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Julian Wolfreys, Literary Theories: A Reader and G

Natalie Potier and Catriona Mills

The past twenty years have seen the publication of a significant number of texts purporting to offer a guide through the field of literary theory. A brief glance at a number of these anthologies or Readers reveals that one differs quite markedly from another. This is a sign of the complex disagreements concerning literary theory, its significance in the analysis of literature, the methods by which it is taught in the classroom, the categorisation of the various approaches to reading literature, the political implications of different theoretical practices. The reader, who suffers from the embarrassment of choice, may find the most recent, Julian Wolfreys’ Literary Theories: A Reader and Guide, a useful and comprehensive map by which to navigate the field of literary theory.

The title of an anthology of literary criticism is often the first aspect of the text noticed by the browsing reader. The first signal that Literary Theories: A Reader and Guide is perhaps unlike other anthologies of the same material comes from the title. Many anthologies currently available emphasise through their title that their text is merely one way of mapping the field of literary theory, rather than a definitive collection. As a result, library shelves are filled with texts dependant on the indefinite article, such as Rivkin and Ryan’s Literary Theory: An Anthology, David Lodge’s Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader and K.M. Newton’s Theory into Practice: A Reader in Modern Literary Criticism. Although Wolfreys continues this trend, his title indicates a conscious departure from the stance adopted by these earlier editors. The reader is prompted to ask why Wolfreys has chosen to employ the plural `theories’ rather than the more usual singular form of `theory?’ And, is this a radical departure from the concept of theory and its significance in the Humanities today?

The difficult language that is characteristic of the various theoretical approaches used in the critical analysis of literary texts has often evoked apprehension and hostility. Literary theory appears inaccessible and requires much study for any mastery of it yet it is firmly ensconced in most English department courses, this suggesting an acknowledgment of its centrality in the field of literary studies. Wolfreys does not contest literary theory’s importance. Rather, he argues that, for reasons of the difficulty attributed to the disciplines from which literary theory has borrowed (including philosophy, linguistics and psychoanalysis), institutions have sought to `contain’ and `consume’ literary theory.

Theory has become a subject read, studied and discussed mostly within the classrooms and halls of the university. Contained as such, it tends to find less relevance in the analysis of literary texts and more in the theory of its own theory. Courses in literary theory hold two dangers according to Wolfreys: ‘on the one hand, we isolate theory from its engagement with literature’ (6), ‘on the other hand, the other form of theory’s institutionalisation is its absorption into the mainstream’ (7). As a result, theory can be reduced to formulas applied to the study of a text, limiting its ability to generate new and radical thought.

Institutions have been able to `domesticate’ literary theory by placing all the various theoretical practices under one all-encompassing heading. Anthologies are an integral part of this process of homogenisation. Wolfreys resists the notion that there is a single object under which is gathered a range of approaches to reading literary texts. He believes that the term `literary theory’ names ‘a single focal point rather than something composed, constructed and comprised of many aspects or multiple often quite different identities’ (x). Recognising the `separateness’ of those identities, he argues, ensures we comprehend the complex nature of each `object’ and thereby the difference between them. Grouping these identities under one single heading renders their differences invisible and therefore manageable, and he believes that this constitutes a form of control and power over what is acceptable or not to theory and, by extension, to the English literary canon. Wolfreys makes an analogy between the various theoretical approaches or `identities’ in relation to literature and the different identities within the various cultures of the world today. Without the recognition of difference, we are constructing borders that become difficult to cross (9). The demarcation lines between theories are constantly shifting as the theories themselves evolve. Wolfreys takes the work of French theorist Jacques Derrida as an example of the ways in which a theoretical practice such as Deconstruction can and has influenced the development of other theories, in this case Feminism, Queer Theory and Postcolonial discourse. ‘Theories,’ according to Wolfreys, ‘not only cross the borders of an assumed identity in order to demonstrate the unspoken assumptions which serve to articulate that identity in the first place, they also . cross and recross each other’s borders remapping their own boundaries as they go’ (9).

This avowed dislike of a situation where literary theory is `contained’ and limited within an academic environment, and his belief that theory and literature should be intrinsically linked, ensure that Wolfreys’ anthology positions itself actively as a guide to literary theory, rather than as a comprehensive collection. This is not true of all available anthologies, many of which seek to create the illusion that both they and their subject are self-contained objects. This tendency is particularly noticeable when one considers the paratextual structures put in place to help guide the reader through the volume: bibliographies, contents’ pages, indices, introductions and prefaces. Incomplete listings for selected material or bibliographies (that sometimes simply reflect copyright obligations) foster the illusion that the reader will not need to venture outside the confines of the anthology in order to access critical material. Paratextual material can also, however, create the impression of flexibility in an anthology, as with David Lodge’s dual contents page in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. This includes two distinct listings of the anthology’s contents, titled respectively `contents arranged historically’ and `contents arranged thematically,’ thus rendering it easier for the reader lacking a strong background in theory to isolate a specific text as well as drawing attention to the possibility of more than one frame. Although Wolfreys does not follow this model, he does allow his paratextual material to expand the boundaries that cannot help but be drawn within the limited space of an anthology volume. Each section of his text, dealing with a separate theoretical approach, is followed by two separate listings, an `annotated’ and a `supplementary’ bibliography. The annotated bibliographies are brief. That following the section on `Structuralism,’ for example, deals with only five texts from three authors accompanied by notes that provide the editor’s reasons for granting them this seminal status. The supplementary bibliographies, on the other hand, are comprehensive, including not only the authors cited in the main body of the text but a broad variety of other texts in the same critical area. Although even these additions to a text, like the theoretical extracts themselves, are bound to be narrowed by constraints of space, they nevertheless create an awareness in the reader of the breadth of theoretical approaches, and the inability to contain them within the pages of an anthology. A substantial bibliography, encouraging the reader to seek critical material elsewhere and to seek the primary sources themselves, expands the necessarily curtailed boundaries of the anthology. It indicates that, although it is an anthology of primary source material, Wolfreys does not position his text as comprehensive, but rather – as he states in his title – as a `reader and guide.’

The concept
of hybrid theories offers a much more dynamic and creative awareness of the evolution of critical theories, providing disparate voices with numerous opportunities for expression. A methodology that replaces the singular form `theory’ with the plural form is voicing an attempt to free criticism from the constraints of strict categorisation and labelling. Just as the demarcation lines of a theory may alter, so too does an understanding of what those theories may have `crossed and recrossed,’ tell us about the ways in which we may read a literary text.

This is how Wolfrey’s Reader and Guide significantly differs from other anthologies. The focus is returned to the literary text and the potential application of various theoretical approaches is demonstrated in the process of critical analysis. Moyra Haslett, in her introduction to part three of `Marxist Literary Theories’ in the Reader, comprehensively informs the reader of the origins of Marxist theory including the debates and issues that continually add to the development of Marxist literary theories. Importantly, she demonstrates the relevance of such theories to the critical analysis of art and its production, drawing from the theoretical work of Marxist critics Althusser, Macherey, Jameson, Sartre and Lukács, as well as Eagleton and Williams. Haslett’s essay is an example of Wolfreys’ aim to ‘represent a constant commitment on the part of each of the critics represented to addressing the need to re-read the text, to re-evaluate the critical act and what we understand by terms such as `literature’ and `culture” (10). Indeed, if theories become estranged from literature they can become ineffectual and unproductive.

The return to a focus on the literary text is not entirely without precedent among the anthologies and guides to literary theory already available on library shelves. Wolfreys recognises this in his appreciation for the work of K.M. Newton, who introduces a section of the Reader and Guide. Newton’s own collection of essays, Theory into Practice: A Reader in Modern Literary Criticism, is devoted to essays that demonstrate the practical relationship between theory and literature, and as such operates as a companion volume to his earlier and more abstract publication, Twentieth Century Literary Theory. Where David Lodge’s Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader includes an essay by Victor Shklovsky titled `Art as Technique,’ for example, Newton’s selection from the work of the same critic is the essay `The Mystery Novel: Dickens’ Little Dorrit.’ Wolfreys both endorses and reinvents this approach with the publication of a short volume entitled Literary Theories: A Case Study in Critical Performance, prior to the release of his Reader and Guide. The difference between this work and that of Newton, or indeed the similar companion volume produced to accompany Rivkin and Ryan’s Literary Theory: An Anthology (Michael Ryan’s Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction, that offers readings of four texts from various approaches), is that Wolfreys circumvents the question of textual availability and the problems associated with selecting texts familiar to his readers. Critics applying theory to practice seek to avoid these issues by selecting texts with an acknowledged status within a recognised canon, but this does not always ensure familiarity throughout all levels of readership. Wolfreys’ solution is somewhat different, although it has its own limits of a different kind. He and co-editor William Baker publish at the forefront of their volume Richard Jefferies’ eleven-page `Snowed Up: A Mistletoe Story,’ and it is to this text that the theoretical approaches are applied. This has a two-fold result. First, it makes the key text readily available, thus ensuring that the reader is familiar with it before examining the theoretical approaches. Second, each of the texts included in the collection appears to have been commissioned specifically for the volume, with the possible exception of Mark Currie’s poststructuralist reading, on which copyright was taken out in the year prior to publication. By thus soliciting new contributions to these theoretical fields, Wolfreys actively demonstrates his belief that theory is a means of fostering new and even contradictory schools of thought, rather than an easily applicable formula, and that these patterns of thinking – even those, such as Feminism and Marxism – which some editors seek to construct as old-fashioned or out-dated – are dynamic and perpetually self-renewing. This belief is then carried over to Literary Theories: A Reader and Guide, and it is this that makes this volume a dynamic addition to the broad field of theoretical anthologies.

No anthology can comprehensively represent all that has been written and formulated on the subject of literary theory. Nevertheless, Wolfreys has had some success in his aim of encouraging his readers to return to the literary text, exploring critical possibilities through disparate and mutable literary theories.

Natalie Potier and Catriona Mills are postgraduate research students in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland.


Lodge, D. ed. Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. London: Longman, 1988.
Newton, K.M. Theory into Practice: A Reader in Modern Literary Criticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave (Macmillan), 1992.
Rivkin J. and M. Ryan, eds. Literary Theory: An Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.
Ryan, M. Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000.
Wolfreys, J. and W. Baker. Literary Theories: A Case Study in Critical Performance. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996.

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