In a recent issue of the Newsletter (Issue 2) Tom Furness surveyed some of the theory readers currently available, and made helpful suggestions about how to choose one, a task which has become even more difficult (or been solved once and for all, depending on your perspective) with the publication of the mammoth and surprisingly affordable Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2001). An equally tricky decision for anyone running an 'Introduction to Theory' module is which secondary material, or theory primer, to recommend to students who will inevitably want one. Two of the most popular are Peter Barry's Beginning Theory (Manchester University Press) and An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (Prentice Hall) by Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle. Both were published in 1995; Bennett and Royle's went into a second edition in 1999, and Beginning Theory, which has already sold 45,000 copies, goes into its second edition later this year. Should you choose the soothing and reassuring voice of Peter Barry, then, or opt for the subtlety and seduction of An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory?
When I was an undergraduate in Canada encountering literary and cultural theory for the first time, my teachers pointed me towards two introductions, Catherine Belsey's Critical Practice (1980) and Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983). Each in their fashion, these books stirred the blood, inviting students to a struggle waged over the literary text (as I remember it). There was never any doubt as to where these texts stood: they told us what to distrust and firmly put us on a new path. Belsey armed her readers with Althusser and Lacan and sent them out to slay 'common sense' and the 'classic realist text' wherever they found them. Eagleton also had an enemy in his sights (English Studies) and helpfully told us what was worth reading (Marxism, and, at a push, feminism) and what shouldn't detain us for too long (most of psychoanalysis, certainly Derrida). When I was an exchange student at the University of Leeds, I found one of Eagleton's other books covered in angry annotations and barbed rebuttals from student readers, followed by further glosses defending Eagleton. I haven't been to check in my present library, but it seems unlikely that Peter Barry or Bennett and Royle, some fifteen years on, would provoke such passionate reactions. In milder times, it would seem, milder theory primers. Polemical introductions are apparently no longer appropriate, since the polemicists have, more or less, won. Nevertheless, both of these newer books do occupy distinct positions vis-a-vis theory, even though they do not announce their partisanship quite so openly as Belsey and Eagleton did.
Beginning Theory is that strange and improbable thing: a utilitarian and positivist guide to literary and cultural theories. Barry calls his book a 'starter-pack' (6), and in his introduction continually emphasises how 'useful' it will be. Addressing the student reader who is daunted by all this indigestible theoretical writing, he promises to cut through the mystification and provide the basics, claiming that 'the whole body of work known collectively as "theory" is based upon some dozen or so ideas, none of which are in themselves difficult.' (7) If his aim is to help the bewildered undergraduate navigate the necessary evil of a compulsory first-year module, then there is no denying his success. The eleven -isms that Beginning Theory makes its way through are, with at least one notable exception, dealt with lucidly and accessibly, using jargon when necessary, but explaining difficult or potentially new terms at every step. More than one of my students has expressed appreciation for this user-friendliness.
Beginning Theory is also very systematic, with each chapter following the same pattern: discursive passages on a movement and its history are interspersed with 'STOP and THINK' sections (presumably very useful for seminar discussion), as well as a checklist of, for instance, 'What lesbian/gay critics do', and 'Lesbian/gay criticism: an example'. While this sort of method is pedagogically productive, and accounts for much of the book's success, there is something a little troubling about Barry's tendency to compartmentalize theories and provide long numbered lists throughout the book. The lists (which I quite like) betray something of Beginning Theory's taxonomical drive, its confidence that all these theories are quickly recuperable as neutral knowledge, and can be boiled down to certain basic units. This 'non-partisan' positivism has its advantages as well, and Barry includes a welcome chapter on 'Stylistics' which rarely, if ever, makes it into such introductions. On the downside, his account of post-structuralism, the movement most likely to raise an eyebrow at his taxonomies, leaves a little to be desired, particularly the muddled account of deconstruction, and the claim, later on, that deconstruction is something that Lacan does. Equally worrying are his claims that the 'signified' is the same as the 'referent' (111) and that 'One is not born a woman…' is the 'famous first sentence' (130) of The Second Sex (it appears on p. 295 in my translation).
Although they do not declare it in their preface, Bennett and Royle have in fact written a post-structuralist introduction to literature and theory, with the greatest debt to deconstruction (Derrida has by far the most entries in their bibliography, followed by Freud and then J. Hillis Miller). They 'avoid simply giving potted summaries of isms', and write instead 'brief essays on a range of key critical concepts', claiming that the result is 'a new kind of book.' (1999: vii) This is not strictly true, since Lentricchia and McLaughlin (eds), Critical Terms for Literary Study (1990), which they often quote, takes a similar approach, but that book was much more sober and sensible than Bennett and Royle's. Their eccentric and surprising list of key concepts includes the conventional - 'Narrative', 'Character' and 'Figures and tropes' - but also 'Laughter', 'Me', 'God', 'Ghosts' and 'Secrets', as well as 'Ideology', 'Racial difference' and 'Queer'. Their avowed aim throughout is to communicate the strangeness, pleasures, power and difference of literature, and they maintain that these effects are all generated by and in language, which is at once the decisive fact and always subject to slippage, deferral, suspension, delay, and moments of undecidability. If they simply asserted dogmatically the primacy of language and the inevitability of the textual, the book would seem narrow, but it continually puts the proposition to work in its endlessly inventive and playful readings of literary texts and in its own writing.
This book has been praised so much already, as the back cover attests, that I'm not left with many adjectives to work with. However, it is probably fair to say that it has cracked the problem of how to be introductory and sophisticated, accessible but not patronising. One of the things I like most about it is its willingness to ask seemingly basic 'what is' questions. So, in 'The Colony', rather than launching into an account of colonialism and post-colonialism, they take a step back and carefully examine the term 'colony', unlocking its polyvalence. Another advantage is its treatment of concepts which do not often get an airing in the isms approach to introducing theory: they don't give traditional definitions of 'Character', 'Voice' and 'The tragic' though, but rethink them in light of theory. It is therefore a versatile text: in Salford, I recommend it to students on 'Introduction to Literature' and 'Shakespeare', and another colleague asks students to read the entry on 'The Uncanny' for 'Female Gothic'. One of the great pleasures of the book is its indirectness, but this may seem more like a drawback to students in search of a quick fix for an exam. Using it also means signing up at some level to its Derridean agenda, and accepting its relative neglect of Marxism (Adorno, Benjamin and Williams get one mention each) and its privileging of 'deconstructive' variants of feminism.
Finally, it is worthwhile mentioning one thing these two very different textbooks have in common. Neither needs to be read from beginning to end, but can be picked up at any point without losing the thread of an overall argument, since there isn't one in the same way as there is in Belsey or Eagleton. They also share a 'bite-sized' chunks approach to their subject. Bennett and Royle rarely spend more than ten pages on any one topic, and Barry usually goes no further than three pages before a break of some sort. I think that this is not so much a reflection on students' attention spans as it is on the increasing constraints on their time. While we hope that they will be able to read a 50-page theoretical article, we know that they are more likely to make it through ten pages, and the success of both books must be partly linked to this factor.