A path toward major change

September 18, 2008

Literary Theory: A Reintroduction

Author: David Ayers

Edition: First

Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell

Pages: 256

Price: £12.99

ISBN 9781405136013

A quarter of a century ago Terry Eagleton wrote Literary Theory: An Introduction. As a result, countless English students began to get really excited about the subject. Happy days. Now we have David Ayers' Literary Theory: A Reintroduction, which puts the theory phenomenon into historical perspective. And about time, too. Theorists were always keen to put literature into context, but not Foucault and his friends.

Why? Ayers doesn't answer that question, but he does tell us how and why their ideas came to prominence in literature departments both here and in the US.

The contributions of aesthetes, modernists and American New Critics to the development of literary studies are carefully considered and so, too, are their shortcomings; the emphasis on the text, for example, deflects attention from its place in the wider society. It was this oversight that, in very broad terms, theory set out to correct.

Ayers does a superb job in tracing the many strands of theory, showing how they cross and separate. Feminism, for instance, drew critically on a diverse body of work including Lacan, Bakhtin, Derrida, Deleuze and Habermas and was, not surprisingly, riven by internal dissent. And Ayers is one of a growing number who are prepared to view critics such as Arnold and Leavis in a more sympathetic light. Indeed, he opens his book with a discussion of Arnold and ends it with him too, remarking that since the 19th century, "much less has changed than might at first have been supposed".

If we want something different, he suggests, we must look to the French philosopher Alain Badiou, whose central thesis is that art is separate from philosophy. Is that really different, though? It's there in Plato. In literary studies, there truly is nothing new under the sun.

And so it proves here. While Ayers is refreshingly critical of some of the more self-regarding and ill-thought-out aspects of theory, he nevertheless clings to the old illusion that the purpose of studying literature is to promote political change. The idea of literary critics toppling new Labour may be a good subject for comedy, but that's all. Most of us have difficulty devising a rota, never mind a revolution.

Which brings me to the central question. Why is this book called Literary Theory? Most of the theories discussed have as much to do with literature as business has to do with scholarship.

Who is it for? Those interested in theory will welcome this book.

Presentation: Well written, it displays a wealth of learning and has some beautifully modulated arguments.

Would you recommend it? Yes. And not just because Ayers grasps the importance of the metaphor of the gold standard in Leavis' writing. Something I wrote about a while ago, I seem to remember.

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