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 25 Must Read Literary Theory Books

  1.  The death of the author by Roland barthes—Barthes begins ‘The Death of the Author’ with an example, taken from the novel Sarrasine by the French novelist Honore de Balzac. Quoting a passage from the novel, Barthes asks us who ‘speaks’ those words: the hero of the novel, or Balzac himself? If it is Balzac, is he speaking personally or on behalf of all humanity?
  2. Barthes’ point is that we cannot know. Writing, he boldly proclaims, is ‘the destruction of every voice’. Far from being a positive or creative force, writing is, in fact, a negative, a void, where we cannot know with any certainty who is speaking or writing.
  3. Is there a text in this class? By Stanley fish–In this book, he undertakes a profound reexamination of some of criticism’s most basic assumptions. He penetrates to the core of the modern debate about interpretation, explodes numerous misleading formulations, and offers a stunning proposal for a new way of thinking about the way we read.
  4. Fish begins by examining the relation between a reader and a text, arguing against the formalist belief that the text alone is the basic, knowable, neutral, and unchanging component of literary experience. But in arguing for the right of the reader to interpret and in effect create the literary work, he skillfully avoids the old trap of subjectivity. To claim that each reader essentially participates in the making of a poem or novel is not, he shows, an invitation to unchecked subjectivity and to the endless proliferation of competing interpretations. For each reader approaches a literary work not as an isolated individual but as part of a community of readers. “Indeed,” he writes, “it is interpretive communities, rather than either the text or reader, that produce meanings.”
  5. The book is developmental, not static. Fish at all times reveals the evolutionary aspect of his work—the manner in which he has assumed new positions, altered them, and then moved on. Previously published essays are introduced by headnotes which relate them to the central notion of interpretive communities as it emerges in the final chapters. In the course of refining his theory, Fish includes rather than excludes the thinking of other critics and shows how often they agree with him, even when he and they may appear to be most dramatically at odds. Engaging, lucid, provocative, this book will immediately find its place among the seminal works of modern literary criticism.
  6. Reading capital by Louis althusser—The philosopher Louis Althusser and his co-authors — the philosopher Étienne Balibar, the sociologist Roger Establet, the philosopher Jacques Rancière, and the critic Pierre Macherey — discuss Karl Marx’s Das Kapital (1867–1883) and subjects such as the labor theory of value, dialectical materialism, and historical materialism. Rancière notes that his contribution builds on Althusser’s For Marx (1965).
  7. Can the subaltern speak? By Gaytri chakravorti spivak—
  8. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s original essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” transformed the analysis of colonialism through an eloquent and uncompromising argument that affirmed the contemporary relevance of Marxism while using deconstructionist methods to explore the international division of labor and capitalism’s “worlding” of the world. Spivak’s essay hones in on the historical and ideological factors that obstruct the possibility of being heard for those who inhabit the periphery. It is a probing interrogation of what it means to have political subjectivity, to be able to access the state, and to suffer the burden of difference in a capitalist system that promises equality yet withholds it at every turn.
  9. Prison notebooks by Antonio gramsci— Prison Notebooks is the only complete critical edition of Antonio Gramsci’s seminal writings in English. The notebooks’ integral text gives readers direct access not only to Gramsci’s influential ideas but also to the intellectual workshop where those ideas were forged. Extensive notes guide readers through Gramsci’s extraordinary series of reflections on an encyclopedic range of topics. Volume 1 opens with an introduction to Gramsci’s project, describing the circumstances surrounding the composition of his notebooks and examining his method of inquiry and critical analysis. It is accompanied by a detailed chronology of the author’s life. An unparalleled translation of notebooks 1 and 2 follows, which laid the foundations for Gramsci’s later writings. Most intriguing are his earliest formulations of the concepts of hegemony, civil society, and passive revolution. Cultural hegemony term is coined by Gramsci.
  10. Das kapital by karl marx—Das Kapital,  one of the major works of the 19th-century economist and philosopher Karl Marx in which he expounded his theory of the capitalist system, its dynamism, and its tendencies toward self-destruction. He described his purpose as to lay bare “the economic law of motion of modern society.” The first volume was published in Berlin in 1867; the second and third volumes, edited by his collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820–95), were published posthumously in 1885 and 1894, respectively.
  11. The dialogic imagination by mikhail bakhtin— Bakhtin has coined terms like Discourse,heteroglotia,monologism,dialogism which he postulated that, rather than being static, language evolves dynamically and is affected by and affects the culture that produces and uses it
  12. The location of culture by homi k bhabha– Bhabha is famous for his term hybrid in post colonial literature.In The Location of Culture, he uses concepts such as mimicry, interstice, hybridity, and liminality to argue that cultural production is always most productive where it is most ambivalent. Speaking in a voice that combines intellectual ease with the belief that theory itself can contribute to practical political change, Bhabha has become one of the leading post-colonial theorists of this era.
  13. Discipline and punish by michel foucault–Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (French: Surveiller et punir : Naissance de la prison) is a 1975 book by French philosopher Michel Foucault. It is an analysis of the social and theoretical mechanisms behind the changes that occurred in Western penal systems during the modern age based on historical documents from France. Foucault argues that prison did not become the principal form of punishment just because of the humanitarian concerns of reformists. He traces the cultural shifts that led to the predominance of prison via the body and power. Prison is used by the “disciplines” – new technological powers that can also be found, according to Foucault, in places such as schools, hospitals, and military barracks.
  14. Encoding decoding in television discourse by Stuart Hall—Hall discusses the role of encoding and decoding from the vantage point of television production. He discusses the process of television production as a series of codes and signs that are constructed in order to relay specific messages. He also discusses the role that television production plays in encouraging a “preferred meaning or reading,” and he also discusses the issue of misreading signs. Hall ends by discussing three types of codes and how they affect the viewer’s connotative meaning. The codes are: dominant or hegemonic, professional, and negotiated.
  15. Orientalism by edward said—In Orientalism, Said examines Western representations (fiction and nonfiction) of the Middle Eastern societies and cultures. The book won him universal recognition for innovative and provocative explorations of the interrelationship between texts—literary and otherwise. Said examines these works with reference to the social, political, and economic contexts from which they emerged.
  16. New criticism by J C ransom—The seminal manifestos of the New Criticism was proclaimed by John Crowe Ransom  who published a series of essays entitled The New Criticism (1941) and an influential essay, “Criticism, Inc.,” published in The World’s Body (1938). This essay succinctly expresses a core of New Critical principles underlying the practice of most “New Critics,” whose views often differed in other respects. As Ransom acknowledges, his essay is motivated by the desire to make literary criticism “more scientific, or precise and systematic”; it must, says Ransom, become a “serious business.”He urges that the emphasis of criticism must move from historical scholarship to aesthetic appreciation and understanding. Ransom characterizes both the conservative New Humanism and left-wing criticism as focusing on morality rather than aesthetics. While he accepts the value of historical and biographical information, Ransom insists that these are not ends in themselves but instrumental to the real aim of criticism, which is “to define and enjoy the aesthetic or characteristic values of literature”.
  17. Practical criticism by I A richards— in this book i.a.richards came up with the idea of close reading of the text itself,where the biographical details of tge writer were least considered. He believes that the moment a critic dwells in the details of the writer ,the text dies.
  18. The great tradition by F.R.leavis— an uncompromising critical and polemical survey of English fiction, controversially begins thus: “The great English novelists are Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad!” He regards these writers as the best because they not only “change the possibilities of art for practitioners and readers”, but also promote an “awareness of the possibilities of life.” The book embodies Leavis’ characteristically New Critical austere rejection of styles of fiction that he found lacking in moral intensity – a clear reaction to an age characterized by the ideologies of fascism and communism. The book was well appreciated by George Orwell, though many critics attacked Leavis, for his extremely limited idea of art enhancing vision, especially in that he allows no space for the comic, the grotesque and the carnivalesque.
  19. The second sex by simon de beauvoir—Revolutionary and incendiary, The Second Sex is one of the earliest attempts to confront human history from a feminist perspective. It won de Beauvoir many admirers and just as many detractors. Today, many regard this massive and meticulously researched masterwork as not only as pillar of feminist thought but of twentieth-century philosophy in general.
  20. De Beauvoir’s primary thesis is that men fundamentally oppress women by characterizing them, on every level, as the Other, defined exclusively in opposition to men. Man occupies the role of the self, or subject; woman is the object, the other. He is essential, absolute, and transcendent. She is inessential, incomplete, and mutilated. He extends out into the world to impose his will on it, whereas woman is doomed to immanence, or inwardness. He creates, acts, invents; she waits for him to save her. This distinction is the basis of all de Beauvoir’s later arguments.
  21. Sexual politics by kate millett—It opens with brief exploration of fiction by Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, and Jean Genet. Presenting these as “Incidents of Sexual Politics,” Millett examines how power operates within sexual relationships and builds an argument that the relationship between the sexes is a political issue revolving around the dominance of one group by another. The second chapter makes this argument more explicit, offering an analysis of patriarchal rule in contemporary and historical societies. Millett explores how traditional claims of male dominance as “natural” enforce legitimization, before critiquing this understanding and presenting traditional sex roles and patriarchal authority more broadly as a consequence of cultural conditioning.
  22. A literature of their own: british women novelists from bronte to lessing by Elaine showalter—A concept introduced by Elaine Showalter in Towards a Feminist Poetics gynocriticism refers to a kind of criticism with woman as writer/producer of textual meaning, as against woman as reader (feminist critique). Being concerned with the specificity of women’s writings (gynotexts) and women’s experiences, it focuses on female subjectivity, female language and female literary career, and attempts to construct a female framework for the analysis of literature.
  23. Marxism and literature by Raymond williams—The book discusses the existing body of Marxist literature where in Williams adds his own theory of cultural materialism to the collection. Marxism and Literature was first published in 1977 by Oxford University Press. It has since been republished in various editions. Williams taught drama at the University of Cambridge and is known for his influence within New Left schools of thought.
  24. The making of the english working class by E P thompson—-The book opens in 1792, a critical year in which Thomas Paine published Rights of Man and the French Revolution took a radical turn. Whilst Paine published the first part of Rights of Man in 1791, the second part didn’t appear until early 1792. This guide follows Thompson in using 1792 as the publication date. The book concludes with the Reform Act of 1832, by which time the English working class had been formed.
  25. Thompson’s emphasis on class as a “historical phenomenon” that “happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships” distinguishes his approach from that of empiricists who analyze the past in quantitative terms.
  26. Shakespearean negotiations by stephen greenblatt–Shakespearean Negotiations is a sustained and powerful exemplification of this innovative method, offering a new way of understanding the power of Shakespeare’s achievement and, beyond this, an original analysis of cultural process.
  27. The wretched of the earth by frantz fanon—Fanon presents a discussion of personal and societal mental health, a discussion of how the use of language (vocabulary) is applied to the establishment of imperialist identities, such as colonizer and colonized, to teach and psychologically mold the native and the colonist into their respective roles as slave and master and a discussion of the role of the intellectual in a revolution. Fanon proposes that revolutionaries should seek the help of the lumpenproletariat to provide the force required to effect the expulsion of the colonists. In traditional Marxist theory, the lumpenproletariats are the lowest, most degraded stratum of the proletariat—especially criminals, vagrants and the unemployed—people who lack the class consciousness to participate in the anti-colonial revolution.
  28. Of grammatology by jacques derrida—The book, originating the idea of deconstruction, proposes that throughout continental philosophy, especially as philosophers engaged with linguistic and semiotic ideas, writing has been erroneously considered as derivative from speech, making it a “fall” from the real “full presence” of speech and the independent act of writing.
  29. Tradition and individual talent by T S eliot—Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) is an essay written by poet and literary critic T. S. Eliot. The essay was first published in The Egoist (1919) and later in Eliot’s first book of criticism, “The Sacred Wood” (1920). The essay is also available in Eliot’s “Selected Prose” and “Selected Essays”.
  30. Miss emily and her bibliographors by Allen tate—Tate skewers on the way people were doing literary study before the New Critics came along. Since Tate wrote this little gem back in 1938, of course, the system is totally changed now. But according to Tate, back in his day, the universities were full of professors who were basically studying literary history.
  31. Seven types of ambiguities by william empson—In Seven Types of Ambiguity Empson sought to enhance the reader’s understanding of a poem by isolating the linguistic properties of the text. He suggested that words or references in poems are often ambiguous and, if presented coherently, carry multiple meanings that can enrich the reader’s appreciation of the work.

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