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How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts Hardcover – 7 Apr 2011

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 205 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (7 April 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199794197
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199794195
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 2 x 16 cm

Product Description


"I consider John Sutherland one of the finest English-speaking critics at work today. His truly encyclopedic knowledge of literature over the centuries is evident throughout this valuable new book, yet he exhibits his learning without pretension; that is, he really uses what he knows deftly. He opens up the world of literary thinking to the uninitiated in a refreshing way that is thoroughly sound without being intimidating. He's also a terrific writer--witty, succinct, and clear. In short, this is a brilliant book." --Jay Parini, author of Promised Land: Thirteen Books That Changed America

"How Literature Works is reader-friendly--the writing is personable, intelligent, and informed without being pedantic--and helpful. John Sutherland clearly has vast learning, but he wears it lightly. Both the large concept and the selection of individual ideas that he covers are quite appealing. The book passes what Seamus Heaney calls the 'jealousy test.' Again and again, I found myself thinking, now why didn't I think of this?" --Thomas C. Foster, author of How to Read Novels Like a Professor

"Superb! You'll never again feel paralyzed over paradigm shifts--in fact, you'll read everything with new enlightenment. Who knew that your beach novel was metafiction!" --Library Journal (Starred Review)

About the Author

John Sutherland, who has been a book columnist for the Guardian and a chair of judges for the Man-Booker prize, is Emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x98383bb8) out of 5 stars 12 reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9748e00c) out of 5 stars Literature: Past and Future 27 April 2011
By Sam Sattler - Published on
Format: Paperback
John Sutherland's "How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts" is a reader-friendly summation of literary theory that few avid readers will be able to resist. Each of Sutherland's concepts is presented in a concise, four-page essay formatted to highlight its main points for the quick reference of readers wanting to review or reinforce their understanding of specific points. Each essay, for instance, opens with a summary/introductory paragraph in bold print and includes a timeline of key dates pertaining to the concept being discussed. Each piece also includes a "boxed" story about, or example of, its subject concept and ends with a clever "condensed idea" summation of its four-pages. As I grew more and more intrigued by Sutherland's ability to summarize four pages of complex thought into just a handful of words, the "condensed ideas" soon became my favorite part of the essays.

The "condensed ideas" are particularly helpful when trying to recall the meaning of some of the book's vaguer literary terminology, but even the explanations for more commonly understood terms can be fun. Examples include:

Hermeneutics - "Reading literature and understanding literature are two different things."
Intentionalism - "What a work of literature means is not always what the author means it to mean."
Translation - "It's impossible - but what option do we have?"
Irony - "The camera may never lie. Literature does. And cleverly."

As the book moves from literature's origins toward its future, the essays are presented in six distinct sections: "Some Basics;" "Machinery: How It Works;" "Literature's Devices;" "New Ideas;" "Word Crimes;" and "Literary Futures." Considering how rapidly everything associated with publishing is changing today, readers will find the "Word Crimes" and "Literary Futures" sections of the book to be particularly interesting.

"Word Crimes" focuses on things like plagiarism, libel, literary lies and ghost-writers. Sutherland is particularly hard (deservedly so) on Herman Rosenblat who, in 2008, published a completely fictitious account of his Holocaust experiences, in effect, placing the authenticity of other Holocaust memoirs in greater doubt for those already disinclined to believe them. Sutherland, in this section, also addresses subjects such as the Tom Clancy and James Patterson "factories" that continue to top the best seller lists despite minimal contributions from the two writers, and the allegation that Dick Francis wrote none of his own novels.

"How Literature Works" finishes, appropriately, with essays on "The e-Book" and "Literary Inundation" (part of the "Literary Futures" section). As Sutherland emphasizes, today's reader is faced with more choice than ever before in the history of the world. But that is not necessarily a good thing. As he puts it, "We are faced with the paradox that our ignorance (with the mass of books necessarily unread by us) is growing faster than our knowledge...not a new problem, but the scale of it is terrifyingly new."

Perhaps it is time for readers to reflect for a moment on the nature of literature itself, precisely what it is that draws them to the printed page every day of their lives. They, and all future readers, because of the sheer volume of new material available to choose from, will find it more difficult than ever before to make wise choices about what they read. Books like How Literature Works will help them make those choices.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9748e060) out of 5 stars This book could be titled "Literary criticism for dummies" 19 Mar. 2014
By Mrs. Micawber - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I borrowed this book from the library but find it so interesting I decided I wanted to own it. I read a chapter a day (4 pages) or part of a chapter. This is not a book I would sit down and read for any extended length of time.

John Sutherland explains the literary concepts in layman's language and with many examples. I am enjoying learning a lot about the aspects of literary criticism.
HASH(0x9748e33c) out of 5 stars Well Written, Excellent Source 25 Sept. 2014
By prsoftball - Published on
Format: Paperback
John Sutherland’s “How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts” is a compilation of 50 literary notions that can be found throughout the world of literature.
Sutherland presents these 50 concepts - both effortless and complicated - in straightforward, easy to comprehend four page summaries arrayed with quotes, examples, and passages from other literary works. Sutherland condenses the 50 concepts into six categories: some basics, machinery, literature’s devices, new ideas, word crimes, and literary futures. Each summary is arranged the same way - bold introduction to the topic followed by the explanation of the topic. Sutherland ends each section with a “condensed idea” that further summarizes each concept in one sentence or less. The presentation of each section is designed to highlight the main points of the subject matter and be a quick reference for future use. Some of the concepts include the following: mimesis, ghostwriting, ownership, imagery, and fanfic.
“How Literature Works” is presented in such a way that makes it an easy to tackle text. The wide variety of concepts covers many types of literature while keeping the reader intrigue. Sutherland uses language that is captivating, not dry and monotone. His speech is more conversational than textual; Sutherland nearly becomes tangible. The layout of the page also gives interest. Because of the quotes and stories, the reader is not looking at pages of straight text. The arrangement of the sections makes this book more reader-friendly. Each concept is given in a short, four page summary, which helps the reader keep concentrated on the subject at hand.
“How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts” is a great tool for readers, writers, students, and anyone who is simply interested in discovering more about literature and how everything comes together. For readers who want to get a look at what is beneath their favorite book, Sutherland gives the road map. Writers are given a source to help define exactly what they are trying to present and even evidence to whom accomplished it in the past. Finally students find a text to aid in analyzing an author’s work and tools to create papers of their own. Sutherland tries to encompass the needs of all readers while staying true to what he needs to convey.
Overall “How Literature Works” is a well-written, well-formatted book that keeps the interest of the reader while presenting important themes and ideas that have been and will forever be infused in the literature we all enjoy.
HASH(0x9748e864) out of 5 stars Good literary terms 20 Jan. 2014
By Susan F. Ehrlich - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book gives simple definitions of literary terms with excellent examples included. Worth the money for students and others. to buy.
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9748e120) out of 5 stars How literary critics work 7 Dec. 2012
By William H. DuBay - Published on
Format: Paperback
This work may be better called, "How Fiction Works: 50 Key Concepts of Literary Criticism."

Like most other literary critics, Sutherland only considers fiction (and maybe some biography) as "literature." Well, what about the Bible, Darwin, and Marx, whom he cites as "our biggest stories?" Aren't they literature? What about his own writings?

Dismissing the genres of non-fiction, Sutherland misses the basic elements of fiction. He barely mentions metaphor, a foundational element of all language. Where are purpose, audience, character, dialog, plot, action, setting, and mood? What about readability, one of the most distinguishing features of fiction? Our most popular novels--including most blockbusters--are written at the 7th-grade level. The reason novels fill so many shelves in the library is that they are not only entertaining, they are the easiest books to read.

Sutherland jokes about the badly-translated directions for assembling IKEA furniture. Like other literary critics, he dismisses or ignores the rich veins of discovery and ingenuity in technical materials, history, comics, cook books, journalism, textbooks, medical, legal, and scientific writing, and the myriad other forms of literature. They are all equally embedded in our culture and all tell us much about it.

When was the last time you saw a review of a really good technical manual? Workaday texts operate on the level of literature as well as instruction, often providing lasting satisfaction and usefulness. Millions benefit from them and millions more would if they were written better.

Aristotle's rhetorical principles of ethos (credibility), logos (knowledge), and pathos (empathy) are manifest in all writing. The same can be said for Cicero's character of the Speaker. Typography, layout, design, and illustration are as much a part of the writing process as are chapters, titles, paragraphs, and organization.

Although Sutherland gives Marx a nod in his discussion of Base/Superstructure, he dismisses any consideration of class. Isn't that what his separation of people into literary and nonliterary types is all about? Anyone who reads is literary. Even high school dropouts read and make daily use of the printed word. Along with racism and sexism, class has a stranglehold on our economic, political, and social life.

While Sutherland provides many satisfying and often brilliant insights into the world of literary criticism, it is still a small literary world indeed.
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