Several books have been published attempting to both quantify and elucidate the complex nature of literary theory. These include Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory: An Introduction, Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford’s Literary Theory and Criticism and most recently Clare Connor’s Literary Theory: A Beginner’s Guide. While I have not delved into Connor’s addition to the field, I have looked into the afore-mentioned texts. Eagleton’s is good, but despite new editions, his strong socialist views leak into the narrative, not to mention the work is not fully comprehensive. Culler’s is quotable quality, but as stated, is short; it lacks the depth of its peers’ and is best as a guide. Oxford’s is a great reference, but with its formal, distant language, there is little of anything practical to help the reader understand how the theories are applied. Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory, however, is the theory and practice of literary criticism with a comprehensive look at the expansion of literary theory, from the end of the 19th century until present day. Along with an extensive bibliography and index, Barry also includes additional reading for each subsection, making it a reference book worthwhile for students and scholars alike.
Beginning Theory now in its third edition (2009), Barry has taken the time to bring the reference book, originally published in 1995, into the 21st century. Beginning with an outline of literary criticism pre-20th century (so-called liberal humanism), Barry thereafter analyzes and discusses structuralism, post-structuralism (deconstructionism), postmodernism, psychoanalysis, Marxist theory, feminist theory, lesbian/gay criticism, eco-criticism, new historicism/cultural materialism, post-colonialism, narratology, stylistics, presentism, transversal poetics, new aestheticism, historical formalism, and cognitive poetics. There is also discussion on theories currently under development in the literary community, as well a look at ten important events that have helped shape literary criticism.
Throughout the book, Barry does his best to maintain distance from the theories. As objective as possible, he tries to allow the spirit of each to speak for itself. But that he also applies the various theories to sample texts is what sets Beginning Theory apart. A short story by Poe (supplied in the appendix) is used to contextualize the differing viewpoints of theory, poetry by Dylan Thomas and William Cowper on other occasions. This variety of example analyses is what sets the book apart. For those who need examples to make sense of what is otherwise formal discussion, the application of theory makes a huge difference. If readers still have trouble, the helpful summaries at the end of each section provide not only useful questions to be asked when evaluating a piece (called “Stop and Think”), but also a list of selected reading that provides more detailed material on the given subject.
This review would be amiss were it not to mention Barry’s clarity of voice. Each theory and example are described in lucid, flowing text that is both a pleasure to read and readily understandable. Contrasting the often confusing nature of the theories themselves, it is impossible for readers not to walk away without a better understanding of a particular theory. Rather than style of explanation, the only complaints readers may have would be of Barry’s angle on the theories, themselves.
In the end, Beginning Theory is the most comprehensive look at the subject of literary theory available in print (save the possibility of Connor’s recent addition, which I have not read). Every pertinent literary theory of the past 100 years is articulated in easy to understand language that transcends the complex, often misunderstood nature of literary criticism. The sample analyses that accompany each theory cements the reader’s understanding in a fashion theory alone cannot, helping to guide the uninitiated through the first steps of textual analysis. Because each section has a strong “selected reading” list, the book also becomes a great reference for students and scholars alike. Highly recommended for anyone interested in literary and cultural theory, as well as owning a handy and useful shelf reference that does not get bogged down in semantics.