What About Theory

What About Theory? is a comprehensive book consolidating the information present in all major literary theory primers. The book aims at informing the students of literature on the major precepts of literary theories in a way free from ambiguity. Books on literary theories often tend to be complicated, doing more to confuse rather than inform the readers. What About Theory? attempts to be different in this respect, trying to explain even the most complicated theories in the simplest language and with clarity. Literary theories open new ways of interpreting the texts of literature and give an insight into how the presuppositions of the readers affect their reading. The book, What About Theory? is divided into thirteen different sections beginning with formalism and ending with ecocriticism.


The first chapter opens with an essay on New Criticism popularised by critics such as I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, William Empson, Cleanth Brooks and John Crowe Ransom. It is followed by an essay on Russian formalism. Formalism sees literature as a special sort of language and believes that literary language is opposite to ordinary or everyday language. Then you will find the concept of the autotelic text, which contains meaning within itself and can be studied using close reading. The intentional fallacy, one of the ideas within New Criticism, is the mistake of trying to understand the meaning of a work based on an attempt to figure out the intention of the author in writing it. The concept of defamiliarisation put forward by Viktor Shklovsky, four kinds of meaning by I.A. Richards, ambiguity by William Empson, the great tradition of F.R. Leavis and Cleanth Brooks’s language of paradox are a few of the other ideas discussed in this section.


The second section is on structuralism, aptly beginning with an essay on the subject of structuralism. Linguistic sign, semiotics and semiology, the concept of the death of the author, difference between readerly and writerly texts, Levi-Strauss’s concept of bricolage, and myth criticism of Northrop Frye are some of the ideas you will find in this section of the book. The essay on Barthes’s contribution to literary criticism discusses the ideas he put forward in this works, Writing Degree Zero, Mythologies, Elements of Semiology, S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text.


The next chapter is devoted to a post-World War phenomenon, poststructuralism. The theory was initiated by Derrida in the paper, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Poststruturalism has its origin in philosophy. The sceptical thinking of philosophy evident in the quote from Nietzsche, “There are no facts, only interpretations” is the core concept in poststructuralism. Logocentrism, difference, trace and play, ecriture, transcendental signified, deconstruction, aporia, intertexuality and decanonisation are some of the concepts reviewed in this section of the book.


The fourth chapter of the book is on modernism. The first essay in the section is on the literature between the wars and opens with a well-known quote from Virginia Woolf which begins, “On or about December 1910 human nature changed.” The next title deals with the modernist use of myth to give shape and significance to the fragmented reality of the world they experienced. The chapter contains a number of brief notes and essays on subjects such as the techniques of fragmentation used in modernist literature, avant-garde’s relation to modernist thought, imagism, symbolist movement in poetry and the existentialist movement in literature. It is concluded with a note elucidating The Waste Land as a modernist text.


The chapter on postmodernism dates its origin back to the 1950s. Some of the ideas discussed in the chapter are Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality, Fredric Jameson’s concept of depthlessness, Foucault’s concept of power and historiographic metafiction. Whole chapters are devoted also to major theories such as postcolonialism which deals with texts such as Edward Said’s Orientalism, Marxism which discusses works like Louis Althusser’s “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses” and Raymond William’s Culture and Society, psychoanalytic criticism which makes use of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalyses and feminism that begins with Mary Wollstonecraft’s work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.


The chapters on new historicism, reader response criticism, cultural studies and ecocriticism are considerably short compared to the other chapters. However, they include all the major ideas about the theories that a student of English literature is expected to be knowledgeable in. Just as the cover page suggests, What About Theory? is a useful book for students perplexed by literary theories.