In Search of Authority:
An Introductory Giude to Literary Theory

190 pages,
ISBN: 1551110830

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Theory for Beginners
by Damian Tarnopolsky

In Search of Authority is an admirably clear introduction to a confusing and sometimes intimidating subject. Concise and engaging, it stops in at the major sites of twentieth-century theory: historical criticism, new criticism, structuralism, and so forth. This new, second edition also visits such out-of-the-way places as new historicism and post-colonial criticism. The book has a friendly manner and is refreshing in its concern for its readers, be they undergraduates in literary studies (like me) or interested non-specialists. These strengths distinguish the guide from its less helpful and more esoteric rivals but they ultimately sink it: In Search of Authority reads too much like a tourist guide. Its clarity lapses into over-simplification, while its readability becomes a chattiness that gives the author's ideas a weak, soft-headed tinge.
A first flaw is one common to introductory books. Bonnycastle practises neither deconstruction nor Marxist criticism, and he can introduce these and similar fields but do little more. This book opens up difficult areas for outsiders, but the accessibility comes at a price: the author cannot and does not wish to communicate their importance with the force and urgency a believer would bring. This leaves important subjects short-changed, for too many chapters have the unconvinced and uninspiring tone of someone just visiting.
A second problem is more intimately connected with the author's preferences. Bonnycastle frankly admits his bias towards reader-centred criticism. His focus on the significance of the individual's reading experience is initially heartening at a time when many critics seem to deride or ignore it. However, this bias leaves his treatment of such topics as new historicism lacking in weight. It's not enough, for instance, to respond to a new historicist debunking of transcendent texts, by saying, no, some texts are outstanding and transcendent "because they feel that way, and we allow them to take on a special existence" (his italics). This mirrors his general approach, which over-emphasizes the emotions to the point that literary theory becomes just a way of sharing how we feel about books. It seems to me that there can be much more, even if one accepts his starting-point. Theory begins with a felt reaction but should develop languages and methods with which to go beyond it. That is, literary theory ought to find ways of understanding why a phrase, text, or indeed theory could provoke certain feelings, and what, if anything, this might mean, and then go further. To stop at the stage of feeling is to paralyse criticism in childhood.
Literary theory can often appear oblique and not as useful to people as Bonnycastle would like, but to privilege the emotions as much as he does is to turn perilously closely back towards those endless and often futile classroom discussions of "how a story felt" to each student. It is these discussions, I fear, that Bonnycastle finds most interesting.
In Search of Authority is still a very worthwhile basic guide, and as such is all it claims to be. However, one can't help feeling (to use Bonnycastle's word) that a more challenging and rigorous book would have made a more compelling one.

 Damian Tarnopolsky is a student of literature and philosophy at the University of Toronto.


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