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A theoretical blow for democracy

Terry Eagleton is Britain's left-leaning high priest of literary theory. Helen Davies talks to him

Students often approach Terry Eagleton and say that they have read his book. Although he has published over 25 books and edited numerous others, he never has to ask which one. The answer is always the same: Literary Theory: An Introduction . Since it was published in 1983, the book has sold over 750,000 copies and has been translated into Malay, Arabic and Sanskrit. Sales remain healthy, especially since it started to appear on students' reading lists in the United States.

More town than gown in outlook - he is the probable coiner of the phrase "prolier than thou" - Eagleton is a radical of the left, widely regarded as Britain's leading literary theorist. All his books were written during the three decades when he was part of the English faculty at Oxford, where he was Thomas Warton professor of English literature for almost ten years. Then this spring, in a surprise move, he decided to leave Oxford's green and pleasant quads and take up a new chair as professor of cultural theory at the University of Manchester. Now he jokes: "I'm learning how to drive, boil an egg and knit."

Eagleton did not set out to write a textbook, simply an introduction to critical theory that anyone might read. "I believe in popularising and believe I can do it quite well," he says, and is pleased that Literary Theory appeals to readers who "have never seen inside a university", as well as students of law, anthropology and cultural studies. But he is well aware that such successful popularising of the theories of others can gain a book a reputation, as a "bluffer's guide" to what is still a trendy, tricky and comparatively new academic subject.

The real motive for writing the book, Eagleton professes, was a "democratic impulse", which stemmed from his undergraduate days at Cambridge in the early 1960s. "I studied in the final days when to appreciate literature was rather like knowing fine wines, it came with breeding" - an elitist approach which tended to exclude a boy from Salford with Irish roots like himself. Theory, by contrast, "was enabling, you could get involved, all you had to do was learn the new language". This is why today he finds it "objectionable and scandalous that so much of the language has become esoteric". The opacity of much critical theory genuinely angers Eagleton, who is moved as much by a pleasure in clear language as by political radicalism, and he has scathingly denounced some of his fellow theorists as impenetrable writers. For the point is, as he writes in his preface to Literary Theory , to use theory to "lift repression".

His reputation for being incisive, waspish and polemical, particularly in the pages of the London Review of Books , is no mere posturing. "Satire is an indispensable tool of the left", he states. "I don't like left academics who write like other academics. Such style is a necessity, a fatality almost, and comes right from one's depths."

Oxford may seem an odd place for an aspiring academic radical to have headed in the late 1960s, especially given the expansion of higher education at the time. Not surprisingly, theory got a "dusty reception" at Oxford and even now Eagleton feels it is regarded as something of a "poisoned chalice". He and others pressed for change but with little effect. So the radicals decided to appeal over the heads of the faculty to the student body, "who were bright and hungry for new ideas." It was around this time that Eagleton produced Criticism and Ideology , a book which is "almost more important to me than Literary Theory , because it introduced Marxism into an Anglophone context". It was the fruit of intensive seminars and classes at Oxford - which perhaps explains its continuing use as a textbook, even though it is a harder read than Literary Theory .

Today, many of the recommendations of Eagleton and colleagues have been implemented at Oxford and students are studying theory, film and the media. "It has not been a struggle in vain. It is astonishing to think that over half of PhD theses in Oxford's English faculty in one sense involve theory," he says. "It is a modest legacy and part of a larger project - worth suffering all those high tables for."

This drawing upon of the once-radical theory of the 1960s and 70s, which helped to drive Eagleton's book, means that Literary Theory - which appeared during the Thatcher-Reagan era six years before the collapse of the Soviet Union - is in regular need of updating. "But I'm too lazy," he says. His publisher Blackwell did persuade him once, though, and a revised edition appeared in 1996. "It made me realise how much had changed."

Eagleton's "homecoming" and new chair at Manchester will allow him to devote more time to cultural theory and particularly to Irish studies without "the tedium of bureaucracy and examining". He intends to develop the John Rylands Centre for Irish Studies, where he is a fellow, and to shape a new MA in the subject, to start in 2002.

He will be commuting between Manchester and Dublin, his home for almost ten years. His move to Dublin was originally an attempt to put "some daylight" between himself and Oxford, and it has long provided him with "a necessary bolt hole". His conversation is littered with similar references to Oxford: nothing bitter or malicious but relieved and relaxed about having "broken out" of Oxford.

Perhaps inevitably, his "homecoming" to Irish studies has attracted criticism and accusations of sentimentalising and romanticising the Irish. But Eagleton thinks such a reaction only shows up English backwardness and insularity, and goes so far as to say that the Irish are some of "the least romantic people" he has met. His Celtic ancestry only came under the spotlight when he began to write on Ireland academically in the 1990s - with books such as Heathcliff and the Great Hunger - even though he had been living in Ireland for years.

Criticism seems to ignite his passion for Irish culture. "Cultural theory is always a bit abstract in Tunbridge Wells and Dorking," he says, and since in Ireland much of the culture is already politicised, he can avoid some of the "tedious spade work" of explaining culture in political terms.

As an articulate radical thinker and prominent cultural academic, Eagleton would appear to be in a prime position to speak out on the issues of the day. But he is against what he calls "theorising on the hoof" and does not like the modern-day "rent-a-dons". He has purposely shied away from the media limelight, because, he says, "It is a distraction from bigger and longer-term projects." What about being a people's peer in the new House of Lords? "Good God! I'd be hopeless, hate it, never turn up."

One of his current projects is The Gatekeeper , a book of personal recollections of his childhood and of Oxford. It combines the current vogue for academic memoir and the fashion for (Irish) confessional literature and will be published by Penguin next year. Another is a study of tragedy. Still struck by a comment heard as an undergraduate, that "tragedy is good for you", Eagleton is finding that tragedy, like theory, is full of abstract and difficult ideas. "There is a certain unconscious necessity about some books," he says. Now "writing furiously", he expects the tragedy book to hit the shelves within the next three years.

Though Eagleton is no longer an angry young man, his ideas still seem radical, stimulating and likely to interest the current generation of students. What is absolutely certain is that he does not want a scarlet robe. In fact he does not want any more gowns at all. His Oxford gown can now be seen trailing behind his four-year-old son, Oliver.

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