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Beginning Theory: An Introduction to…

Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory (1995)

by Peter Barry

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Yipes! What a bunch of squabblers deciding how many angels can dance on the head of a pinhead… ( )
  CSRodgers | Aug 10, 2014 |
Beginning Theory offers the literary studies student a fantastic primer to help navigate the often convoluted and complex domain of literary theory. Barry shows us that theory need not be daunting, and successfully manages to convey difficult concepts in a voice that is consistently conversational, and never dry. I appreciated his occasional interjection of self for the way in which it humanised the text. The book covers all the major theoretical approaches from Structuralism, through Psychoanalytic, Marxist, and feminist criticism, as well as newer areas such as Ecocriticism. Barry weaves the theoretical positions of each, within a historical framework. Since all theory arises out of distinct social, cultural and political processes, the historical backdrop provides an additional anchor for learning.

Although this is marketed as a beginner's guide, the breadth of coverage, and expert condensing of detail, makes it a must for any student of literary or cultural studies. I've revisited it again and again during my Masters, and it's now an invaluable addition to my study shelf. ( )
  ZenMoon | Mar 31, 2013 |
Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction inspired me to seek out other similar books. What I really wanted was a book that would take me up to the 2000 decade. Peter Barry's introduction to theory appealed to me because it was designed for undergraduates. I figure that's about the level I'm at when it comes to the art (science? Pseudo-science?) of interpreting texts. I hoped for clear, straightforward explanations of the different movements that make up modern literary theory, and I was not disappointed. A few examples:

"It is difficult to boil structuralism down to a single 'bottom line' proposition, but if forced to do so I would say that its essence is the belief that things cannot be understood in isolation--they have to be seen in the context of the larger structures they are part of (hence the term 'structuralism')."

"A simple definition of the new historicism is that it is a method based on the parallel reading of literary and non-literary texts, usually of the same historical period. That is to say, new historicism refuses (at least ostensibly) to 'privilege' the literary text: instead of a literary 'foreground' and a historical 'background' it envisages and practices a mode of study in which literary and non-literary texts are given equal weight and constantly inform or interrogate each other."

Now granted, the book is full of brief definitions that simplify things as much as possible. The chapter that discusses postmodernism begins with a brief summary of critical views of modernism as an artistic movement. I feel more familiar with theoretical conceptions of modernism than I do about many of the other schools of literary theory discussed here, and as I read that chapter I ended up thinking that Barry's definition didn't do justice to the complexity of the issue. Modernism could be seen as he defines it, but it can be seen in a lot of other ways too. It's best to take his definitions with a grain of salt, but the same could be said for any definition of any broad concept or school of thought. How do you boil it down to a single sentence, paragraph, or chapter of a book? You're not reading this book to completely understand every school of literary/cultural theory it breaches; you're reading it to broadly understand them all in a chronological context, and also to gain a general understanding of what the theories are, and how they're practiced. He does a great job of showing how theory is practiced too: each chapter shows how these different methods of reading texts are applied to specific poems, short stories and novels. For example, he analyzes a Poe story, "The Oval Portrait," in multiple chapters, which helps to see how the same text can be interpreted in different ways depending on which critical lens you hold up to it.

One of the things I like the most about this book is its structure. It gives you the history you expect, beginning with the creation of English departments in British universities and the early pioneers of the formal analysis of literary texts, and concluding with a chapter on Ecocriticism that was actually more interesting than I expected. Then, though, it presents a history of theory in ten events, ten moments that stand out when looking back from the present. And yes, the first even takes place right here in Bloomington, Indiana. Another is the publication of Eagleton's introduction to literary theory. I thought this part of the book was a fantastic complement to the history given in the first part of the book. It gives you a chance to experience some of the moments of major controversy and disagreement that led to seismic shifts in the practice of literary criticism; the explosions that led to the changes that are documented in the history. The book then closes with a chapter about the current state of the field. Barry gives three branches of study that have risen in the past decade: a Presentism school of reading that contrasts with New Historicism by reading the literary text in parallel with a contemporary text so as to find connections between the world of the text and the world we live in; a New Aestheticism that seeks to remedy the cold, absolutist nature of close readings performed by previous generations of theorists; and a Cognitive Poetics school that seeks to apply theories from the field of cognitive science to the study of texts.

I've found it satisfying to read books about literary theory. I think that sometimes it's easy to have negative feelings about some of the specific schools of theory: why would I want to deconstruct a text? Why should I even think about all these issues, like the effects of colonial structures and class-based economic relations, things that the author probably wasn't even conscious of as he or she wrote the book? The strength of Barry's book (and Eagleton's too) is that they illustrate the strengths and the weaknesses of each method. As one trend follows another, you begin to see all the different ways that you can choose to read a book, and understand why each particular way gained so many impassioned followers. At this point I feel sufficiently introduced to the overall panorama of 20th century reading techniques. Now I plan to move on to more specific books. On the one hand, I'd like to read a few books that summarize the thinking of influential figures like Michel Foucault and Jacques Dérrida. I tried reading a book by Foucault (The Order of Things) over Christmas, and while I thought it was awesome, I was a bit overwhelmed and wanted to have a better understanding of his greater project. I figure that when I understand how that book fits into his life's work, I'll be able to make more sense of it. On the other hand, I'd also like to read some theoretical texts that hold special appeal to me. To begin I've got Tzvetan Todorov's The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. The structuralist project is pretty remarkable and I'd like to see how a genre I enjoy can be viewed from that perspective. ( )
2 vote msjohns615 | Feb 26, 2012 |
Beginning theory has been helping students navigate through the thickets of literary and cultural theory for well over a decade now. This new and expanded third edition continues to offer students and readers the best one-volume introduction to the field.The bewildering variety of approaches, theorists and technical language is lucidly and expertly unravelled. Unlike many books which assume certain positions about the critics and the theories they represent, Peter Barry allows readers to develop their own ideas once first principles and concepts have been grasped.
  RKC-Drama | Mar 24, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0719062683, Paperback)

In this second edition of Beginning Theory, the variety of approaches, theorists, and technical language is lucidly and expertly unraveled and explained, and allows readers to develop their own ideas once first principles have been grasped. Expanded and updated from the original edition first published in 1995, Peter Barry has incorporated all of the recent developments in literary theory, adding two new chapters covering the emergent Eco-criticism and the re-emerging Narratology.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:18 -0400)

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The new edition of 'Beginning Theory' features new chapters which take account of recent developments in literary theory.

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