The best introductions to literary theory
Most English Literature students will encounter, at some point during their English degree, that strange beast known as ‘literary theory’. Whether it’s postmodernism or poststructuralism, feminism or postcolonialism, Marxism or reader-response theory, ‘literary theory’ (or, sometimes, ‘critical theory’) will rear its imposing head somewhere on the average degree course. Below are five of the most accessible and helpful introductions to studying literary theory.
Peter Barry, Beginning theory (third edition): An introduction to literary and cultural theory (Beginnings). This is a pretty indispensable book for any student of English literature, but is essential reading for anyone studying on a course which has a strong literary or critical theory component. Barry takes each theory in turn, devoting a short chapter to each major theory (Marxism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, psychoanalysis, and so on), introducing the key aspects of the theory and giving some examples of how it applies to the study of literature. It’s also been substantially expanded and updated for its third edition.
Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction. One of the first books to introduce readers to the whole field of literary theory, Eagleton’s book came out in 1983 and paved the way for later books on critical theory. Eagleton adopts a historical approach to the subject, telling the story of the rise of English studies in universities and situating literary theory within a clear historical narrative. Frequently witty and even laugh-out-loud funny, Eagleton is an engaging and provocative guide through the history and development of literary theory as a university subject.
Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. This co-authored book adopts a different approach yet again, introducing the reader to various literary and critical theories through a series of short chapters structured on a thematic rather than theory-by-theory basis. Each chapter is effectively a short essay, considering such subjects or concepts as the author, readers and reading, monuments, animals, ghosts, moving pictures, desire, secrets, pleasure, and many others. What’s good about this approach is that it provides an idea of how an English literature student might write an essay that uses various theories in order to read literary texts: Bennett and Royle are excellent close readers of the poems, novels, and stories which they draw on for their examples. Now in its fourth (expanded) edition.
Mark Fortier, Theory/Theatre: An Introduction. This book is perhaps the best introduction to literary theory that takes drama and theatre as its specific focus. Therefore, Fortier’s examples are taken from a range of dramatic traditions and show how things like poststructuralism and postcolonialism might be used by playwrights and theatre directors in their plays, and how we as readers and performers of dramatic texts might use theory as a way of approaching certain plays, whether Shakespeare or Caryl Churchill.
Clare Connors, Literary Theory: A Beginner’s Guide (Beginner’s Guides). Like Bennett and Royle, Connors uses close readings of literary texts to introduce readers to the key questions that arise from a study of critical theory. What is literature? How does literature reflect such core issues as gender and empire? Connors’ book is one of the most accessible out there, avoiding a formal ‘theory-by-theory’ approach and instead thinking about the wider context – what it means to read and study literature – and how literary theory relates to the experience of studying literature. Very readable, and a great introduction.
Have you got any other recommendations for good introductions to literary theory? We’d love to hear your suggestions. Discover more great books to check out in our selection of the best interesting books about language.