This book offers new ways of thinking about literature and reading critically. It is designed to be clear and accessible to those who are beginning to study literature, as well as to more advanced students. Although written with university students in mind, we hope that it will also be of interest to other readers.
’Theory’ is an inevitable element in studying literature and criticism and, indeed, in thinking about life and the world around us. Anyone who supposes that it is possible to be free of theory has not yet begun to think. But textbooks about literary theory tend to be organized restrictively and rather forbiddingly into chapters on this or that ism or school of thought. This book is arranged differently and avoids potted summaries of different theoretical movements. Theory — particularly when it takes the form of isms, and when it is presented in isolation — can easily seem intimidating or simply boring. By contrast, we offer brief essays on a range of key critical concepts, all of which have more or less familiar names. We put these concepts into practice through readings of literary texts.
Our primary focus, then, is on what is powerful, complex and strange about literary works themselves. We describe and seek to illuminate critical and theoretical arguments or ideas insofar as these arise from our readings of particular poems, stories or plays. In this way we hope to provide new and distinctive encounters with such arguments and ideas; to enable the reader to grasp why a given critical concept or theoretical perspective might be valuable and important; and to suggest how different isms or schools of thought actually interrelate and overlap. Our aim throughout is to explain, entertain, stimulate and challenge.
The book is divided into 38 chapters and may look as if it has a certain order or progression. It begins with ’The Beginning’ and ends with ’The End’. But it has been assembled in such a way that it can also be read starting from any one chapter. ’The end’, for example, is not a bad place to begin. Likewise, the book aspires to be a page-turner, but it also welcomes a reader inclined to pick and choose. Each chapter concludes with some suggestions for further reading (some straightforward and reasonably accessible, others more tricky and challenging). There is a glossary of critical and theoretical terms at the back of the book, plus a full bibliography of the texts discussed. Finally, we have also included an ’Alternative Table of Contents’: we hope that this might prove a useful additional roadmap for navigating the highways of Bennett and Royle.