How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies

September 17, 2009

Author: Robert Dale Parker

Edition: First

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 336

Price: £69.95 and £16.99

ISBN: 9780195334715 and 4708

Call me Cassandra. Although I predicted the death of theory several decades ago, these warnings seem especially relevant today, when the fields of cultural and literary studies are in disarray and when studying humanities often demands justification. Relentless debates between proponents of theory and proponents of engaged learning are heating up as the economy crashes, driving students to focus on vocational training and to wonder whether they can afford the luxury of scholarly reading. In this environment, theory, which depends on inclusion in university courses for survival, should be a hard sell. Yet as long as literature courses persist, theory continues to flourish as the sexiest part of the discipline. Go figure!

To keep theory from becoming academic waterboarding, we need to help students negotiate the waves of revisionist methodologies that whack literature departments with dizzying speed. An intellectually responsible primer such as Robert Dale Parker's How to Interpret Literature is especially serviceable since it explains theory in the context not only of literature but also of daily life. Parker's wide-ranging historical account of the development of theory from the 1930s onward connects literary and cultural studies, a fashionable perspective that allows him to include topics (such as film) of special interest to students. This highly readable, accessible textbook is composed of interrelated, somewhat overlapping chapters that cumulatively draw on and respond to each other. Most sections end with an extended example of the specific approach under discussion.

Respectful of students, whom he considers to be "sophisticated theorists" lacking specialised critical vocabularies, Parker demonstrates that theory is not privileged territory. His many years in the classroom help him anticipate student reaction. The text may be dense, but it is tarted up by pictures of theorists and by diagrams. My favourite has got to be the Synchronic Chart of Section 11 from Whitman's Song of Myself. Although they may seem a bit of a gimmick, such features - along with flow charts, informational text boxes, summary charts and tables - serve to break up blocks of text and provide cheap thrills.

Although, unfortunately, Parker fails to consider ecocriticism, he discusses most of the other major movements (New Criticism, structuralism, deconstruction, psychoanalysis, feminism, queer studies, Marxism, historicism, cultural studies, postcolonial and race studies and reader response). A useful bibliography provides suggestions for further reading.

I, for one, am especially grateful for Parker's caveats. Mindful that a little learning may be a dangerous thing, he helps students avoid many pitfalls. For example, the terms "deconstructionism" and "deconstructionalism" are identified as no-nos. In the end, How to Interpret Literature throws students (if not theory itself) a lifeline.

Who is it for? Neophytes. A useful and fun guide for undergraduates. Too elementary for advanced students.

Presentation: Clear and easy to read.

Would you recommend it? Absolutely! This is a painless guide for uninitiated students who are keen to grasp theoretical concepts.

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