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Review: Literary Theory: A Complete Introduction

Literary Theory: A Complete Introduction by Sara Upstone

Title: Literary Theory:  A Complete Introduction
Author: Sara Upstone
Published: 2017
ISBN: 9781473611924
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Twitter: @SaraUpstone
Publisher’s Blurb:  Literary theory has now become integral to how we produce literary criticism. When critics write about a text, they no longer think just about the biographical or historical contexts of the work, but also about the different approaches that literary theory offers. By making use of these, they create new interpretations of the text that would not otherwise be possible. In your own reading and writing, literary theory fosters new avenues into the text. It allows you to make informed comments about the language and form of literature, but also about the core themes – concepts such as gender, sexuality, the self, race, and class – which a text might explore.

“… criticism, then, is where we find the interpretation of literature.  Theory, in contrast, is where we find the tools to facilitate that interpretation.”  (p. xii)

This little book is packed with literary theory goodness.  In 260 pages, Sara Upstone covers 19 different schools of theory.  And while I don’t always agree with her assessments, or placement of movements within theories, Upstone’s overview is a great place for anyone to start learning about Literary Theory.

Having this at my fingertips has helped me figure out how Modernism and/or Post Modernism might apply to N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, an exercise assigned by my mentor.  If Modernism is trying to make sense of the chaotic changes in a book, then The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate offer a lot to be interpreted through that lens.  People of the Stillness must make sense of their new world as the rift and the coming of a Fifth Season wreak havoc.

Further, if Post Modernism is the questioning of reality itself, The Broken Earth Trilogy again offers an opportunity for that interpretation.  Is Alabaster turning into a Stone Eater a reality?  How it it possible he was taken into the middle of the planet by a Stone Eater and lived to come out the other side?

Mind you, these are just notions I’m playing with as I explore what both Modernism and Post Modernism mean to a critical reviewer and whatever book she happens to be reading.

My biggest quibbles with Literary Theory:  A Complete Guide have to do with the dates used to place each school in a context.  I will grant that cultural anchors must exist in order for events to have a context within the greater stories.  However, as a person with a background in history, I also know that dates aren’t hard and fast.  World War I may be marked as beginning the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, but that’s not really what started it all.

I mention this only because I want to caution readers not to get stuck on the dates Upstone uses as absolutes.  Surrealism, sequestered in the Modernism school of theory, had its precursors in authors like Arthur Rimbaud and André Breton.

And while I’m at it, if anything, Surrealism belongs with Post Modernism if we are to take the definition of Post Modernism at face value.

But, those are of little import when it comes to the actual information contained within this small volume.  It’s best to consider the essence of the overviews of each school of theory.  And by all means, we should give consideration to our own thoughts about what we’re reading.

Sara Upstone’s Literary Theory:  A Complete Introduction has earned itself a permanent place on my reference shelf.  If, that is, I can ever get it to leave my desk.

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