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4.5 out of 5 stars
4.5 out of 5 stars

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on 3 April 2013
I'm sure I'm going to have owned three copies of this book in a very short space of time. The first copy I gave away to a stranger on the tube after he had been reading it over my shoulder between London Bridge and West Ham - a good read! He nudged me by way of starting a conversation about the book. Giving it to him was not difficult because replacing it would be a financial triviality and also I knew by then that what I was sharing was well worth the act of giving it away. I'll buy a third copy soon - sure I'll be giving away again soon.

The introductory chapter will leave your tongue hanging and if your a budding poststructuralist it will also begin to drip. Culler uses examples from Foucault and Derrida to illustrate how literary theory can be perpendicular to the literature it critiques. It is probably no coincidence that both exemplars are poststructuralist in nature, Culler mentions that they both are but does not dwell on it. Indeed much of the theory presented in the book is poststructural in nature but Culler spares you the details. For most readers this may be fine as the book is about Literary Theory after all.

After a very good introductory chapter the book settles down into covering the basic issues such as what is literature and how would we know it if we saw it. Literary components such a narrative, hermeneutics and poetics are explored and a rather good discussion around structural versus poststructural readings of texts {though of course not presented as such} is carried on under a subheading 'Meaning, intention, and context' {p66}. The differences and the similarities between cultural studies and literary studies is also explored. The book covers the basics well.

The pace though only really does pick back up when poststructuralism is again directly approached towards the end of the book. A good example of this is when Culler illustrates that the apparent constative utterance at a birth of 'Its a boy' can in fact be performative - it is part of the process of constituting that new person according to sex. In another example Culler rehearses that by making the individual the centre, novels '..construct an ideology of individual identity whose neglect of larger social issues critics should question' {p113}. As an added bonus Culler throws something interesting into the agency/discourse cauldron - but why let me spoil it for you?

A gem.
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on 18 July 2017
The Very Short Introductions are a major educational resource. There are presently over 500 small books covering a very wide range of subjects. Although short, the Introductions are substantial in content. Everyone would benefit from reading these books to broaden their knowledge and understanding in diverse areas of life. Perseverance with some subjects may be required but be prepared to be surprised, enlightened and enriched.
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on 27 April 2017
Good value and quick postage. It is, though, a VERY short introduction to literary theory and not of much use in an academic context
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on 30 June 2017
as advertised.
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on 8 July 2005
This is a short, largely jargon-free guide to literary theory, which explores the field not by school of criticism (formalism, post-structuralism, etc.), but rather by theme. This is a good approach, although it arguably leaves the reader with a slightly hazy sense of the particular theoretical contributions of people like Foucault and Barthes. But Culler writes very clearly, and this is a good starting point for exploring this area, although it would perhaps best be used in conjunction with a book like Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory or Raman Selden's Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory.
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VINE VOICEon 22 January 2006
The fact that literary theory is often referred to as just 'theory' should alert the newcomer to its amorphous and unfocused nature. It is no longer concerned just with literature, but with every aspect of culture and experience. It is a theory of theories, a post-modernist stocktaking of the western intellectual tradition.
Culler traces several paths through this boundless philosophical landscape. Seven such paths actually, exploring aspects of language, identity and meaning. These constitute as gentle an introduction as is possible. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a better guide than Culler, with his clear and elegant style and his breadth of knowledge. Although this is not a conventional school-by-school primer, there is a section at the end briefly summarizing the major schools, from Russian Formalism to Queer Theory (yes, you heard right). The author advises that you can read these summaries before, after, or during the main text. I recommend leaving them until after, when they will be a lot more meaningful. Otherwise, they might frighten you off from reading the text itself.
The illustrations consist of a half-dozen or so vaguely relevant cartoons. I suppose, as this series is illustrated, OUP felt obliged to include something, even if the text had no need of it. More positively, this book is blessedly free of the typos that normally bedevil the series.
If you wish to 'dip your toe in the water' of literary theory (and be warned, it is a maelstrom) Culler's book is the perfect place to do it.
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on 30 April 2009
This has been the first book I've read on literary theory, and I've enjoyed it. It explains quite clearly the various questions you should ask yourself when you're facing a text, as well as a reasonably up-to-date status of literary criticism and cultural studies.

Unfortunately, the various currents (marxism, structuralism, new criticism, feminism, etc) are described only in an appendix at the end. This makes it harder to link the currents to the historical contexts in which they appeared and to the literary debates they were mainly involved. In these respects, the title ("A very short introduction ...") is unquestionably appropriate.
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on 5 October 1999
Culler makes the subject of Lit. theory interesting, after generations who had to endure Gavin Ross's laborious essays on criticism this is of welcome relief. A fantastic read and as textbooks go it is stunning.
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on 19 May 2014
When I read the Very Short Introductions (VSIs) they can fall into a few categories. They might be on subjects I know well, where I am seeking a refresher and may wish to critique how well the subject has been communicated (as was the case with Mathematics) or they may be on subjects that I know little to nothing about (as was the case with The Roman Republic). Literary theory falls very firmly in the latter of these two categories.

If someone had asked me beforehand to give either a one line synopsis of what I thought literary theory was about, or write a paragraph or an essay, I would have been wholly unable to do so. I read it because I wanted to find out what it was all about, to continue my daily battle against ignorance by means of self-education. It was also noticeable for the fact that it was one of the very early VSIs to be published, this being number 4 in the series.

As with many VSIs, this is not necessarily a simple introduction. As I started reading it, it dawned on me just how alien literary theory is to me. Indeed, it was, and remains, difficult to define. The author tries to be more general and talks just of "theory" as a subject in itself. Now this is very far removed from either the common notion of theory as conjecture or hypothesis as well as being different from the more scientific view of theory.

Having attempted to define "theory" Culler moves on to the question of "what is literature". Here, the answer, to a non-expert in the field such as me, seems obvious, but wary of a kind of hubris of ignorance, I gave it a go. That said, Culler does seem to unduly pedantic, though the link between literature and language is interesting enough.

There follows a short chapter on the relation between literature and cultural studies. Here, we really get to see that what Culler is doing is presenting topics that are covered by literary theory rather than examining in any depth various schools of thought. There is a list of schools of thought listed in the appendix and these are referred to at various points throughout the text.

Of these topics, probably the most interesting was on 'poetics v hermeneutics'. This serves a gateway to the rest of the book (which rumbles on in a similar tone) about how we read things. For example, if we read Midnight's Children, is it a book about a group of children born at the same time or is it a story about the history of India? A close reading will render the former while a more metaphorical stance will lead to the latter. So if we ask "what is it really about?" then we have no single answer.

One thing that I gained a lot from was a discussion near the start of the book about the wide-ranging nature of literary theory and how it just doesn't seem to end. He puts forward a hypothetical situation where one friend says to another, "how can you claim to know about x if you haven't read y?" when another pipes up, "ah, but you can't possibly consider y without having read the rebuttal by z." And so on. I have, from time to time, been part of such conversations and I frequently find them frustrating.

Similarly, some of the schools of thought seem to indicate the opposite of a close reading, but more of a 'reading through' a text. For example, I recall a discussion with one atheist (I forget who it was, sorry) who said they loved reading the epistles of Paul because they liked to read into them Paul's personal psychology. It was a comment that stayed with me, but which made little to no sense. While I would disagree with their view that Paul's writings are "nothing more" than a way of reconciling his own personal guilt at the murder of Stephen, Culler's work here has allowed me to see why some might think that a legitimate way of reading a text - in other words, by basically ignoring what is being written and imposing upon a text one's own worldview.

So, while I may disagree with many of the views that are elucidated in this work, Culler's own thoughts are well-hidden behind his citation of the thoughts and works of others. So it is really with them that I disagree rather than with Culler. It is not at all the clearest book I've read in the VSI series, but it seems that that may be because of the muddy waters of the subject, rather than any obfuscation on the part of the writer. It's a tough read, but for an outsider to the subject, it is a window to a whole new world.
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on 18 March 2007
This is an enjoyable and very clear introduction to what can often be a rather obscure domain. I can warmly recommend it to anyone who's reading this!
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