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Dec 30, 2011

Literary Criticism

Literary criticism is the study, discussion, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often informed by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of its methods and goals. Though the two activities are closely related, literary critics are not always, and have not always been, theorists.
Whether or not literary criticism should be considered a separate field of inquiry from literary theory, or conversely from book reviewing, is a matter of some controversy. For example, the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism draws no distinction between literary theory and literary criticism, and almost always uses them together to describe the same concept. Some critics consider literary criticism a practical application of literary theory, as criticism always deals directly with a literary work, albeit from a theoretical point of view.

Modern literary criticism is often published in essay or book form. Academic literary critics teach in literature departments and publish in academic journals, and more popular critics publish their criticism in broadly circulating periodicals such as the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

History of literary criticism

Classical and medieval criticism

Literary criticism has probably existed for as long as literature. Aristotle wrote the Poetics, a typology and description of literary forms with many specific criticisms of contemporary works of art, in the 4th century BC. Poetics developed for the first time the concepts of mimesis and catharsis, which are still crucial in literary study. Plato‘s attacks on poetry as imitative, secondary, and false were formative as well.

Later classical and medieval criticism often focused on religious texts, and the several long religious traditions of hermeneutics and textual exegesis have had a profound influence on the study of secular texts.

Renaissance criticism

The literary criticism of the Renaissance developed classical ideas of unity of form and content into literary neoclassicism, proclaiming literature as central to culture, entrusting the poet and the author with preservation of a long literary tradition. The birth of Renaissance criticism was in 1498, with the recovery of classic texts, most notably, Giorgio Valla‘s Latin translation of Aristotle‘s Poetics. The work of Aristotle, especially Poetics, was the most important influence upon literary criticism until the latter eighteenth century. Lodovico Castelvetro was one of the most influential Renaissance critics who wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s Poetics in 1570.

19th-century criticism

The British Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century introduced new aesthetic ideas to literary study, including the idea that the object of literature need not always be beautiful, noble, or perfect, but that literature itself could elevate a common subject to the level of the sublime. German Romanticism, which followed closely after the late development of German classicism, emphasized an aesthetic of fragmentation that can appear startlingly modern to the reader of English literature, and valued Witz – that is, “wit” or “humor” of a certain sort – more highly than the serious Anglophone Romanticism. The late nineteenth century brought reknown to authors known more for critical writing than for their own literary work, such as Matthew Arnold.

The New Criticism

However important all of these aesthetic movements were as antecedents, current ideas about literary criticism derive almost entirely from the new direction taken in the early twentieth century. Early in the century the school of criticism known as Russian Formalism, and slightly later the New Criticism in Britain and America, came to dominate the study and discussion of literature. Both schools emphasized the close reading of texts, elevating it far above generalizing discussion and speculation about either authorial intention (to say nothing of the author’s psychology or biography, which became almost taboo subjects) or reader response. This emphasis on form and precise attention to “the words themselves” has persisted, after the decline of these critical doctrines themselves.

Mikhail Bakhtin introduced the concepts of heteroglossia, dialogism and chronotope, making a significant contribution to the realm of literary scholarship (Holquist xxvi).


In the British and American literary establishment, the New Criticism was more or less dominant until the late 1960s. Around that time Anglo-American university literature departments began to witness a rise of a more explicitly philosophical literary theory, influenced by structuralism, then post-structuralism, and other kinds of Continental philosophy. It continued until the mid-1980s, when interest in “theory” peaked. Many later critics, though undoubtedly still influenced by theoretical work, have been comfortable simply interpreting literature rather than writing explicitly about methodology and philosophical presumptions.

History of the Book

Related to other forms of literary criticism, the history of the book is a field of interdisciplinary enquiry drawing on the methods of bibliography, cultural history, history of literature, and media theory. Principally concerned with the production, circulation, and reception of texts and their material forms, book history seeks to connect forms of textuality with their material aspects.

Among the issues within the history of literature with which book history can be seen to intersect are: the development of authorship as a profession, the formation of reading audiences, the constraints of censorship and copyright, and the economics of literary form.

The current state of literary criticism

Today interest in literary theory and Continental philosophy coexists in university literature departments with a more conservative literary criticism of which the New Critics would probably have approved. Acrimonious disagreements over the goals and methods of literary criticism, which characterized both sides taken by critics during the “rise” of theory, have declined (though they still happen), and many critics feel that they now have a great plurality of methods and approaches from which to choose.

Some critics work largely with theoretical texts, while others read traditional literature; interest in the literary canon is still great, but many critics are also interested in minority and women’s literatures, while some critics influenced by cultural studies read popular texts like comic books or pulp/genre fiction. Ecocritics have drawn connections between literature and the natural sciences. Many literary critics also work in film criticism or media studies. Some write intellectual history; others bring the results and methods of social history to bear on reading literature.

Habib, M.A.R. A History of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present.ISBN 0-631-23200-1
Encyclopedia of literary critics and criticism, ed. by Chris Murray, London [etc.] : Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999
Holquist, Michael. Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World, Second Edition. Routledge, 2002.
Holquist, Michael. “Introduction.” Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. By Mikhail Bakhtin. Eds. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. ix-xxiii.
Holquist, Michael. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. By Mikhail Bakhtin. Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1981.

The difference between Literary Theory and Literature

Literary theory is the theory (or the philosophy) of the interpretation of literature and literary criticism. Its history begins with classical Greek poetics and rhetoric and includes, since the 18th century, aesthetics and hermeneutics. In the 20th century, “theory” has become an umbrella term for a variety of scholarly approaches to reading texts, most of which are informed by various strands of Continental philosophy.

Literary theory and literature
One of the fundamental questions of literary theory is “What is literature?”, though many contemporary theorists and literary scholars believe either that “literature” cannot be defined or that it can refer to any use of language. Specific theories are distinguished not only by their methods and conclusions, but even by how they define a “text.” For some scholars of literature, “texts” comprises little more than “books belonging to the Western literary canon.” But the principles and methods of literary theory have been applied to non-fiction, popular fiction, film, historical documents, law, advertising, etc., in the related field of cultural studies. In fact, some scholars within cultural studies treat cultural events, like fashion or football riots, as “texts” to be interpreted. By this measure, literary theory can be thought of as the general theory of interpretation.

Since theorists of literature often draw on a very heterogeneous tradition of Continental philosophy and the philosophy of language, any classification of their approaches is only an approximation. There are many “schools” or types of literary theory, which take different approaches to understanding texts. Most theorists, even among those listed below, combine methods from more than one of these approaches (for instance, the deconstructive approach of Paul de Man drew on a long tradition of close reading pioneered by the New Critics, and de Man was trained in the European hermeneutic tradition).

Broad schools of theory that have historically been important include the New Criticism, formalism, Russian formalism, and structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, feminism and French feminism, new historicism, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, and psychoanalytic criticism.

The practice of literary theory became a profession in the 20th century, but it has historical roots that run as far back as ancient Greece (Aristotle‘s Poetics is an often cited early example) and ancient Rome (Longinus‘ On the Sublime and Horace‘s Ars Poetica), and the aesthetic theories of philosophers from ancient philosophy through the 18th and 19th centuries are important influences on current literary study. The theory and criticism of literature are, of course, also closely tied to the history of literature.

The modern sense of “literary theory,” however, dates only to approximately the 1950s, when the structuralist linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure began strongly to influence English language literary criticism. The New Critics and various European-influenced formalists (particularly the Russian Formalists) had described some of their more abstract efforts as “theoretical” as well. But it was not until the broad impact of structuralism began to be felt in the English-speaking academic world that “literary theory” was thought of as a unified domain.

In the academic world of the United Kingdom and the United States, literary theory was at its most popular from the late 1960s (when its influence was beginning to spread outward from elite universities like Johns Hopkins and Yale) through the 1980s (by which time it was taught nearly everywhere in some form). During this span of time, literary theory was perceived as academically cutting-edge research, and most university literature departments sought to teach and study theory and incorporate it into their curricula. Because of its meteoric rise in popularity and the difficult language of its key texts, theory was also often criticized as faddish or trendy obscurantism (and many academic satire novels of the period, such as those by David Lodge, feature theory prominently). Some scholars, both theoretical and anti-theoretical, refer to the 1970s and 1980s debates on the academic merits of theory as “the theory wars.”

By the early 1990s, the popularity of “theory” as a subject of interest by itself was declining slightly (along with job openings for pure “theorists”) even as the texts of literary theory were incorporated into the study of almost all literature. As of 2004, the controversy over the use of theory in literary studies has all but died out, and discussions on the topic within literary and cultural studies tend now to be considerably milder and less acrimonious (though the appearance of volumes such as Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent, edited by Daphne Patai with Will H. Corral, may signal a resurgence of the controversy). Some scholars draw heavily on theory in their work, while others only mention it in passing or not at all; but it is an acknowledged, important part of the study of literature.

Differences among schools
The intellectual traditions and priorities of the various kinds of literary theory are often radically different. Even finding a set of common terms to compare them by can be difficult.

For instance, the work of the New Critics often contained an implicit moral dimension, and sometimes even a religious one: a New Critic might read a poem by T.S. Eliot or Gerard Manley Hopkins for its degree of honesty in expressing the torment and contradiction of a serious search for belief in the modern world. Meanwhile a Marxist critic might find such judgments merely ideological rather than critical; the Marxist would say that the New Critical reading did not keep enough critical distance from the poem’s religious stance to be able to understand it. Or a post-structuralist critic might simply avoid the issue by understanding the religious meaning of a poem as an allegory of meaning, treating the poem’s references to “God” by discussing their referential nature rather than what they refer to.

Such a disagreement cannot be easily resolved, because it is inherent in the radically different terms and goals (that is, the theories) of the critics. Their theories of reading derive from vastly different intellectual traditions: the New Critic bases his work on an East-Coast American scholarly and religious tradition, while the Marxist derives his thought from a body of critical social and economic thought, and the post-structuralist’s work emerges from twentieth-century Continental philosophy of language. To expect such different approaches to have much in common would be na├»ve; so calling them all “theories of literature” without acknowledging their heterogeneity is itself a reduction of their differences.

In the late 1950s, Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye attempted to establish an approach for reconciling historical criticism and New Criticism while addressing concerns of early reader-response and numerous psychological and social approaches. His approach, laid out in his Anatomy of Criticism, was explicitly structuralist, relying on the assumption of an intertextual “order of words” and universality of certain structural types. His approach held sway in English literature programs for several decades but lost favor during the ascendence of post-structuralism.

For some theories of literature (especially certain kinds of formalism), the distinction between ‘literary’ and other sorts of texts is of paramount importance. Other schools (particularly post-structuralism in its various forms: new historicism, deconstruction, some strains of Marxism and feminism) have sought to break down distinctions between the two and have applied the tools of textual interpretation to a wide range of ‘texts’, including film, non-fiction, historical writing, and even cultural events.

Bakhtin argued that the “utter inadequacy” of literary theory is evident when it forced to deal with the novel; other genres are intact already stabilized while the novel is still young and developing.[1]

Another crucial distinction among the various theories of literary interpretation is intentionality, the amount of weight given to the author’s own opinions about and intentions for a work. For most pre-20th century approaches, the author’s intentions are a guiding factor and an important determiner of the ‘correct’ interpretation of texts. The New Criticism was the first school to disavow the role of the author in interpreting texts, preferring to focus on “the text itself” in a close reading. In fact, as much contention as there is between formalism and later schools, they share the tenet that the author’s interpretation of a work is no more inherently meaningful than any other.


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