The chapters have been made simpler, with a bullet-point set of 'major ideas' and 'key terms' for each; lists of key essays by the major associated critics is at the top of each chapter, and is referred to consistently throughout the chapters; and the practical examples are drawn from a range of texts, of which the use of films (together with comprehensive pictures) adds a visual clarity to the explanation of ideas which actually made me whistle in admiration.

Ok, so Ryan still can't write as well as Terry Eagleton.  Put the two together though, and I think it is possible to have a framework of core texts which can not only explain literary theory with clarity, but show students how to apply them to a range of different texts and contexts.

So all-in-all, my September jitters seem to be notably calmer this year.  I have found my perfect textbook.  Now all I need to do is to find a way of making my students read it...


Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory : a Cery Short Introduction / Jonathan Culler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)
Michael Ryan, An Introduction to Criticism : Literature, Film, Culture / Michael Ryan (Chichester, West Sussex ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)
---, Literary Theory : a Practical Introduction / Michael Ryan, 2nd ed.. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007)
Patricia Waugh, Literary Theory and Criticism : an Oxford Guide / Edited by Patricia Waugh (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory : an Introduction / Terry Eagleton, Anniversary ed.. (Malden, Mass; Oxford: Blackwell Pub, 2008)

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