Literary Theory for Beginners (For Beginners)

Klages is not afraid of calling out unwarranted assumptions when she sees them, a practice I wish more writers would adopt.

200 pgs., B&W; 15.95
(W: Mary Klages; A: Frank Reynoso)

I have a real love/hate relationship with literary theory. Of course, as an avid reader as well as a professional writer, I want to understand how literature, and more generally language in all its forms, works. Literary theory should be a useful tool in that endeavor, if only it seemed less like a private club meeting within a fortified castle, surrounded by an impassable moat of jargon fortified by substantial doses of pretension, and equipped with a drawbridge that favors the admission of B.S. artists over those who honestly grapple with questions of meaning. It certainly doesn’t help that the field has been known to reward those who parrot trendy phrases and write as obscurely as possible, so that even experts can be pranked by deliberate nonsense.

And yet I keep coming back for more. Such is the quest that led to my reviewing Literary Theory for Beginners, written by an English professor, Mary Klages, who dedicates it to “all the CU English majors who have taught me Literary Theory.” That’s a promising beginning, and a good indication of what is to come. Literary Theory for Beginners is an eminently readable introduction to the field that presents the key ideas of the major streams of thought within contemporary literary theory, informed by awareness of the social contexts in which the different theories were created. Klages is not afraid of calling out unwarranted assumptions when she sees them, a practice I wish more writers would adopt. Literary theorists are people like the rest of us, after all, not divine soothsayers, so it’s not at all surprising that their theories might embody the beliefs and prejudices of the society in which they live, and reflect their own place within that society.

Klages begins with a chapter on humanist literary theories, which informed most literary study from the Romantic era into the late 20th century; this chapter also includes a bit about what Plato and Aristotle had to say about literature. The central figures in the chapter on structuralism are Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (signifier, signified, and all that) and French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (binary oppositions, reversible and non-reversible time). Subsequent chapters cover deconstruction; psychoanalysis; feminist, gender, and queer theories; ideology and discourse; race and postcolonialism; and postmodernism. Throughout, Klages is assiduous about defining key terms in plain language and supplying common-sense examples that make their meaning clear, so this book provides a good review for those who have already studied the subject as well as those who are new to it.

Illustrations by Frank Reynoso serve a variety of purposes—they break up the text, supply images of key figures and relevant objects, provide visual analogues of points made in the text, and give the author an alternative way to comment on the theorists she discusses. My favorite bits are a mini-comic where she reacts in disbelief to some of Freud’s assumptions, and another involving a formalist critic who gets a bit too involved in interpreting the meaning of “pass the salt.” Humor never goes amiss when discussing a weighty topic, and in Literary Theory for Beginners it Klages employs it skillfully to make serious points.

Mary Klages is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of several books about literary theory; you can see her university homepage here. Frank Reynoso is an author and commercial artist whose previous work includes illustrating Civil Rights for Beginners and contributing to to Occupy Comics and World War 3 Illustrated; you can see some of his work on his homepage. | Sarah Boslaugh

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