How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton

How to Read Literature

‘Good poems and novels are those that transcend their age and speak meaningfully to us all. They deal in permanent, imperishable features of human existence – in joy, suffering, grief, death and sexual passion, rather than in the local and incidental.’

Literary criticism: where philosophy and psychology meet.

Speaking of philosophy, this very much reminded me of my Philosophy of Art and Literature module at university, which is not to say that this can’t be read by a novice or a teenager studying for GCSE or A Level English literature – I’ve studied both. It’s accessible enough to be useful to these groups, the first chapter especially as it covers how to go about analysing the opening passages of certain well-known classics, some of which are required reading for those precise qualifications e.g. Macbeth.

A few months ago I was deciding which literary theory and criticism books I wanted to read and Terry Eagleton was firmly on my list as a former professor of English literarture at the University of Oxford, though as they’re quite expensive I’ve yet to acquire them. Then, I spotted How to Read Literature on Netgalley and immediately requested it.

From the title and synopsis I inferred that this would be an introduction to the subject for beginners, and it is, though it only mentions a few schools of literary theory and movements in passing when I would’ve preferred a structured but brief accounting of their main principles. As Eagleton sacrifices breadth for depth he loses the opportunity to give the reader a more comprehensive educational foundation from which to work. And although the depths reached are appreciated, overly numerous examples throughout were not. There comes a point when you’re flogging a dead horse. I understand the need to find a passage the reader can connect with and learn from but boring them to death while making the same point again and again isn’t a desired situation. Sufficed to say, I skimmed.

(As a side note, I should add: if you haven’t read many classics, be prepared to be spoiled. Ending after ending is revealed.)

Eagleton’s writing style is sometimes readable and sometimes difficult and dense – when I wished he’d been more direct and concise – and even contains the occasional superfluous digression. I longed for a more definitive structure with stricter boundaries so I wouldn’t miss the important literary terms and movements casually dropped into the conversation with the reader.

Despite the author’s detached commentary, hiding behind ‘some theorists believe’ instead of owning an opinion, personal biases and judgements are apparent. For instance, from Eagleton’s oddly contradictory discourse on vampires, I then infer that he isn’t a fan of the postmodern fascination with them in literature and abruptly dismisses their influence. I also assume he has a disliking of radical feminists to make an out-of-the-blue and unwarranted comment on their orifices. Bible fans won’t be happy either, and almost insults hardcore fans of fiction in general, saving himself at the last second.

‘Like a baby, it is detached from its author as soon as it enters the world. All literary works are orphaned at birth. Rather as our parents do not continue to govern our lives as we grow up, so the poet cannot determine the situations in which his or her work will be read, or what sense we are likely to make of it.’

To use ‘baby’, that exact word, makes me wonder how many not-so-professional author reactions to a negative review (from him as a literary critic or someone else) Eagleton has witnessed, because equating the relationship a book has with its author to a baby is a favourite line of those who are unable to gracefully accept criticism of their work.

In view of this, he’s rather too charitable regarding the possible mistakes made by authors, their ignorance or failure to do their research. This is a pet peeve of mine and it’s hard to believe that a critic would rather give the benefit of the doubt, believing ‘the distortion is deliberate’ than point out the errors. Unless I’m reading a dystopia or have an author’s note explaining why they’ve distorted facts, then I’m going to think the worst.

Indirectly, Eagleton explains why so many young adult authors use orphans – or near enough i.e. unsupervised children and teens – as their main characters because they’re easier to write about since they’re free of ‘the complex web of kinsfolk’ and there’s ‘less history to hamper them.’ That absence of parental relationships releases the author to allow their characters the freedom to do what they like – a get out of jail free card, if you will, making for a simpler writing experience.

How to Read Literature is broken down into five chapters:

Where we learn to dissect and assess the opening passages of various well-known classics.

Focuses on two types of characters – the standard and the eccentric, and the value we place on them.

Explaining the difference between plot and narrative, omniscient and unreliable narrators.

How interpretation and meaning is based on the experiences, culture and time period of the interpreter and the work they’re examining, and that no one interpretation is right or wrong. An author’s intention can be different to a reader’s interpretation. Baa Baa Black Sheep is used as a humorous example.

The most structured and succinct chapter, which also happens to be my favourite, successfully drawing the book to its conclusion by noting how, when and why we value good (and bad) literature.

Good literature can be: complex or poignantly simplistic, coherent or fragmented, profound or not e.g. Oscar Wilde, possess a substantial or thin plot.

Just some of the aspects under the microscope of literary criticism:

Micro aspects
character names
rhythm & rhyme
grammar & syntax
emotional attitudes
paradoxes, discrepencies, contradictions, contrasts, connections, parallels
unspoken implications
tone changes
quality of writing e.g. sombre, colloquial, terse, jaded, theatrical, ironic, abrasive, sensuous

Macro aspects

Unfortunately my ARC didn’t contain a bibliography, notes, further reading, a glossary or an index. Hopefully, the finished edition will include some or all of these sections.

In spite of my less than glowing criticism, I enjoyed the pertinent and astute observations made by an obviously accomplished and well-versed expert. How to Read Literature is a good introduction for newcomers to the subject and I would recommend it as such.

*My thanks to Yale University Press and Netgalley for providing me with the ARC in return for an honest review.

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