Whither Marxist literary theory? On the face of it, the publication of these two books suggests that the field is in rude health: renowned Marxist critic Terry Eagleton has received the first book-length study devoted to his work, and Alan Sinfield has welcomed the third edition of his incendiary landmark survey (which originally appeared in 1997), including a new introduction that “completely updates his analysis”.
I was initially sceptical of David Alderson’s introductory book: after all, Eagleton applies himself to making his prose lucid, his examples accessible, his wit keen - who would want to read him through a slanted lens? Moreover, much of Eagleton’s work is itself introductory: most notably, of course, the bestselling Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983). Do his introductions need introductions themselves? Furthermore, Eagleton is not associated with the development of particular concepts, such as discourse or différance , despite his analysis of the ideology of the aesthetic (1990); neither has he pursued a grand intellectual project, as have Marxist-influenced thinkers such as Fredric Jameson, Pierre Bourdieu and David Harvey. So why bother?
Alderson is in fact fully aware of these predicaments, and what he offers is an informed guide to Eagleton’s interestingly diverse range of critical activities, from Shakespeare to Wilde, from Richardson to Irish studies. The discussions are presented in the context of Eagleton’s evolving theoretical models, in particular his complex relationship with and use of what could loosely be called “postmodern strategies”.
It is an extremely cogent analysis, but probably beyond undergraduates who have not taken a specialist course in literary theory - an understanding of Marxism is taken for granted and the illuminating account of Criticism and Ideology (1976) nevertheless falls into the same arcane shorthand as the book itself. On the other hand, it is likely to prove pretty handy for tutors who need to mug up on Eagleton at short notice. But there is a nagging feeling that Alderson comes not to praise Eagleton but to bury him - is there any life left in the old dog or, indeed, in Marxist literary theory per se?
Such anxieties ought to be laid to rest with the latest incarnation of Sinfield’s Literature , Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain , which blazes a trail through the 1940s and 1950s to lay bare the mechanics of contemporary ideology. This is a classic, if polemical, text that everyone should study, and it remains an exhilarating read for all students of literature, culture and history.
But that nagging feeling returns. Sinfield has not completely updated his analysis in his new introduction; instead, he presents some heartfelt and moving memories of his childhood, before in effect throwing in the towel on literary studies, remarking that undergraduate culture today is located elsewhere - “in music, video and the internet”. Even that analysis is already out of date - try iPods, DVDs, the web and mobile phones. This apologetic introduction is a far cry from his brilliant accommodation of Trainspotting (both book and film) that was added to the second edition and is usefully reprinted here.
Both these books, then, are strangely conservative, and both raise the question, whither Marxist literary theory? Marxism needs to maintain a supple muscularity, otherwise it will become the intellectual equivalent of a consumerist trolley dash through the cultural hypermarket of late capitalism. On this evidence, that is not nearly enough. The current generation of Marxist critics already have their work cut out for them in assessing the various challenges presented by writers as complex as Geoffrey Hill, Ruth Padel and Salman Rushdie.
Nick Groom is reader in English, Bristol University.
Terry Eagleton. First edition
Author - David Alderson
Publisher - Palgrave
Pages - 179
Price - £49.50 and £16.99
ISBN - 0 333 801 X and 80128 8