Robert Dale Parker, How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies

How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural StudiesHow to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies by Robert Dale Parker

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
• structuralism
• deconstruction
• psychoanalysis
• feminism
• queer theory
• Marxism
• 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.



  1. “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 hundred years.”

    Given the current state of affairs, I wonder if Heart of Darkness, were it first published today, wouldn’t be treated as just Avatar or any cultural product now is: it’s heralded by all the cultural establishment (or not at all), and two weeks later it’s already old news. Culminating in the kind of situation where anything still remembered a few years later is regarded as a classic, for instance a 2014 “Cracked” article which has a film as recent as “The Dark Knight” at the top of a list of “5 Classic Movies You Didn’t Notice Were Completely Insane”.

    This era has become so enamored of novelty, and simultaneously so cynical about the worth of this cultural production, that I doubt anything is considered of lasting importance. Including intellectual history, if a work about it is already considered incomplete for having stopped 15 years ago. (Literary theory isn’t my area of expertise by a long shot, but I doubt we’ve seen the last developments of the post 9/11 era yet, so I appreciate the author’s prudence in this regard.)

    Oh, by the way, are you considering writing something about Trump and “Trumpism”? There’s so much of that f-word flying around nowadays that, well, I’d love to read your take on that.

    • I agree with your sense of how Heart of Darkness would be treated now, but if there is a future for a work of comparable quality to speak to, it will speak to it. (Surely the present can’t last forever.) I think the test of time is a real and legitimate test; it’s better not to waste people’s time with ephemera if you can help it.

      The professor’s prudence is one thing, but not to mention the developments at all seems a step too far. I suspect, to put my position more bluntly, that he is rather embarrassed by what I would call a right-ward shift in English departments after 9/11. “Right-ward” only by English department standards, but still—a return in some quarters to Arnoldian liberalism, a renewed scientism, an avowedly Eurocentric Marxism. Even the much-touted digital humanities seems in practice to be a return to textual criticism, as far as I can tell. Surely the center of leftism on campuses today is in the social sciences more than the humanities. (This is just an impression, I must admit; I am not a social scientist, so I haven’t conducted a study or anything!)

      I can’t see any benefit, for myself or for the world, to my writing at length about contemporary electoral politics. In lieu of writing directly about the subject, let me tell you an anecdote that I believe to be representative of the current situation:

      I am typing this in a cafe. One table over a ferocious argument took place earlier between an old European guy (Italian, I think) and two Americans, possibly mother and son. The old Italian was arguing for a strong central government to rein in the corporations and the finance sector; the Americans were arguing—if I followed this correctly—for a luring back of American manufacturers by the deregulation of industry, internally, with a concomitant repeal (?) of free trade agreements. (FoxConn suicide nets in Minneapolis?)

      Now I ask you—the old Italian guy, was he a fan of Bernie Sanders, or some European socialist party? Not at all; he wouldn’t stop singing the praises of Marine Le Pen. The two Americans? Vociferous Trump supporters, of course; the old lady said, “Trump is not a buffoon, he has only been portrayed as a buffoon.” The Italian Le Pen lover warned of “Nazi murderers;” the young libertarian guy said of the Nazis, “They were murderers, but they did some things well.” The two Americans said they were Obama voters in the past.

      These are well-spoken, well-educated, middle-class people; this is a relatively hip urban cafe in one of America’s most liberal cities. This is the state of things now. Smugly telling these cafe-goers to vote for neocon Hillary or the continued reign of the EU, because of “the right side of history” or “who we are” or whatever other meaningless Tweets the twits of the media/political class emit, is going to have no effect whatever. These people were furious, you should have heard them. Their fury will have to be answered by something, I am afraid.

      As for the f-word, the left and right dealt it out to every single one of their enemies over the last 50 years and more; it is inflated currency, without value. Our ability to describe the situation grows weaker as the situation grows more and more serious.

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