18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 2011
John Sutherland's "How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts" is a reader-friendly summation of literary theory that few avid readers will be able to resist. Each of Sutherland's concepts is presented in a concise, four-page essay formatted to highlight its main points for the quick reference of readers wanting to review or reinforce their understanding of specific points. Each essay, for instance, opens with a summary/introductory paragraph in bold print and includes a timeline of key dates pertaining to the concept being discussed. Each piece also includes a "boxed" story about, or example of, its subject concept and ends with a clever "condensed idea" summation of its four-pages. As I grew more and more intrigued by Sutherland's ability to summarize four pages of complex thought into just a handful of words, the "condensed ideas" soon became my favorite part of the essays.
The "condensed ideas" are particularly helpful when trying to recall the meaning of some of the book's vaguer literary terminology, but even the explanations for more commonly understood terms can be fun. Examples include:
Hermeneutics - "Reading literature and understanding literature are two different things."
Intentionalism - "What a work of literature means is not always what the author means it to mean."
Translation - "It's impossible - but what option do we have?"
Irony - "The camera may never lie. Literature does. And cleverly."
As the book moves from literature's origins toward its future, the essays are presented in six distinct sections: "Some Basics;" "Machinery: How It Works;" "Literature's Devices;" "New Ideas;" "Word Crimes;" and "Literary Futures." Considering how rapidly everything associated with publishing is changing today, readers will find the "Word Crimes" and "Literary Futures" sections of the book to be particularly interesting.
"Word Crimes" focuses on things like plagiarism, libel, literary lies and ghost-writers. Sutherland is particularly hard (deservedly so) on Herman Rosenblat who, in 2008, published a completely fictitious account of his Holocaust experiences, in effect, placing the authenticity of other Holocaust memoirs in greater doubt for those already disinclined to believe them. Sutherland, in this section, also addresses subjects such as the Tom Clancy and James Patterson "factories" that continue to top the best seller lists despite minimal contributions from the two writers, and the allegation that Dick Francis wrote none of his own novels.
"How Literature Works" finishes, appropriately, with essays on "The e-Book" and "Literary Inundation" (part of the "Literary Futures" section). As Sutherland emphasizes, today's reader is faced with more choice than ever before in the history of the world. But that is not necessarily a good thing. As he puts it, "We are faced with the paradox that our ignorance (with the mass of books necessarily unread by us) is growing faster than our knowledge...not a new problem, but the scale of it is terrifyingly new."
Perhaps it is time for readers to reflect for a moment on the nature of literature itself, precisely what it is that draws them to the printed page every day of their lives. They, and all future readers, because of the sheer volume of new material available to choose from, will find it more difficult than ever before to make wise choices about what they read. Books like How Literature Works will help them make those choices.
on September 25, 2014
John Sutherland’s “How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts” is a compilation of 50 literary notions that can be found throughout the world of literature.
Sutherland presents these 50 concepts - both effortless and complicated - in straightforward, easy to comprehend four page summaries arrayed with quotes, examples, and passages from other literary works. Sutherland condenses the 50 concepts into six categories: some basics, machinery, literature’s devices, new ideas, word crimes, and literary futures. Each summary is arranged the same way - bold introduction to the topic followed by the explanation of the topic. Sutherland ends each section with a “condensed idea” that further summarizes each concept in one sentence or less. The presentation of each section is designed to highlight the main points of the subject matter and be a quick reference for future use. Some of the concepts include the following: mimesis, ghostwriting, ownership, imagery, and fanfic.
“How Literature Works” is presented in such a way that makes it an easy to tackle text. The wide variety of concepts covers many types of literature while keeping the reader intrigue. Sutherland uses language that is captivating, not dry and monotone. His speech is more conversational than textual; Sutherland nearly becomes tangible. The layout of the page also gives interest. Because of the quotes and stories, the reader is not looking at pages of straight text. The arrangement of the sections makes this book more reader-friendly. Each concept is given in a short, four page summary, which helps the reader keep concentrated on the subject at hand.
“How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts” is a great tool for readers, writers, students, and anyone who is simply interested in discovering more about literature and how everything comes together. For readers who want to get a look at what is beneath their favorite book, Sutherland gives the road map. Writers are given a source to help define exactly what they are trying to present and even evidence to whom accomplished it in the past. Finally students find a text to aid in analyzing an author’s work and tools to create papers of their own. Sutherland tries to encompass the needs of all readers while staying true to what he needs to convey.
Overall “How Literature Works” is a well-written, well-formatted book that keeps the interest of the reader while presenting important themes and ideas that have been and will forever be infused in the literature we all enjoy.
on September 25, 2014
The book How Literature Works summarizes 50 key concepts everyone should know when studying literature. These concepts can even be useful to writers who want to have a better understanding of all that is put into writing. It shows different criteria that not only authors, but also critics have deemed that literature needs to live up to. Also, we can tend to miss out on original meaning the authors intend because we don’t understand a lot of the concepts that were around in that era. John Sutherland addresses a key point in many of the key concepts’ sections. What makes a book an award winning work? How can we judge other’s works to deem what literature is ‘higher in importance’ than others. When you look up some of these award winning works; you can find reviews saying how boring or unworthy the book is. This illustrates John Sutherland’s main point of this book. Literature should be interpreted by each reader. Everyone is going to find different points and different meaning in each book, so we can’t consider a critic’s opinion wrong.
Those that are planning to read this book need to have a higher understanding of literature, otherwise it may be confusing to those that can’t understand his intricate vernacular. Sutherland attempts to write at a higher level of education, yet leaves the reader needing a dictionary and public database of major literary works on hand at all times. Sutherland bases this
book off of a basic list of literary works that he speculates most readers should have came across in basic high school and college literature. If you do not have a basic understanding of high school and/or college literary works, then this book is not for you. Sutherland does not break the concepts down into terms that are easy to understand for someone who is not an avid reader. He writes to those that will take note of his references, and catch the inferences and witty jokes that he draws from them.
If you’re struggling to discover how to interpret literature, this is the book for you. John Sutherland shows main problems we are faced with from how writing is judged. Based on this, Sutherland uses references to works and different literary concepts to show the do’s and don'ts of literary criticism. He really strives to prove his point on how we must be careful not to dilute the meaning of works by using references to main pieces of literature that everyone has read. This book will also help anyone that is planning on going into a literature field of study. If you want to be a writer, or want to improve your skills of literary criticism, this is a must read. How Literature Works will greatly make an impact on your writing and skills of interpreting work.
on January 21, 2015
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I love John Sutherland's other books, but this book was pretty tough to get through. It's not his fault; the concepts are a tad esoteric in nature to begin with. The pages don't turn easily in that I was lost a bit at times. Having said that, if any book can help one understand the at-times complex tenets of literary theory and criticism, it would be Mr. Sutherland.
on March 19, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I borrowed this book from the library but find it so interesting I decided I wanted to own it. I read a chapter a day (4 pages) or part of a chapter. This is not a book I would sit down and read for any extended length of time.
John Sutherland explains the literary concepts in layman's language and with many examples. I am enjoying learning a lot about the aspects of literary criticism.
on January 20, 2014
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This book gives simple definitions of literary terms with excellent examples included. Worth the money for students and others. to buy.
2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 7, 2012
This work may be better called, "How Fiction Works: 50 Key Concepts of Literary Criticism."
Like most other literary critics, Sutherland only considers fiction (and maybe some biography) as "literature." Well, what about the Bible, Darwin, and Marx, whom he cites as "our biggest stories?" Aren't they literature? What about his own writings?
Dismissing the genres of non-fiction, Sutherland misses the basic elements of fiction. He barely mentions metaphor, a foundational element of all language. Where are purpose, audience, character, dialog, plot, action, setting, and mood? What about readability, one of the most distinguishing features of fiction? Our most popular novels--including most blockbusters--are written at the 7th-grade level. The reason novels fill so many shelves in the library is that they are not only entertaining, they are the easiest books to read.
Sutherland jokes about the badly-translated directions for assembling IKEA furniture. Like other literary critics, he dismisses or ignores the rich veins of discovery and ingenuity in technical materials, history, comics, cook books, journalism, textbooks, medical, legal, and scientific writing, and the myriad other forms of literature. They are all equally embedded in our culture and all tell us much about it.
When was the last time you saw a review of a really good technical manual? Workaday texts operate on the level of literature as well as instruction, often providing lasting satisfaction and usefulness. Millions benefit from them and millions more would if they were written better.
Aristotle's rhetorical principles of ethos (credibility), logos (knowledge), and pathos (empathy) are manifest in all writing. The same can be said for Cicero's character of the Speaker. Typography, layout, design, and illustration are as much a part of the writing process as are chapters, titles, paragraphs, and organization.
Although Sutherland gives Marx a nod in his discussion of Base/Superstructure, he dismisses any consideration of class. Isn't that what his separation of people into literary and nonliterary types is all about? Anyone who reads is literary. Even high school dropouts read and make daily use of the printed word. Along with racism and sexism, class has a stranglehold on our economic, political, and social life.
While Sutherland provides many satisfying and often brilliant insights into the world of literary criticism, it is still a small literary world indeed.
on September 2, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Shipment was quick, love the book!
5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2012
How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts
Oxford University Press, 2011
Who you gonna call? What's the style in fiction that works for you?
Get in touch with Genre Busters. Seek enlightenment then from a loose confederation of literary critics and snobbish writers who are all members of a vast imaginative conspiracy against dull facts, pointless perspectives, political dittoheads, greedy power brokers, habitual dogmatists, decadent materialists, profligate sex addicts, and cuckoo spiritualists. In short, free verse is not the same as sexual freedom. And the avant-garde is not a movement of anarchists. And critics and professors don't merely split hairs, but explain differences, the most basic of all is that which most students of literature know -- the literal and the figurative. No, it's not only the difference between a text in a book and texting on your I-Phone.
Everything belongs to a genre. But what makes a genre is a key concept that defines How Literature Works, a book published by Oxford University Press that is the point of view of John Sutherland who has been a columnist for the Guardian and a chief judge for the Mann-Booker prize. He is professor emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College London.
Summing up a career, Sutherland points out fifty key concepts that define what literature is and what it can be. You might say he's a Genre Buster any student of literature can rely upon if he wants to understand the multitude of styles and narrative techniques employed by fiction writers. He outlines what fiction is in a descriptive way and gives examples. And he makes me think that the common division of the book world, fiction and non-fiction, is like the two main categories of biology, plants and animals.
Well, is fiction more like a plant or an animal? As if giant redwoods could meditate and as if elephants could detect a pathetic fallacy from an objective correlative.
So what is a concept in fiction world? Is it not, as Robin Williams declared in Mork & Mindy, "Reality, what a concept?" If you understand a conception is it like an interception in the National Football League. Of course, if you stole the ball and claimed possession of the idea.
A literary concept is kind of like a guiding cultural idea that places the text in a category that makes sense to both critic and reader.
Can I have an example, please? Yes, you certainly may.
Sutherland's short summaries are divided into six sections. He covers the basics. Then, the machinery of how it works. And literature's devices, new ideas, word crimes, and literary futures.
Let's start with his list of basics:
Mimesis holding a mirror up to nature, sort of like imitation or representation, but not quite. "The key to the literary door [:] The problem mimesis raises is perennial, fascinating, and finally, insoluble. Is literature 'true,' or is it 'false"? Or neither -- some would argue that the question itself is a 'category error' (e.g., 'What is north of the North Pole?')."
Each brief chapter briefly sums it up. For mimesis, Sutherland writes:
"The condensed idea it's not real, but it can be true"
Ambiguity does a word mean what the author intends or what the reader reads into it? A perfectly contemporary example comes from our democratic arena this week in which a politician, who claims she is not a politician, declares "I mean what I say and I say what I mean." Never mind whether a candidate is like an imaginative writer making up things and what does Michele Bachmann mean when she claims Obamacare is a socialist heresy in the mind of constitutional conservatives. What does a conservative conserve or serve up to a constituency? Well, Sutherland merely points out that Alice disagrees with Humpty Dumpty and asks if words can mean so many different things. In short, fiction no more lies than does non-fiction. But, it seems there are many shades to the truth. He writes: "One reason that French ('lingua franca') is the preferred language of diplomacy is because it is inherently unambiguous, the least prone to double entendre. Picture a Frenchman leaning toward an open train window, unaware that a tunnel is coming up. 'Look out!' warns the Englishman alongside him. The Frenchman duly looks out and gets his head knocked off. The shouted instruction 'Attention, monsieur!' would forestall Gallic decapitation."
"The condensed idea: literature speaks with a forked tongue"
Hermeneutics not merely interpretation, but the "extraction of meaning(s) from words on the page," Sutherland advises. Once the written word is on the page, it is the reader who must make sense of it. "One plausible origin of the term is relevant -- and witty. Hermes was the messenger of the gods, charged with making divine utterance comprehensible to the less than divine human intelligence. But he is also the mythic patron of liars (don't believe a word this winged-heeled fellow says). Is fiction a pretty pack of lies or higher truth?," he asks. He quotes Jonathan Culler: "the task is not to interpret, but to interpret interpretation."
"The condensed idea: Reading literature and understanding literature are two different things."
With academic precision, Sutherland goes on to explain other key concepts, such as what are the classics, the role of intentionalism, what an affective fallacy is, and how stories have some kind of narrator (i.e. a participant, a witness, an objective third-person account). He brings up the epic genre, explores lyric or prosody, gets into the gothic style, and untangles the translation paradox.
What he calls the machinery of literature is covered under categories like culture, milieu, superstructure, the canon, and genre itself . He includes the idea of closure, what a paradigm shift is, and what ownership of a text is (does it belong to writer or reader or cultural treasure?). He then deals with what a critical authority is. And he goes into the influence of style (everyone has one and it comes from the self, but is rarely unique).
Sutherland investigates literary devices like allegory, irony, allusion, and metafiction. In another section he explores philosophical and sociological components in literarure, such as structuralism, deconstruction, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and semiology.
Then there are what he calls the word crimes that covers things like students who copy verbatim another writer's work (plagiarism), forbidden taboos (obscenity), and the role of ghost-writers.
So, who you gonna call? Reading Sutherland makes you want to pick up a book and read, asking yourself what kind of texts are happening.
With an eye on the future he brings up fanfic, what he calls "literature's Web-engendered mutations," or "going AU ("alternative universe). He considers the e-book from the p.o.v. of Marshall McLuhan who said the medium is the massage, in other words the way we get information (book, TV, radio, internet) affects how that information is received, perceived, interpreted, and understood. In other words the book touches us in a way the big screen at the cineplex can't and vice versa.
Lastly, he meditates upon what literary inundation is, that tsunami of information coming at us from diverse realms, the Hubble Space Telescope and the vast blogosphere on the web, quoting John Naisbitt -- "We are drowning in information, but starved for knowledge."
That said, I confess I channel surf with a remote, browse at books on the shelf, punch pre-set digital radio station settings in the moving car, try to remember something and then google it because I've forgotten; and touch an app on my 3G smartphone, the one with the complete text of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. And if I had a Nook or a Kindle I'd use it at the coffeehouse. And if I was younger I'd insert my earbuds and shuffle all the songs I'd want, up to 10,000 if I wanted to spend 99-cents on each of them.
Finally, I have to ask is a magazine still a magazine when you peruse it on an I-Pad?
Once in awhile I get a text on my phone. It looks almost like what I see on a page. But the screen is bright and dazzles the mind like life. Sometimes, the printed ink on a page seems more like a cave painting's hieroglyphics. Perhaps Sutherland has touched a nerve. How do we handle media bias? Or as McLuhan's pun attests -- the medium is the massage and the message. It is the medium itself that biases us because our sensory organs are not all equal. McLuhan, a bibliophile, understood that all our tools are media: "The wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye, and electronic media is an extension of the central nervous system.
Like McLuhan, Sutherland is a Genre Buster. Who you gonna call? Consult the yellow pages or google it? In terms of faith as a quest time-wise, for instance, it's quicker to access a bible verse on the NIV app, unless you prefer to delicately flip onion-skin pages in a leather-bound bible. Does it make a difference? Believe it or not. It was McLuhan who claimed that the environment we live in appears to be invisible. Learned bookmen like Sutherland help us to see the contours as if we are in Plato's cave peering at the light in the mouth of the cave and seeing the shadows that are cast.
0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I have to admit that I don't much like this kind of book -- you might call it "Lit. Crit. for Dummies." There's the breezy style, edging towards the demotic, along with the sidebars and typographical messing around that purport to reduce the "key concept" to a kind of visual sound-bite. Nothing that Sutherland says is silly or awful, but the whole tone and set-up of the thing says to the reader, "You know, you don't really need to take any of this seriously." It seems to be aimed at low-level undergraduates, or maybe sixth-formers in the UK, and yet . . . when you throw out names like Plato, Eliot, Empson, Leavis, and Kermode, in the course of explaining this or that concept, and you don't say anything much at all about where such figures come from, historically and intellectually, what's a sixth-former to do? In other words, the book offers to present accessible information about concepts to novices, but its range of allusion extends far beyond what is likely to make sense to novices, so who is going to be helped by it? Readers who "get" the allusions are already going to be beyond what this book provides.
I prefer introductions to criticism that make an effort to wrestle with the specifics of certain critical texts. Terry Eagleton's "Literary Theory," now over 30 years old, makes an effort to do that. So does Frank Lentricchia's "After the New Criticism," and I'm sure there have been others since. Such books encourage the reader to actually read some De Man or Derrida or Fish or Aristotle. I can't say that Sutherland's book does. The tone is wrong for encouraging real intellectual engagement; the tone says, "This is all a bit of a lark." I have enjoyed and learned from other things that John Sutherland has done, but this is really too light to be taken seriously. It won't hurt you, but it won't take you very far either.