As a critic known for his stinging insults and famous feuds, it comes as somewhat of a surprise to find Terry Eagleton eating some humble pie in his latest book. How to Read Literature finds the veteran critic revisiting some of his earlier judgments and the book even ends on a question, a debate to be continued.
That's not to say that Eagleton is going soft in his arguments, quite the opposite. The book starts with Eagleton on a mission, lamenting the decline of serious literary analysis. The problem, he claims, is that too many readers treat literary characters and events as if they are real, and their judgements fail to take into account the very things that make literature different from real life.
The strength of Eagleton's argument lies in the way he refuses to simply talk about literary analysis. He shows us how it's done. In each chapter he launches into lengthy, detailed explorations of books from Great Expectations to The Divine Comedy, via Harry Potter.
His biggest bout of humility comes from this: he revisits an introduction to Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure which he wrote 40 years ago, and points out how "woefully off the mark" it was. In particular, he had passed harsh judgement on Sue Bridehead, a troubled character who leaves her unhappy marriage to be with Jude, but refuses first to sleep with him and then to marry him.
Four decades ago Eagleton wrote Sue off as a fickle schemer, but looking back he points to the flaws in his argument to show that she is, in fact, a complicated young woman, doomed because the ideas she holds on sexuality and marriage are too progressive for her time.
This is Eagleton at his best - as he explains the social dimensions at work in Hardy's novel, the characters come alive clearer than ever.
The book covers many of the canon texts which can be found in undergraduate courses across the world today. This makes it useful for students of literature but also highlights its biggest flaw: it is not much help to anyone else.
It may be that this is Eagleton's intention, to readdress a problem in academia by convincing a new generation of students to take the task of literary criticism more seriously.
But the book has a potential to stretch beyond this audience that it never quite reaches. It is a far easier read than his last work, The Event of Literature, but still comes across as a confused project which identifies a problem but isn't quite sure how to tackle it. Perhaps its open ending means Eagleton already has more food for thought. Let's hope his next venture opens up the joy of literature to a wider audience. He is certainly up the task.
How to Read Literature is published by Yale University Press,£ 18.99