What makes a work of literature good or bad? How freely can the reader interpret it? In this accessible, delightfully entertaining book, Terry Eagleton addresses these intriguing questions and a host of others. In a series of brilliant analyses, Eagleton shows how to read with due attention to tone, rhythm, texture, syntax, allusion, ambiguity, and other formal aspects of literary works. He also examines broader questions of character, plot, narrative, the creative imagination, the meaning of fictionality, and the tension between what works of literature say and what they show. Unfailingly authoritative and cheerfully opinionated, the author provides useful commentaries on classicism, Romanticism, modernism, and postmodernism along with spellbinding insights into a huge range of authors, from Shakespeare and J. K. Rowling to Jane Austen and Samuel Beckett.
That’s what the synopsis says. This book is clearly competent – it is written by a well-known literary professor and commentator and generally I love this sort of book. When I’m not reading literature, I’m reading books about literature. So I thought the best way to review it would be to see whether it lives up to its own hype.
I do agree that it helps to answer those initial framing questions with strong examples and intelligent points. I also concur that it was entertaining. I liked the author’s wit and sense of humour, though I feel that his frame of reference might not be universally relatable. I think this reviewer sums it up: ‘I think he’s trying to be funny. I don’t know because his type of humour is not my type of humour. I can see when he’s being funny, and I can imagine people laughing, but my reaction is “…. OK”.’
This brings me to the claim of accessibility. I think for the wholly uninitiated, the vocabulary may be challenging and new terms aren’t always explained. However, it is worth persisting. The analyses are illuminating, giving proper recognition to the formal features of literature. Eagleton’s writing is at its best when he guides the reader through a great range of examples: his talent and passion shine through. He covers a huge amount in a reasonably sized volume from the intricacies of technical aspects to over-arching themes and critical perspectives.
Overall, although I wouldn’t be quiet so enthusiastic with my adjectives, the synopsis does reflect this amusing and thoughtful book. The questions it asks are worth debating and add to the ongoing conversation about how to determine the value of literature.
What does make a work of literature good or bad? What makes a book literature? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments!
Many thanks to NetGalley and Yale University Press for the copy.