Hölbling, Walter W., and Justine Tally, Eds. Theories & Texts for students by students. Wien [Vienna] and Berlin: Lit Verlag, Series "American Studies in Austria", Vol. 7, 2007, Pp. 328. ISBN 978-3-8258-0809-9 (Germany) and ISBN 978-3-7000-0744-9 (Austria).
In this hard-to-find collection of fifteen papers derived from a graduate seminar in American studies held in Austria, we find various analysis which try to apply a theoretical approach into literary studies. The occasion occured when Professor Justine Tally (from the Universidad de La Laguna in Spain) gave a seminar at the Karl-Franzens-University in Graz, with the Austrian collaboration of Professor Walter Hölbling.
As we will see, the chosen corpus studied in all chapters includes only one of the three selected works written by two women; but the theoretical perspectives which constitute the aim of this exercice are much wider. So, instead of having to refer to many works, we only need a handful of texts — which is much more efficient as a formula for a seminar. The first half of the book concentrates on two novels from a trilogy by Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987) and Jazz (1992). In the second half of the book, all the essays focus on Barbara Kingsolver's novel The Poisonwood Bible (1998). But in fact, despite their literary qualities, these three novels are just the starting point for the theoretical exercices which follow. Each chapter applies one specific theoretical approach to one of these three works, taking from Bakthin, Lacan, Barthes, Marx, to Freud, Foucault, and even Derrida, Kristeva and Bhabha. Obviously, this great variety of theoretical approaches constitutes the book's strongest point, despite some more feeble texts. In many cases, we often find inventive essays and original, sometimes unusual correspondances between theories, works, contexts, and methodological approaches. For instance in the opening chapter, Bakthin's writings (like his idea of dialogue and the concept of collective memory) are confronted to the African American history as depicted in Toni Morrison's Beloved (p. 23). But the issue of Bakthin's dialogue reappears later in the second half, this time being applied to another work: in Barbara Kingsolver's novel titled The Poisonwood Bible (p. 213). Elsewhere, the essay on Michel Foucault (and the possible intersections with The Poisonwood Bible) introduces as well some ideas related to cultural studies, with references to works by Stuart Hall (p. 236). In that sense, this is more a book on theory and interpretation than a deep study of these two authors.
All texts are in English and very well written. Most contributors were graduate students at the time. However, I sometimes felt their professors (or the scholars on the editorial board) should have given more advices to these young authors. For instance, in their text titled "A Revolution Deferred", Margret Hausegger and Christian Stöckl refer to Louis Althusser and Walter Benjamin in a Marxist study of Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. I appreciated the timely presence of both theoreticians in order to understand the capitalist ideology, but it was just too bad they were not quoted anywhere here, only through the interpretative thoughts of a third author, Terry Eagleton, who had written a book on Marxism. Someone (like one of the book's editors) should have told the graduate students to go directly to the original source when refering to a major author, specially since many works by Althusser and Benjamin are available in English translations. In this case, we find no mention of any book by either author in the bibliographical references (p. 196). That same problem often reappears elsewhere, like in the opening text using Lacan's thoughts, without quoting Lacan himself, and using instead three books on Lacan such as Philip Hill's Lacan for beginners (p. 40).
Also on the down side, I felt the editors's half page foreword was much too short and failed in its mission of highlighting the strenghts and main concepts of the whole book. Finally, I would have liked to find an index somewhere in the book. Nevertheless, apart from these quibbles, Walter Hölbling and Justine Tally have made an encouraging effort for their students; these Theories and Texts can show the inspired tone of some current Austrian American Studies. It is not meant to be considered as a catalogue of all theoretical trends, but a series of illustrations showing how various theories can be applied to the same few literary works. In this sense, I am not sure one single author could have done successfully this wide exercise; we needed a diversified group of authors to provide all these points of view. Among potential readers, as its title indicates, students in American studies and literary studies who would like to know what kind of work is expected from a masters level could consult these essays. However, this book is not to be easily found outside Austria or Germany and should therefore be ordered through the publisher's (Lit Verlag) web site.
Yves Laberge, Ph.D.
Québec City, Canada