Literary criticism

Literary criticism (or literary studies) is the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often influenced by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of literature's goals and methods. 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[1] draws no distinction between literary theory and literary criticism, and almost always uses the terms together to describe the same concept. Some critics consider literary criticism a practical application of literary theory, because criticism always deals directly with particular literary works, while theory may be more general or abstract.

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 reviews in broadly circulating periodicals such as the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, the Dublin Review of Books, The Nation, and The New Yorker.


Classical and medieval criticism

Literary criticism is thought to have existed as long as literature. In the 4th century BC Aristotle wrote the Poetics, a typology and description of literary forms with many specific criticisms of contemporary works of art. Poetics developed for the first time the concepts of mimesis and catharsis, which are still crucial in literary studies. Plato's attacks on poetry as imitative, secondary, and false were formative as well. The Sanskrit Natya Shastra includes literary criticism on ancient Indian literature and Sanskrit drama.

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. This was particularly the case for the literary traditions of the three Abrahamic religions: Jewish literature, Christian literature and Islamic literature.

Literary criticism was also employed in other forms of medieval Arabic literature and Arabic poetry from the 9th century, notably by Al-Jahiz in his al-Bayan wa-'l-tabyin and al-Hayawan, and by Abdullah ibn al-Mu'tazz in his Kitab al-Badi.[2]

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 late eighteenth century. Lodovico Castelvetro was one of the most influential Renaissance critics who wrote commentaries on Aristotle's Poetics in 1570.

Enlightenment criticism

In the Enlightenment period (1700s to 1800s), literary criticism became more popular. During this time period literacy rates started to rise in the public; no longer was reading exclusive for the wealthy or scholarly. With the rise of the literate public and swiftness of printing, criticism arose too. Reading was no longer viewed solely as educational or as a sacred source of religion; it was a form of entertainment.[3] Literary criticism was influenced by the values and stylistic writing, including clear, bold, precise writing and the more controversial criteria of the author's religious beliefs.[4] These critical reviews were published in many magazines, newspapers, and journals. Many works of Jonathan Swift were criticized including his book Gulliver's Travels, which one critic described as "the detestable story of the Yahoos".[4]

19th-century Romantic criticism

The British Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century introduced new aesthetic ideas to literary studies, 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 renown authors known more for their literary criticism 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 in the United States, came to dominate the study and discussion of literature, in the English-speaking world. 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.


In 1957 Northrop Frye published the influential Anatomy of Criticism. In his works Frye noted that some critics tend to embrace an ideology, and to judge literary pieces on the basis of their adherence to such ideology. This has been a highly influential viewpoint among modern conservative thinkers. E. Michael Jones, for example, argues in his Degenerate Moderns that Stanley Fish was influenced by his adulterous affairs to reject classic literature that condemned adultery.[5] Jürgen Habermas in Erkenntnis und Interesse [1968] (Knowledge and Human Interests), described literary critical theory in literary studies as a form of hermeneutics: knowledge via interpretation to understand the meaning of human texts and symbolic expressions—including the interpretation of texts which themselves interpret other texts.

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 inquiry 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.

Current state

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. Disagreements over the goals and methods of literary criticism, which characterized both sides taken by critics during the "rise" of theory, have declined. 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. Darwinian literary studies studies literature in the context of evolutionary influences on human nature. 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.

Value of academic criticism

The value of extensive literary analysis has been questioned by several prominent artists. Vladimir Nabokov once wrote that good readers do not read books, and particularly those which are considered to be literary masterpieces, "for the academic purpose of indulging in generalizations".[6] At a 1986 Copenhagen conference of James Joyce scholars, Stephen J. Joyce (the modernist writer's grandson) said, "If my grandfather was here, he would have died laughing ... Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man can be picked up, read, and enjoyed by virtually anybody without scholarly guides, theories, and intricate explanations, as can Ulysses, if you forget about all the hue and cry." He later questioned whether anything has been added to the legacy of Joyce's art by the 261 books of literary criticism stored in the Library of Congress.[7]

Key texts

The Classical and medieval periods

The Renaissance period

The Enlightenment period

The 19th century

The 20th century

See also


  1. ^ Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 2005. ISBN 0801880106. OCLC 54374476.
  2. ^ van. Gelder, G. J. H. (1982). Beyond the Line: Classical Arabic Literary Critics on the Coherence and Unity of the Poem. Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 1–2. ISBN 9004068546. OCLC 10350183.
  3. ^ Murray, Stuart (2009). The Library: An Illustrated History. New York: Skyhorse. pp. 132–133. ISBN 9781616084530. OCLC 277203534.
  4. ^ a b Regan, Shaun; Dawson, Books (2013). Reading 1759: Literary Culture in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain and France. Lewisburg [Pa.]: Bucknell University Press. pp. 125–130. ISBN 9781611484786.
  5. ^ Jones, E. Michael (1991). Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehaviour. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. pp. 79–84. ISBN 0898704472. OCLC 28241358.
  6. ^ Vladimir Nabokov Lectures on Literature, chap. L'Envoi p. 381
  7. ^ D. T. Max (June 19, 2006). "The Injustice Collector". The New Yorker.
  8. ^ Ussher, J. (1767). Clio Or, a Discourse on Taste: Addressed to a Young Lady. Davies. p. 3. Retrieved 2014-10-10.

External links

Archetypal literary criticism

Archetypal literary criticism is a type of critical theory that interprets a text by focusing on recurring myths and archetypes (from the Greek archē, "beginning", and typos, "imprint") in the narrative, symbols, images, and character types in literary work. As a form of literary criticism, it dates back to 1934 when Maud Bodkin published Archetypal Patterns in Poetry.

Archetypal literary criticism's origins are rooted in two other academic disciplines, social anthropology and psychoanalysis; each contributed to literary criticism in separate ways, with the latter being a sub-branch of critical theory. Archetypal criticism was at its most popular in the 1940s and 1950s, largely due to the work of Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye. Though archetypal literary criticism is no longer widely practiced, nor have there been any major developments in the field, it still has a place in the tradition of literary studies.


The concept of an archetype appears in areas relating to behavior, historical psychological theory, and literary analysis. An archetype can be:

a statement, pattern of behavior, or prototype (model) which other statements, patterns of behavior, and objects copy or emulate. (Frequently used informal synonyms for this usage include "standard example", "basic example", and the longer form "archetypal example". Mathematical archetypes often appear as "canonical examples".)

a Platonic philosophical idea referring to pure forms which embody the fundamental characteristics of a thing in Platonism

a collectively-inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., that is universally present, in individual psyches, as in Jungian psychology

a constantly recurring symbol or motif in literature, painting, or mythology (this usage of the term draws from both comparative anthropology and from Jungian archetypal theory). In various seemingly unrelated cases in classic storytelling, media, etc., characters or ideas sharing similar traits recur.

Beowulf and the Critics

Beowulf and the Critics by J. R. R. Tolkien is a 2002 book edited by Michael D. C. Drout that presents scholarly editions of the two manuscript versions of Tolkien's essays or lecture series "Beowulf and the Critics", which served as the basis for the much shorter 1936 lecture "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics".

Beowulf and the Critics was awarded the 2003 Mythopoeic Scholarship Award for Inklings Studies.

Biography in literature

When studying literature, biography and its relationship to literature is often a subject of literary criticism, and is treated in several different forms. Two scholarly approaches use biography or biographical approaches to the past as a tool for interpreting literature: literary biography and biographical criticism. Additionally, two genres of fiction rely heavily on the incorporation of biographical elements into their content, biographical fiction and autobiographical fiction.

Book review

A book review is a form of literary criticism in which a book is merely described (summary review) or analyzed based on content, style, and merit.

A book review may be a primary source, opinion piece, summary review or scholarly review. Books can be reviewed for printed periodicals, magazines and newspapers, as school work, or for book web sites on the Internet. A book review's length may vary from a single paragraph to a substantial essay. Such a review may evaluate the book on the basis of personal taste. Reviewers may use the occasion of a book review for an extended essay that can be closely or loosely related to the subject of the book, or to promulgate their own ideas on the topic of a fiction or non-fiction work.

There are a number of journals devoted to book reviews, and reviews are indexed in databases such as Book Review Index and Kirkus Reviews; but many more book reviews can be found in newspaper databases as well as scholarly databases such as Arts and Humanities Citation Index, Social Sciences Citation Index and discipline-specific databases.

Circular reporting

Circular reporting or false confirmation is a situation in source criticism where a piece of information appears to come from multiple independent sources, but in reality comes from only one source. In many cases, the problem happens mistakenly through sloppy intelligence gathering practices. However, at other times the situation can be intentionally contrived by the original source as a way of reinforcing the widespread belief in its information.This problem occurs in a variety of fields, including intelligence gathering, journalism, and scholarly research. It is of particular concern in military intelligence because the original source has a higher likelihood of wanting to pass on misinformation, and because the chain of reporting is more prone to being obscured. The case of the 2002 Niger uranium forgeries was a classic instance of circular reporting by intelligence agencies.

Darwinian literary studies

Darwinian literary studies (also known as literary Darwinism) is a branch of literary criticism that studies literature in the context of evolution by means of natural selection, including gene-culture coevolution. It represents an emerging trend of neo-Darwinian thought in intellectual disciplines beyond those traditionally considered as evolutionary biology: evolutionary psychology, evolutionary anthropology, behavioral ecology, evolutionary developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, affective neuroscience, behavioural genetics, evolutionary epistemology, and other such disciplines.

Diacritics (journal)

Diacritics is a quarterly peer-reviewed academic journal established in 1971 at Cornell University and published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Articles serve to review recent literature in the field of literary criticism, and have covered topics in gender studies, political theory, psychoanalysis, queer theory, and other areas. The editor-in-chief is Karen Pinkus (Cornell University).

Feminist literary criticism

Feminist literary criticism is literary criticism informed by feminist theory, or more broadly, by the politics of feminism. It uses the principles and ideology of feminism to critique the language of literature. This school of thought seeks to analyze and describe the ways in which literature portrays the narrative of male domination by exploring the economic, social, political, and psychological forces embedded within literature. This way of thinking and criticizing works can be said to have changed the way literary texts are viewed and studied, as well as changing and expanding the canon of what is commonly taught. It is used a lot in Greek myths.Traditionally, feminist literary criticism has sought to examine old texts within literary canon through a new lens. Specific goals of feminist criticism include both the development and discovery female tradition of writing, and rediscovering of old texts, while also interpreting symbolism of women's writing so that it will not be lost or ignored by the male point of view and resisting sexism inherent in the majority of mainstream literature. These goals, along with the intent to analyze women writers and their writings from a female perspective, and increase awareness of the sexual politics of language and style were developed by Lisa Tuttle in the 1980s, and have since been adopted by a majority of feminist critics.

The history of feminist literary criticism is extensive, from classic works of nineteenth-century women authors such as George Eliot and Margaret Fuller to cutting-edge theoretical work in women's studies and gender studies by "third-wave" authors. Before the 1970s—in the first and second waves of feminism—feminist literary criticism was concerned with women's authorship and the representation of women's condition within literature; in particular the depiction of fictional female characters. In addition, feminist literary criticism is concerned with the exclusion of women from the literary canon, with theorists such as Lois Tyson suggesting that this is because the views of women authors are often not considered to be universal ones.Additionally, feminist criticism has been closely associated with the birth and growth of queer studies. Modern feminist literary theory seeks to understand both the literary portrayals and representation of both women and people in the queer community, expanding the role of a variety of identities and analysis within feminist literary criticism.

Infobase Publishing

Infobase Publishing is an American publisher of reference book titles and textbooks geared towards the North American library, secondary school, and university-level curriculum markets. Infobase operates a number of prominent imprints, including Facts On File, Films for the Humanities & Sciences, Cambridge Educational, Chelsea House (which also serves as the imprint for the special collection series, "Bloom's Literary Criticism" under the direction of literary critic Harold Bloom), and Ferguson Publishing.

Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for Literary Criticism

Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award is given each year by the Kerala Sahitya Akademi (Kerala Literary Academy), to Malayalam writers for their outstanding books of literary merit. The awards are given in various categories including Poetry, Novel, Story, Drama, Literary criticism, Biography - autobiography, Travelogue, Humour, Translation, Children's literature etc. The list of writers who have won the award for Literary Criticism is given below.

M. R. Chandrasekharan

Malappurath Raman Chandrasekharan (Malayalam: മലപ്പുറത്ത് രാമൻ ചന്ദ്രശേഖരൻ; born 26 February 1929), popularly known as M.R. Chandrasekharan (Malayalam: എം. ആർ. ചന്ദ്രശേഖരൻ) or simply M. R. C. (Malayalam: എം.ആര്‍.സി.), is a Malayalam literary critic and author from Kerala, India. Chandrasekharan has published more than 40 books in different literary sections like literary criticism, translations, politics, social etc. He is also noted for his work in the field of journalism and education. He won the 2010 Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award for Literary Criticism.

Marxist literary criticism

Marxist literary criticism is a loose term describing literary criticism based on socialist and dialectic theories. Marxist criticism views literary works as reflections of the social institutions from which they originate. Most Marxist critics who were writing in what could chronologically be specified as the early period of Marxist literary criticism subscribed to what has come to be called "Vulgar Marxism." In this thinking of the structure of societies, literary texts are one register of the Superstructure, which is determined by the economic Base of any given society. Therefore, literary texts are a reflection of the economic Base rather than "the social institutions from which they originate" for all social institutions, or, more precisely human social relationships, are in the final analysis determined by the economic Base. According to Marxists, even literature itself is a social institution and has a specific ideological function, based on the background and ideology of the author.

The English literary critic and cultural theorist Terry Eagleton defines Marxist criticism this way:

Marxist criticism is not merely a 'sociology of literature', concerned with how novels get published and whether they mention the working class. Its aim is to explain the literary work more fully; and this means a sensitive attention to its forms, styles and, meanings. But it also means grasping those forms, styles and meanings as the product of a particular history.The simplest goals of Marxist literary criticism can include an assessment of the political 'tendency' of a literary work, determining whether its social content or its literary form are 'progressive'. It also includes analyzing the class constructs demonstrated in the literature. Further, another of the ends of Marxist criticism is to analyze the narrative of class struggle in a given text. Does the text serve to perpetuate the ruling class ideology; to subvert that ideology, such as William Morris's News from Nowhere; or to signify both a perpetuation and subversion of the dominant ideology, such as in the works of Charles Dickens with Hard Times being the novel that most openly textualizes such a double signification as it offers a damning criticism of capitalism while also and at the same time seeking a perpetuation of a class-structured society.


PopMatters is an international online magazine of cultural criticism that covers many aspects of popular culture. PopMatters publishes reviews, interviews, and detailed essays on most cultural products and expressions in areas such as music, television, films, books, video games, comics, sports, theater, visual arts, travel, and the Internet.

Psychoanalytic literary criticism

Psychoanalytic literary criticism is literary criticism or literary theory which, in method, concept, or form, is influenced by the tradition of psychoanalysis begun by Sigmund Freud.

Psychoanalytic reading has been practiced since the early development of psychoanalysis itself, and has developed into a heterogeneous interpretive tradition. As Celine Surprenant writes, 'Psychoanalytic literary criticism does not constitute a unified field. However, all variants endorse, at least to a certain degree, the idea that literature ... is fundamentally entwined with the psyche'.

Semiotic literary criticism

Semiotic literary criticism, also called literary semiotics, is the approach to literary criticism informed by the theory of signs or semiotics. Semiotics, tied closely to the structuralism pioneered by Ferdinand de Saussure, was extremely influential in the development of literary theory out of the formalist approaches of the early twentieth century.

Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong

Sherlock Holmes was Wrong: Re-opening the Case of the "Hound of the Baskervilles" is a 2007 book by French professor of literature, psychoanalyst, and author Pierre Bayard.

By re-examining the clues and interpreting them in the context in which Arthur Conan Doyle's book The Hound of the Baskervilles was conceived and written, Bayard clears the hound of all wrongdoing and argues that the actual murderer got away with the crime completely unsuspected by Sherlock Holmes—not to mention by the numerous readers of the story over the past century and even, in a sense, by the author himself.

The book was originally written in French.


In sociology, anthropology, and linguistics, structuralism is the methodology that implies elements of human culture must be understood by way of their relationship to a broader, overarching system or structure. It works to uncover the structures that underlie all the things that humans do, think, perceive, and feel. Alternatively, as summarized by philosopher Simon Blackburn, structuralism is "the belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract structure".Structuralism in Europe developed in the early 1900s, in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague, Moscow and Copenhagen schools of linguistics. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when structural linguistics were facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance, an array of scholars in the humanities borrowed Saussure's concepts for use in their respective fields of study. French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss was arguably the first such scholar, sparking a widespread interest in structuralism.The structuralist mode of reasoning has been applied in a diverse range of fields, including anthropology, sociology, psychology, literary criticism, economics and architecture. The most prominent thinkers associated with structuralism include Claude Lévi-Strauss, linguist Roman Jakobson, and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. As an intellectual movement, structuralism was initially presumed to be the heir apparent to existentialism. However, by the late 1960s, many of structuralism's basic tenets came under attack from a new wave of predominantly French intellectuals such as the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, the philosopher Jacques Derrida, the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, and the literary critic Roland Barthes. Though elements of their work necessarily relate to structuralism and are informed by it, these theorists have generally been referred to as post-structuralists. In the 1970s, structuralism was criticized for its rigidity and ahistoricism. Despite this, many of structuralism's proponents, such as Lacan, continue to assert an influence on continental philosophy and many of the fundamental assumptions of some of structuralism's post-structuralist critics are a continuation of structuralism.

The Individuated Hobbit

The Individuated Hobbit: Jung, Tolkien, and the Archetypes of Middle-Earth is a critical study of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien by Timothy R. O'Neill. It was written from a Jungian perspective, with particular emphasis put on archetypes.

Literary criticism
Literary theory

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