Literary Theory

August 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

I was elated when an untraceable textbook that I had ordered was delivered today. Funny how the bookseller suggested sending me another copy if I could not find it. I mean, couldn’t some bad people make huge bucks that way by issuing undelivered items to their sellers and then the bookseller having sent additional copies? I guess if they were unconscientious people like those who spit out their chewing gum on the clean asphalt ground as they walk or people who abuse telephone booths. It happened to be a lifesaver, too. Just when Culler’s Literary Theory was taking a toll on my eyes (typeset is a funny kind of serif font that is often used in tourist guidebooks like the Lonely Planet series) and mind, Barry’s Beginning Theory – An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory was a fresh summer breeze through my study room window. Not only is Barry from the generation when literary theory began to be published in English, he developed this subject as part of the BA programme at his university and decades later published this book.

That literary theory is difficult for all undergraduates coming from a straight A-level Literature background was very settling for me. I’d thought I was the only one to be losing myself in the winding text of theory jargon never come across before in my years as an English student. Barry gives a few pointers to make the readings bearable: firstly, become a slow reader. It is much better to read intensively than widely. Even if you have gleaned just one argument and how it unfolds and is qualified and contextualised, it is better to have skim-read it in desperation and not understood anything. To do that, a technique is used, known as ‘SQ3R”, or Survey, QuestionsReadRecall, and Review. Secondly, be patient with theory. Most writers were French and what we read are translations of Romance words into English where many Anglo-Saxon words that are everyday terms are missing. And although, for the most part, theory will unleash profound ideas for which we will show considerable patience for, it is not always the case. It should deliver something to us, not use us. For that to happen, we must show some patience but not wait too long for it to become solid. Sounds like a good introduction to a theory class.

More questions were in order in approaching an unfamiliar text. Those sets of questions asked the very nature of the texts, in form and in content, and also from what the narrative means. It was a great start. I really think I gained much from this exercise and plan to use it every time I read a new text even just for a spell. The second chapter focussed on how to find resource material on the internet, what dictionaries are available, concordances, and the like for researching different facets of the text and its background information. These tools can be used to look up words we don’t know, words we know but upon looking it up, finding that there are multiple meanings that may have become outdated at the time of writing and its significance to its meaning, using various reference books to investigate cultural references, and finding more about the themes, myths and symbols, which are similar to cultural references, such as the Bible, Greek mythology and so on. Hence, chapter two will prove to be invaluable when getting down to writing the essay; it covers social contexts, additional expounding of the text in terms of any other editions available and whether they have been edited, expurgated or cut and why are discussed. Tomorrow’s chapter three will analyse structure, one that will be important as a poetic device.

After a crash course in literary theory, simple exercises in reading an unknown text, and mulling over a poem, I can say that my one year spent in English Literature in the Sixth Form had been worth it. Many literary terms are definitely familiar and approaches to reading are reminiscent of the classroom learning I received back then. I am only thrilled and anxious about getting back into ‘shape’ as it were and to be able to conduct researches, make copious notes, print them out on a newly-bought laser printer and rewrite essays. Oh joy of joys.


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