My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is a primer for undergraduates on the major schools of modern literary theory. Parker cleverly arranges his survey of theoretical schools according to the chronological order of their impact in American English departments, as follows:
• New Criticism
• queer theory
• New Historicism and cultural studies
• postcolonial and race studies
• reader-response theory
• disability studies and eco-criticism
Parker is very good at introducing these theories’ inner logic, and he also explains difficult concepts in plain language without detracting from their actual complexity. He is disarmingly frank, explaining to readers why most of the theories studied will be secular and leftist, but also fair and judicious. He goes out of his way, for instance, not to repeat the usual myths about New Criticism that provided two generations of poststructuralists with simplistic straw-man arguments, and yet he also brings the needed political critique to New Criticism as well. His examples of how to “apply” the various critical schools to individual texts are clearly explained, and his classroom anecdotes make the work of interpretation feel situated and even dramatic.
Now for some complaints. I do find Parker’s prose style condescending. He has the wry tone of a middle-school teacher trying to cajole the class into settling down, except for those moments when his voice lowers and he imparts a serious lesson—in this book, almost always a lesson in the language and affect of identity politics. These lessons tend to make the various critical theories seem much less radical than they in fact are, such as his claim that feminism means nothing less or more than “taking women seriously and respectfully.” Most feminist literary theory, however, is about abolishing the patriarchy, considered as an exploitative class relation upheld by material structures. Parker never quite puts things so bluntly, for fear, I suppose, of scaring away the students. I completely understand that fear, but, still, the students should not be misled. Reading this book makes one understand how what is called political correctness is not only not a form of radicalism, but a de-radicalizing. Sometimes, Parker is so conciliatory to all parties that he almost strikes the tone of one making a speech to the U.N. or some such body:
Indeed, French feminism, Anglo-American feminism, and the rest of the world’s feminism have long since moved beyond that unfortunate binary opposition that has for some years seemed to oversimplify feminism into French feminism versus Anglo-American feminism, when actually, of course, feminists of all stripes learn from each other, and feminist thinkers come from every race and class and from all over the world.
I admire this evident desire to teach the world to sing, but all I can say is, “Tell it to Twitter!”
Parker also makes extensive use of pop culture to illustrate theoretical concepts. These are no doubt meant as a concession to the democracy of popular entertainment, but are they really all that democratic? For better or worse, high school and college curricula have developed a modified and diversified “canon” of Anglophone works, running, more or less, from Beowulf to Beloved, with a few non-Anglophone additions (e.g., Homer and the Russian novelists). In my experience, English majors are familiar with this canon, whereas not all of them are familiar with science fiction films or rap music or detective stories or “bromantic” comedies. Popular culture, despite its presumptuous label, addresses itself more to niche markets than to the populace at large. For this reason, I think—perhaps unfashionably—that Heart of Darkness belongs in the place occupied in this book by Avatar, namely, as an exemplum of the colonial text. Unless I am mistaken, Avatar was greeted as epochal upon its release, and is not much mentioned now except as a punchline, whereas it seems as if we will be arguing over whether or not Conrad was a bloody racist for at least another century,
Finally, once this book gets to political and identitarian critique in Chapter 6, it never leaves it. You would not know from this book about the changes in literary theory in the last 15 to 20 years, and I wonder if Parker does not mention them precisely because they call much of the previous politicized (and identity politicized) critique into question. There is no mention in this book of Deleuze and affect theory, of neuroscientific or evolutionary approaches to criticism, of various new materialisms (feminist, queer, and otherwise) focusing more on bodies than texts, of new formalism and new aestheticism, of new (philosophical) realisms and object-oriented theories, of post-secularism, or even really of the revivified and belligerently universalist Marxism of which Slavoj Žižek was and is the figurehead. This book ends, intellectually, in about the year 2000, which necessarily makes it somewhat incomplete.
Nevertheless, Parker’s genial tone and clear explanations of such recondite ideas as those of Saussure, Derrida, Lacan, Sedgwick, Spivak and others, and such complicated concepts as the waves of feminism or the homosocial continuum, make How to Interpret Literature ideal for introductory courses in criticism and theory.