- The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism
The task of reviewing a book of this magnitude and range leads me to oscillate between hubris and humility. Assess the accuracy and cogency of 241 entries by over 270 diverse hands? Sure; no problem. Evaluate 986 pages of learned scholarship on 'individual critics and theorists, critical and theoretical schools and movements, and the critical and theoretical innovations of specific countries and historical periods'? O Lord, am I not worthy! But of course choosing either hubris or humility will simply not do. Humility means opting out of the task, and hubris, well, Christopher Hitchens has shown its nasty results in the 22 May 2005 New York Times Book Review: the Guide, Hitchens asserts, is 'a pointer to the abysmal state of mind that prevails in so many of our universities.' So, I'll try to steer between false modesty and Hitchens-esque pontificating.
First, this edition of the Guide is a terrific resource. The editors - Szeman now joins Groden and Kreiswirth, who did the 1994 first edition - have done a thorough updating. This Guide is 210 pages longer. It has 45 new [End Page 192] entries (examples: aesthetics, book history, ethics, globalization, hypertext theory and criticism, law and literature). More than half of the entries from the first edition have been revised in some way. Examples: entries on movements have added sections covering developments since 1990; Reed Way Dasenbrock's strong entry on Stanley Fish not only comments on Fish's work over the last decade but also shows how that work leads to a revised narrative of Fish's career. Finally, some entries from the first edition have been moved under other rubrics (examples: W.H. Auden is now discussed as a Poet-Critic and John Dewey as part of the entry on Charles Sanders Peirce). The result is a Guide that consistently rewards one's curiosity about virtually any aspect of literary theory and criticism. In all my searching to date, I've come up empty only on 'disability studies.' I'd advise anyone seeking more information about a topic in literary theory and criticism to start with this book.
Second, the entries are generally well done, frequently combining informative reports on ideas and their evolution with some evaluation of the quality and influence of those ideas. This is not to say that all entries are equally on the mark. But it is worth distinguishing between matters of accuracy and matters of critical preference. For example, Paul Cobley in his otherwise fine entry on 'Narratology' misrepresents the value of the concept of the narratee (the audience addressed by the narrator) when he claims that 'invariably it is impossible to separate this concept from the Implied Reader.' The better principle is that the more a narratee is characterized the more clearly distinct he or she will be from the Implied Reader. (There's a situational irony to Cobley's misstatement, since he replaces Gerald Prince as the author of the entry on Narratology, and Prince is the theorist who first called attention to the narratee.) To take another example, Leroy Searle in his thoughtful entry on the New Critics makes an admirable attempt to include not only the Chicago Critics' objections to their rivals but also their alternative proposals about literary form and critical pluralism. Searle is good on the objections, but, unfortunately, not on the alternatives, and that mars the larger conclusions he draws about formalism. On the other hand, when Dasenbrock builds from his on-the-mark summary of Fish's antifoundationalism to the claim that 'if the net effect… is to leave us where we were before, then the enthusiasm with which Fish goes to work to demolish the presuppositions of liberalism remains a little inexplicable,' I'm interested to hear how someone more thoroughly sympathetic to Fish would respond.
My larger point here is simply caveat emptor. The Guide is wide-ranging, multi-voiced-and inevitably fallible. Finally, though, that fallibility is a...