on May 19, 2004
Yes, the book does aim to answer questions about the nature of literature and theory rather than approach them from a school-by-school philosophical/ideological orientation. Some English student in a rush who just wants an elucidation of the major critical schools will find Culler's approach oblique and might want to find a different book to read. Culler's book is easy to read, fun, clear, yet it touches briefly on a lot of heavy ideas that are explained in plain language for beginners. I appreciate that he doesn't seem to privilege any one ideology but lets the reader make up his own mind; this is the sign of a mature educator. Other reviewers of this little gem have overlooked what is perhaps the most valuable part: the "Citations and Further Reading" section in the back. This helpful annotated bibliography is loaded with references to journals and books that are linked to each chapter topic. It gives specific page numbers where to locate the relevant information so you don't waste time searching. Believe me: this is great. If you are facing something like Derrida's Of Grammatology or de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics for the first time, it can be pretty intimidating. These valuable references make Culler's litle book the perfect self-study guide with the primary texts. The only disappointment I have is that this book does not teach the reader how to apply the information he reads here to other texts; for example, the reader isn't taught steps on how to "deconstruct" a text. But there are other books that already do that like Steven Lynn's Texts in Context or Critical Theory Today by Lois Tyson and many others that are equally good. If you still want an institutional history of criticism or an explication of its schools, Culler recommends many books in the appendix in the back (I haven't read them), among them Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction ("a tendentious but very lively account"), Peter Barry's Beginning Theory: An Introducion to Literary and Cultural Theory ("a useful 'school'-oriented textbook"), Richard Harland's Superstructuralism ("broad and lively introductory survey"), Green and LeBihan's Critical Theory and Practice ("cleverly fuses the survey by school with approach by topic"). Culler's Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction is definitely not the only book a beginner will want to read on literary theory, but it is a great place to start. I rate it a strong four stars.
on February 1, 2004
First, if you have ever speculated that "theory" is primarily posturing by intellectuals with too much time on their hands in an attempt to justify their fringe political/social views, this book will probably confirm that belief for you. Further, if you have ever suspected that the arcane jargon created by "theory" practitioners is little more than obfuscation to ensure that their more outrageous pronouncements will be immune from refutation by intelligent but uninitiated outsiders, this book will do little to dissuade you. Nonetheless, if you want an approachable explication of what "theory" is all about, this is the book for you. Professor Culler does not argue the case for a particular school of thought, but explains (eschewing jargon when possible) the underlying currents of thought that drive literary analysis today. He starts by explaining the inextricable connection of literature theory to cultural studies and proceeds to explore the ramifications of that marriage. He then examines how literature theory attempts to answer questions about the nature of self, language, and meaning. To ensure that no single movement is given precedence, short descriptions of the tenets of the various schools are relegated to an appendix. The sheer number of approaches listed is breathtaking -- 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. So, if you simply want to know what all the "fuss" is about, or if you want to embark on a more serious study, start here.
on October 12, 2003
I have been reading Culler's more comprehensive books on Structuralism and Deconstruction. I was having trouble reading these, so I stopped and read this, along with the other "Very Short Introduction" on Poststructuralism (not by Culler.)
I am finishing up "On Deconstruction" and it has been very smooth sailing, thanks to this book.
If you are not a beginner, this book probably isn't necessary, but if you are, it might be useful
on September 10, 2003
Once again, Culler shows that he can explain theory in a manner that is relatively accessible to the neophyte yet likely to go down well with his peers. All the same, the final effect is less than satisfying. As thoughtful as the seven meditations on theory and language are, they don't have sufficient cohesion to make much of an impression (let alone a memorable one) on a reader fresh to theory. One wishes the author had paid more attention to the historical periods of theory and the revisions of successive generations, if only to clarify key distinctions. Or that this commentary (like many other recent explanations of literary theory) did not pass by archetypal criticism, which may be reductive and out of fashion in the academy but for many younger readers offers an edifying and useful approach. Instead, he manages to touch on Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan in the introductory chapter and devotes later chapters to discussions about J. L. Austin and performative language along with a section about Judith Butler.
The Appendix, which provides a summary of various schools and methodologies, is written in unhelpful, "humanless" prose, as unaware of an audience as it is deaf to voice (certainly this isn't what Barthes had in mind when he sacrificed the author to the life of the text).
In short (or in this case, the very very short of it), there are some good things to be gleaned from this little text (especially if an instructor wishes to use it for "departure points"), but I'm afraid it's too arbitrary, personal, and eccentric to be of great service in the undergraduate classroom.
on September 14, 2002
This book takes an unusual approach to introducing literary theory. Instead of surveying movements, periods and/or philosophers, Jonathan D. Culler outlines some of the major questions of literary theory and introduces some of the big names in that context. An appendix gives a few paragraphs on some of the approaches, but I didn't learn anything I hadn't already learned by surfing the web.
The prose was clearly written, and accessible. A college freshman wouldn't have any trouble understanding this book. But he might have trouble reading it, as the print is mighty small. I kept having to move this pocket-sized book closer to my face to pick out the words. In short, a disappointment.
on June 24, 2002
Jonathan Culler's work is a fine exposition on the wrok of some of the twentieth centuries most provoctive philosophical and literary theorists. In well researched and clear chapters, Culler takes the reader on a guided tour of Postmodern theory-- which grew out of or is a response to russian formalism, phenomenology, new criticism, structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstruction,feminist theory, new histroricism, post-colonial theory, and minority discourses--beginning with the a discussion of the idea of "theory" and its importance and application to academic study today.
Using a highly stylized prose voice Culler succeeds greatly in expressing the nuance and deepth of this most controversial philosophical movement. Rather one is a student of Foucault, Derrida, de Saussure, or literary theory in general this book is an invaluable guide to the basics of these complex collection of ideas.
In this work Culler expands upon the importance of literature and by extension the close study of it as he recognizes the interconnectivty implicit between individual life and the literature that is produced as an attempt to explain its meaning. In Culler's view literature and the study of same is every bit as important as the study of history and religion as all aim to promulgate a "true" narrative of human experience, which some do better than others. Literary Theory, if for no other reason, is an important resource simply because it brings this idea to the fore and urges the reader into a more open and receptive posture in relation to the "reading" of any meaningful text, be it a novel, a symphony, a ballet, a painting or even a newspaper, which can only lead to a more infused understanding of the purpose of art and humanities necessary relation to it.
Reading this slim volume will save you hours of struggle with the difficult texts and ideas, that this book is definitely not meant to replace, but only supplement, rather it be Foucault's "History of Sexuality" and "Discipline and Punish"; Derrida's notion of "play" and deconstruction, de Saussure's "la parole" or the diverse body of work that first found its inspiration in these ideas, which are essential to understanding the raging debates in academia today.
on February 9, 2002
This is an excellent text for students new to literary theory, but even the more experienced readers should be delighted by it. Rather than simply making an historical tour through various schools of thought, Culler relegates that to a useful appendix and instead focuses on key questions and concepts, beginning with 'What is Theory?' and 'What is Literature?' - two very good questions which are too rarely asked. He then explores various focuses of literary studies, such as meaning, poetics, narrative and identity. Culler's great skill here is to summarize without simplifying; to make refreshingly plain what other writers seem to delight in rendering obscure. (His cogent analysis of the intersection between literature and cultural studies in Chapter 3 is the clearest and most insightful I've ever read.) Intelligently structured, full of useful examples, and often employing a wryly humorous tone, Culler makes literary theory interesting, inspiring and above all accessible - something any student will undoubtedly appreciate.
on September 27, 2001
Let me just start off by saying that Professor Culler's "Very Short Introduction to Theory" should be read by every undergraduate English Lit student as they start their major, and reread by every English Lit grad student as they start graduate school.
I myself never used or thought about theory as an undergraduate, and when I started my Masters program at Notre Dame a couple of years ago, I was terrified and repulsed by the barrage of, as Culler puts it, "foreign names" and odd sounding approaches like Deconstruction and Post-Colonialism. Now starting my Ph.D. program at Northwestern, I have some appreciation for theory and its usefulness, but not until I read Culler's book was I at all really comfortable or at ease with it.
Culler chooses not to launch into explications of the various approaches (Marxism, Feminism, et al) or their hybridizations (Marxist-Feminist, among others), although there are very succint statements dealing with each, both along the way, and in the appendix. Instead, he discusses, in very basic and understandable terms, the issues that 'theory' is concerned with; to wit, 'literature,' 'culture,' 'language,' and 'identity,' primarily. He uses examples that pretty much anyone can understand, filtering in, from time to time, foundational concepts of theorists like Saussure, Derrida, Foucault, and others.
Perhaps the best thing about "Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction" is the language that Culler himself uses. In conversational, even colloquial prose, and using very simple kinds of examples, Culler manages to demystify a normally forbidding subject matter. By taking this kind of approach, theory becomes something useful and engaging.
One possible limitation of this book is that with all the discussion of 'subject' and 'identity,' there is virtually no discussion of the 'other.' While Culler does address this topic by way of queer theory, feminism, and briefly, post-colonialism toward the end of the work itself, the concepts of the 'other' and 'othering' are not introduced as such, which I think would be useful.
Overall, though, this is a fantastic book, and a must-read for students of literature - and I think I've only said that about one other book I've reviewed on Amazon - that being Aristotle's "Poetics." No disrespect intended to Northwestern or their theory specialists, but if I had known that Professor Culler was so good at explaining such usually high-flown concepts, I probably would've gone to Cornell.
on June 10, 2001
Professor Culler brings a very complicated subject to life in this brief introduction. He explains the approaches to the subject while keeping the personalities, that make it difficult to comprehend, at a safe distance to the novice.
on April 22, 2001
This very short introduction to literary theory would be perfect for undergraduate studies. Although the author approaches the problem of too much theory causing fear in literature classes, I would have to say that my experience in college was that there wasn't enough theory taught in both lower and higher level literature courses. Aside from, theory must be taught in an approachable manner, and I believe that the author's approach could very well be useful to instructors as well as learners. Although it is far from comprehensive, it is a very well written and an insightful introduction to literary theory.