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This review is taken from PN Review 64, Volume 15 Number 2, November - December 1988.

ORTHODOXY AND AFTER Patrick Parrinder, The Failure of Theory: Essays on Criticism and Contemporary Fiction (Harvester) £28.50

'What the journal Poetry Nation Review has called the "new orthodoxy" in literary theory' has, Patrick Parrinder suggests, 'spawned innumerable promises' of the sort to be found in a recent 'New Accents' volume: 'A combination of Derridean and Kristevan theory, then, would seem to hold considerable promise for future feminist readings of Woolf'. But Parrinder finds the promises of theory empty. Their harbinger is Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Philosophy of Composition' (1846), which seeks to explicate the procedures by which 'The Raven' was written. Modern literary theory shares with Poe's essay too restricted an awareness and self-awareness; it aims at a total, abstract rationalism that denies intuitive, accidental or unconscious elements in literary creation; it claims a comprehensiveness it cannot sustain. 'The concept of theoretical reading has hardened into a dogma, a political ideology, and an endlessly dishonoured cheque drawn on the literary-critical future.'

Parrinder's collection of essays and reviews fights on two fronts - by taking issue with specific examples of theory and by looking at a range of modern authors. He provides two 'case-studies' of eminent theory-importers. Catherine Belsey's Critical Practice, he points out, offers no way of distinguishing between fictional and non-fictional discourse; Critical Practice itself might be seen to display the very features she castigates in the 'classic realist' novel. 'Belsey is herself a classic realist, though of course she cannot face up to the fact.' In an entertaining account of the progress of that 'fleet-footed pamphleteer', Terry Eagleton, he gently mocks the ...

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