Monday, 24 September 2012

Putting Theory into Practice

I've been blogging for a while now (just over three-and-a-half years to be precise), but I'm afraid I have something to confess - I'm a fraud.  While I pontificate week in, week out on the literary qualities of the books that come under my gaze, the truth is that I have no literary credentials at all, never having studied literature at any level higher than GCSE back in England (and I didn't do very well at that either).  I know, I know, I can see the shocked expressions, and hear the stunned silences, from my end of the computer.  I apologise, truly.

I am trying to rectify this state of affairs though.  A while back, in the course of a chat on Twitter, Violet recommended a book which might be suited to a theoretical novice like me, Peter Barry's Beginning Theory (3rd edition), a text used in undergraduate literature courses and one I might be able to get my head around, despite the dense and confusing content trapped within.  After purchasing the book, I've spent the last few months dipping into it whenever I've had time between my usual fiction fare, and I definitely haven't regretted it - but am I actually any the wiser?

Literary Theory is an attempt to put the art of analysing literary texts on a par with other academic endeavours, putting in place a structure to enable critics to explain how and why they are evaluating texts.  It's not good enough to say that you think a work of literature is good or bad; you need to be able to show why you think this and what methods you have used to come to that conclusion.  It sounds fairly simple so far, but nothing could be further from the truth - as anyone who has ever attempted to come to terms with Post-Stucturalism or Freudian Psychoanalysis will know only too well...

This is where Beginning Theory is such a great book.  Barry takes the reader back to basics, explaining how literary criticism was practised in the past, before guiding them gently through the progressive waves of theories which came to challenge the status quo.  Liberal Humanism, Modernism, Stucturalism, Marxism, Post-Colonialism... all are introduced and carefully explained with practical explanations using authentic literary texts.  The book is designed for a reader who is interested in Literary Theory but has no real prior experience of the subject, and as someone who has been involved in the tertiary sector on both sides of the teacher's desk, I find it a much more helpful text than most I've seen.

As well as going over all the -isms you're bound to have heard of, the third edition of Beginning Theory also takes you through some relatively recent developments in the field.  Most of you will have heard of Queer Theory and Stylistics, but New Aestheticism and Presentism may be less familiar areas of study - and has anyone heard of Cognitive Poetics?  I certainly hadn't...  

One such area that I found interesting was Ecocriticism, a field of study which foregrounds the role of the natural environment in a text, seeing it as an important agent rather than merely the backdrop of the story.  This chapter was especially useful as I read it just after finishing a work which was advertised as a work of Eco-Fiction, allowing me to understand what exactly the blurb was talking about.

And this is the beauty of a text like Beginning Theory - it allows those of us without formal literary training to understand just what it is we like and don't like about the books we read.  There's no need to use all this meta-language in your reviews (unless you're attempting to scare off all your readers), but it certainly allows you to approach your reading in a more focused frame of mind.  Hopefully, this will lead to more coherent analyses of the books you've been reading.

This isn't the first time I've tried to upskill in this area.  Last year, I read (but didn't review) Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory - A Very Short Introduction which, while interesting, was far too cursory for my needs.  I also ploughed through the Open Yale series of lectures for a while but gave up half-way through as it was all a little too dry, especially when approached without the support of other university literary subjects.

For me then, Beginning Theory is a great introduction to the field of Literary Theory.  It's still not all that easy to get your head around (and I certainly wouldn't recommend racing through it and then tossing it aside), but if approached sensibly, reading chapters a couple of times at a leisurely pace before moving on, the information will gradually begin to seep into your brain.  What's more, the more time you devote to the book, the more you'll become aware of your own biases - and that's a good thing.  At one point Barry asks the reader whether it is possible to analyse a book using all of the techniques at your disposal, and his answer is a definite 'no'.  If you attempt to do a Marxist-Feminist-Freudian-Post-Structural-Stylistic reading of a text, all you'll end up with is a superficial mish-mash of vague ideas...

...and speaking of my reviews, I do think that reading this book has helped me understand what I'm doing a little better.  I probably tend towards the structuralist idea of wanting to find a bottom line, a super-narrative, in everything I read.  However, I also dabble a little in Post-Colonial, Marxist and (very occasional) Feminist interpretations, with a little linguistic analysis on the side.  Of course, if I read more widely in the area of Literary theory, I'll probably discover that my opinions here are completely wrong ;)

Returning to the book, I'd definitely recommend this to anyone who feels a little underqualified to be talking about literature in public - I certainly feel a lot more confident now in the way I approach my reading.  However, I do feel that I still haven't quite got there.  You see, while I've had a little look at the theory side, I still have little idea about the more practical side, the nuts and bolts of writing.  I only have a very hazy idea of concepts like tropes and leitmotifs, so it might be a good idea to do some more reading on literary criticism.  Time to ask for some more recommendations then...