The following five classics of 20th-century literary theory are books that an ordinary, interested reader can learn from with relative ease and often considerable pleasure. None is later than 1973: Many exciting and controversial developments have taken place in literary theory during the past 20 years, but most of the landmark books are so arcane that only the truly committed will have the patience to assimilate their insights.
Seven Types of Ambiguity, by William Empson (1930). Still the most exhilarating book for learning how to read poetry. Written when Empson was in his early 20s, it is a young man's showpiece: Too clever by half, filled with eccentric enthusiasms, dangerous generalizations, and many errors (of quotation and interpretation). But it made people aware that poems were like icebergs, with a great deal going on just below the surface of obvious meaning. After Empson, poetry no longer seemed quiet, genteel, or refined; he made it into a battleground of ambiguity and paradox.
Anatomy of Criticism, by Northrop Frye (1957). If God were to compose a survey of world literature, it might resemble this book -- but probably wouldn't be half as good. Empson teaches readers to look closely, almost microscopically, at the words on the page; Frye urges us to step back so that we can see the larger mythic patterns controlling the action in stories, plays and poems. He shows how the same archetypes and symbols can figure in an ancient classic and a contemporary novel, that there is a common alphabet to all literature. Beautifully written.
What Is Literature? by Jean-Paul Sartre (1948). Nearly every line of this short book is debatable; but Sartre writes with such force and conviction that even the purest esthete is forced to think about literature's social connections: Why do people write? And for whom? What are the relationships between books and their times? This is literary theory engage' -- and it remains as exciting to read now as ever.
Mimesis, by Erich Auerbach (1946; 1953). Subtitled "The Representation of Reality in Western Literature," this is perhaps the most truly magisterial book of close readings ever undertaken. One of those German scholars who seem to know everything -- philology, early Roman law, a dozen languages, Hegelian philosophy -- Auerbach opens by contrasting the Homeric and Biblical ways of depicting the world, and ends with an essay on Virginia Woolf. In between he builds up a series of world-views by explicating passages from a dozen other periods of European literature, touching on virtually every sort of prose narrative ever attempted.
The Anxiety of Influence, by Harold Bloom (1973). Every new writer who comes along must confront the almost overwhelming weight of past achievement: What can a novelist do after Joyce and Proust? Just be a follower and an imitator? Like the Formalists, Bloom posits that writers always have to fight their literary fathers for a place in the sun; in effect, they must shove them aside, even kill them, to escape from their shadow. Some make it; but most fail, becoming merely derivative, second-rate, unnecessary. Controversial even now, Bloom's book uncovers one of the major dynamics of literary creation.