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  • Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction
  • David Herman
Culler, Jonathan. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp.145. $7.95 paper.

The challenges faced by anyone attempting to write a short, accessible introduction to contemporary literary theory are considerable. Increasingly, it is true, university and other presses send guides, anthologies, handbooks, and other reader-friendly instructional materials to those of us who teach basic, intermediate, and advanced courses in critical theory. This proliferation of teaching aids stems, no doubt, from an infusion of “theory” into undergraduate curricula in departments of English and foreign languages. Critical theory has, over the past fifteen years or so, been transformed from pure into applied research; it is no longer something only trained professionals do, but rather a set of identifiable and teachable skills passed on to undergraduates who do not necessarily have an interest in becoming trained professionals themselves. Indeed, the outpouring of guides to and handbooks for literary theory—a trend epitomized, perhaps, by the soon-to-be-published Norton anthology of literary theory—suggests that theory is simply part of what most teachers of literature now teach. It has long since stopped being an esoteric metalanguage used by a small band of elite literary scholars writing recondite articles and books for one another. Yet for all that, it is still no easy matter to write a synoptic overview of the field. Or rather, it is extraordinarily difficult to synopsize key literary-theoretical issues without dumbing them down—and thereby undermining the careful, patient approach to reading and interpretation that is one of the chief legacies of theory itself. Coming in at just under 150 pages, Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory meets this difficult challenge, discussing the problems and potentials of literary theory in a way that is as engaging as it is accurate, as suggestive as it is concise.

Organized topically rather than in terms of “schools” or “movements,” the book contains chapters on how to define literature (18–42); the relationship between literature and cultural studies (43–54); the nature of literary [End Page 159] language (55–69); poetics in contradistinction to rhetoric (70–82); narrative and narratology (83–94); the question of performative language (95–109); and the problem of identity vis-à-vis literature and literary theory (110–22). There is also, in addition to a helpful list of citations and suggestions for further reading (133–41), an “Appendix” containing succinct descriptions of theoretical approaches, including Russian formalism, new criticism, phenomenology, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction, feminist theory, psychoanalysis, Marxism, new historicism/cultural materialism, post-colonial theory, minority discourse, and queer theory (123–32). These thumbnail sketches will be especially useful for students and other readers who are coming to theory cold; such readers need to orient themselves quickly within a universe of discourse where major problems are often referred to, telegraphically, by way of schools that formulated the problems.

Culler begins the book with a chapter addressing the basic but hard-to-answer question: “What is Theory?” (1–17). Characterizing theory as a “miscellaneous genre,” a “body of thinking and writing whose limits are exceedingly hard to define,” Culler echoes what Michel Foucault said about Freud, Marx, and other “transdiscursive” authors in his essay “What Is an Author?”: “theory...has come to designate works that succeed in challenging and reorienting thinking in fields other than those to which they apparently belong....Works regarded as theory have effects beyond their original field” (3). In other words, “theory” happens when anthropological, philosophical, sociological, or other research advancing field-specific arguments takes on a more generalized significance, becoming “suggestive or productive for people who are not studying those disciplines” (4). Inherently interdisciplinary, theory has for Culler much the same function that Roland Barthes attributed to “mythology” in his 1957 book, Mythologies. For Culler as for Barthes, theory attempts “to show that what we take for granted as ‘common sense’ is in fact a historical construction, a particular theory that has come to seem so natural to us that we don’t even see it as a theory” (4). To illustrate how theory should try to denaturalize the natural and complexify the commonsensical, the author reviews Foucault...

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