A few days ago, I posted my notes on the appendix of Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Since then, I’ve flown through the rest of the book, and would heartily recommend it to anyone seeking a better understanding of the sorts of questions academics ask about literature to analyze it and its place in culture.
Unlike the appendix, which details the qualities of each school that make them unique, the main body of the book is concerned with the larger questions that all of these approaches seek, in one fashion or another, to answer. A good portion of the book is not at all specific to literature, asking (and answering, briefly but understandably) more general questions about the nature of theory, works, author, and audience. Though Culler never uses this term, after reading this book I am inclined to think of these theoretical approaches as “critical theory” rather than “literary theory,” because they can all be applied to works other than writing. He mentions art history, though not music history, as an option, but it was easy to see how these ideas could apply to the study of music theory or musicology. Other chapters in the book discuss questions specific to literature (What is poetry and how should one talk about it? How do narrative voice and focalization impact the story readers receive?), which I found highly useful as a new reader of classic literature.
This book is fairly short – 146 pages including the appendix – and is a fantastic introduction to critical theory and its application to literature. While it uses great, well-known examples to clarify difficult concepts – works like Hamlet, Madame Bovary, Jane Eyre, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn come up quite frequently, as does Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” and several cute cartoons – the language employed is highly academic and, I suspect, makes this book less accessible to a mass market. Those most likely to get the most out of this introduction to literary theory would be academics in other fields hoping to learn the basics of this one. That certainly describes me, and I learned a lot from this little book!