While I was studying at the MA in Creative Writing we, naturally, had to read quite a bit about literary theory, genres and literary history. I’m going to mention just two textbooks which, I think, are great introductions in this maze of theory. The first one is Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton (1943). I have enormous respect for this author as he is unparalleled in explaining difficult concepts in the general category of “Theory” – a term which is all encompassing of Literary, Philosophical, Social Anthropological, Sociological, Feminist, Linguistic and Psychological theory. To capture the essence of literary theory you need to navigate through every discipline, even if it is just superficially covered. Eagleton’s book accomplishes this in an approachable and, sometimes, funny manner. Eagleton – according to wikipedia – is a prominent British literary theorist, critic and public intellectual. I like this ‘portrait’ of him. More on the subject here.
Along the same lines goes the Literary Theory: a very short introduction by, the structuralist, Jonathan
Culler (1944). This book is part of a series “A Very Short Introduction” by Oxford Press University. I’ve read one other book in the series, Feminism: a very short introduction which I enjoyed greatly. Culler’s introduction covers all aspects of literary theory in a similar way that Eagleton’s book does. Their structure and content is similar so I would suggest – if you don’t have the time for both of them – to pick one of these books as your introduction. This is humorous as well, so no boring reads await you here. I read them both because I’m a bit paranoid in these manners and I didn’t want to miss out on anything.
In my journey through studying literary theory I read widely on the subject: Lacanian theory, Postmodernism, Marxist theory, Deconstruction, Feminism etc, all by recognised authors in their respective fields – Spivak, Bhabha, Derrida, Ricoeur, Miller, Butler, and more. But I had to start somewhere and so will you. You need to introduce yourself with the material and, then, the texts themselves will lead you further and further on other subjects that you’re interested in. Don’t force it and you will find that the theory is actually fascinating and ever changing.
One more thing: OK, so I lied and I will state one more book on the subject, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory by Peter Barry (1928). This is a comprehensive introduction as well and it was proposed to me by a trusted fellow student and Phd holder as a thorough textbook. I haven’t read it yet, but I thought I should mention it even in passing.