A la mode

Graham Hough

  • Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes by Alastair Fowler
    Oxford, 357 pp, £15.00, December 1982, ISBN 0 19 812812 6

New works of literary theory, abundant in France and America, are not very frequent in England. When one does appear, it is customary first to deplore its defiance of nature and reason, and secondly to decide that we have known it all along. It would be difficult to follow this convention with Alastair Fowler’s book. Kinds of Literature contains nothing subversive of public order or contrary to revealed truth: indeed it is a celebration of order and aims to illuminate neglected truths. And its traditional material is handled in such a way as to yield a steady dividend of unhackneyed learning and unexpected points of view. Its theme is the once dominant theory of separable historical literary kinds. This has come to be regarded by majority opinion as an obsolete piece of machinery, dubious in its application to the past and irrelevant to the present. Fowler argues to the contrary that this venerable conceptual apparatus is not only still useful, but necessary, if we are to make sense of our literary experience. He will not meet an entirely unreceptive audience. A fair minority can be found (including me) who already believe this to be true and will welcome what has so far been lacking: a well-worked-out modern statement of the case.

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