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Preface: Studying Literature

In recent decades the study of literature as an academic subject has undergone significant changes. New theories including structuralism, reader-response theory, and deconstruction have challenged traditional approaches to literary criticism. These new methods have expanded the focus from "writers and their works" to encompass the study of readers and their practices, and the social contexts in which writers and readers act.

Studying Literature offers senior students an introduction to literary studies that acknowledges these new perspectives. Drawing on contemporary theories and approaches, the book helps students investigate the values, assumptions and practices that underlie literary activities. It introduces important concepts such as: the social contexts of literary practice; dominant and resistant readings of literature; "gaps and silences" in texts; and issues of race, class and gender.

The book's opening chapter explores the very concept of literature by testing traditional views and the unstated assumptions that students may bring to literary studies. It shows that the literary qualities once regarded as properties of the text may be in part the product of social practices previously regarded as lying "outside" the text - practices such as reading, teaching and publishing.

The second chapter applies this new concept, exploring ways of reading literary texts as "cultural artefacts" rather than "personal expressions". It introduces the concept of reading practices: those rules or procedures by which readers make meaning with text. The chapter then goes on to consider where these practices come from, and to distinguish between dominant and resistant practices and their effects.

The final chapter examines in detail one aspect of contemporary critical practice: the issue of gender. Focussing on both feminism and masculinities, this section of the book gives students a taste of how the new approaches to literature work in practice, while at the same time pointing out relationships between literary studies and issues of social justice.

With this compact introduction, it is hoped that students and teachers can embark on a more purposeful and rewarding study of literary texts and the institutions that surround them.

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