Before becoming a political philosopher Karl Marx wanted to be a poet, inspired by romantics like John Keats and Percy Shelley. Although he never realised that particular ambition (some slightly more pressing concerns appear to have got in the way) he maintained an appreciation for art and literature throughout his life.
Marx also understood the political value of art, writing in 1854 that the novelists of England provided "more political and social truths than all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together". With this in mind Terry Eagleton's return to literary theory, after a number of popular political books such as Why Marx was Right, should be welcomed.
His new book, The Event of Literature, is an unashamedly academic project and anyone without an existing grasp of literary history might find it hard to follow. But for those interested in the subject it is fascinating and informative. Eagleton sets himself the ambitious task of defining what literature means. Despite such a challenging aim he manages to cover a huge amount of ground in what is a relatively short book.
The first half traces the various philosophies of literature and their approaches. Eagleton is at his best when dissecting other people's ideas and is comically savage at times. Critic Stanley Fish receives a particularly harsh bashing but there are few others who get off lightly. Eagleton examines a range of literary theories, including essentialism and postmodernism, picking apart their arguments and demonstrating how difficult it is to form a precise definition of literature.
Despite its academic nature the book is funny and well written. Eagleton's Marxist approach to art shines throughout. At one point he explains why literature cannot be defined simply as fiction by writing: "There are, for example, plenty of non-literary forms of fiction: jokes, lies, advertisements, statements by spokespersons for the Israeli Defence Force and so on."
The final chapter, however, is by far the best and in some ways it is a shame it wasn't the first. Here Eagleton makes his own case: that literature is a strategy, an attempt to formulate a response to the questions of its time. This last section is fascinating and Eagleton weaves a thread of radical thought through his argument which makes it an important addition to Marxist cultural theory.
He berates those writers for whom theory is only about understanding the world, not changing it. Eagleton argues instead that literature is closely bound to its historical context, and acts as a communication between author and reader which attempts to afford the world meaning.
Anyone interested in literature should read this challenging but worthwhile book. It leaves you with plenty of food for thought and a greater understanding of the historical significance of literature.
The Event of Literature is published by Yale University Press, £10.99