It takes a kind of bravery to analyse English studies in public. Although Peter Barry keeps us waiting 100 pages for his definition of the subject ("the formal study of vernacular literature"), patience brings rewards. Some English professors might dislike this book, but students will find Barry's style clear, honest and informative.
What Barry says of generic criticism, the history of the discipline and creative writing is true for the most part. And yet his section on syntax could benefit from a grasp of cognitive grammar. Also, some of his remarks on Keats and Owen, among others, will ruffle feathers. But when the discipline's method of choice is interpretation, and its findings are more often opinion than fact, it is only natural to question some of Barry's opinions even if he is right about many others.
He rightly promotes the evaluation of texts - a transferable skill once seen as oppressive. He is also correct about the benefits of computers in English, and his "total textuality" concept could encourage students to think hard. When it comes to historical criticism, Barry is engaging, too.
And yet history raises hard questions in English studies. Barry sees context as the antidote to silence.
In the era of theory, what texts did not say was held against them.
Therefore, the idea that "absence is presence" led to confronting textual silence with various forms of ventriloquism. But we are beyond all that now, Barry argues, as we await "the next big thing". Well, cognitive poetics has arrived and it will redefine the discipline in a decade. Until that science of the imagination is fully developed, however, Barry's book will remain useful and insightful for anyone pursuing English studies.
Craig Hamilton is lecturer in English, Nottingham University.
English in Practice: In Pursuit of English Studies. First edition
Author - Peter Barry
Publisher - Arnold
Pages - 216
Price - £45.00 and £10.99
ISBN - 0 340 80885 3 and 80886 1