21 June 2006

Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions). New York: Oxford University Press, 1977/2000.

What do Marxists, Freudians, Structuralists, New Critics, Post-Colonialists, Feminists, and Deconstructionists have in common? “I don’t know” is not a correct response—but “I can’t understand them” is. The other right answer is that they all apply unique analytical frameworks to the study of literature in an effort to understand “what it means”. But most of us would say “I don’t know.”

Part of the confusion comes from all those different schools of criticism—I couldn’t keep them straight as a graduate student, either. Culler solves this problem by approaching the subject through the common underlying questions that any critic is trying to answer. The book fits eight chapter and an appendix into 133 pages, with each question getting a chapter; Culler only addresses various schools in the appendix. This makes it very easy to follow his clear, concise discussion of the philosophical issues that inspire both literature and the ways of studying it.

Literary Theory is part of an Oxford series that runs from Ancient Philosophy through Empire, Engles, and Ethics to Molecules, Music, Nietzsche and The Twentieth Century: there were about 150 titles in 2000. Each is written by an acknowledged expert on the subject (Culler teaches at Cornell and has published several books). They are designed to provide “stimulating ways in to new subjects,” or a high-level over-view. They are ideal for getting the “big picture” before starting a distributive requirement class because they will help you understand, quickly, both why it is important and how interesting it really it—to someone.


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