Literary theory in a strict sense is the systematic study of the nature of literature and of the methods for analyzing literature. However, literary scholarship since the 19th century often includes—in addition to, or even instead of literary theory in the strict sense—considerations of intellectual history, moral philosophy, social prophecy, and other interdisciplinary themes which are of relevance to the way humans interpret meaning. In the humanities in modern academia, the latter style of scholarship is an outgrowth of critical theory and is often called simply "theory". As a consequence, the word "theory" has become an umbrella term for a variety of scholarly approaches to reading texts. Many of these approaches are informed by various strands of Continental philosophy and of sociology.
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), ancient India (Bharata Muni's Natya Shastra), ancient Rome (Longinus's On the Sublime) and medieval Iraq (Al-Jahiz's al-Bayan wa-'l-tabyin and al-Hayawan, and ibn al-Mu'tazz's Kitab al-Badi). 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 tied to the history of literature.
However, the modern sense of "literary theory" only dates to approximately the 1950s when the structuralist linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure began to strongly 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 universities such as Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Cornell) 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, 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. By 2010, the controversy over the use of theory in literary studies had quieted down, and discussions on the topic within literary and cultural studies tend now to be considerably milder and less lively. However, some scholars like Mark Bauerlein continue to argue that less capable theorists have abandoned proven methods of epistemology, resulting in persistent lapses in learning, research, and evaluation. Some scholars do 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.
One of the fundamental questions of literary theory is "what is literature?" – although 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 create meaning in a "text". However, some theorists acknowledge that these texts do not have a singular, fixed meaning which is deemed "correct".
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 types of literary theory, which take different approaches to texts. Even among those listed below, many scholars 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 historical and biographical criticism, New Criticism, formalism, Russian formalism, and structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, feminism and French feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, and psychoanalytic criticism.
The different interpretive and epistemological perspectives of different schools of theory often arise from, and so give support to, different moral and political commitments. 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. A critic using Darwinian literary studies might use arguments from the evolutionary psychology of religion.
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, the post-structuralist's work emerges from twentieth-century Continental philosophy of language, and the Darwinian from the modern evolutionary synthesis.
In the late 1950s, the 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 ascendance 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.
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.
Listed below are some of the most commonly identified schools of literary theory, along with their major authors. In many cases, such as those of the historian and philosopher Michel Foucault and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the authors were not primarily literary critics, but their work has been broadly influential in literary theory.
Jay treats it [theory] as transformative progress, but it impressed us as hack philosophizing, amateur social science, superficial learning, or just plain gamesmanship.
In literary theory and aesthetics, authorial intent refers to an author's intent as it is encoded in their work. Authorial intentionalism is the view, according to which an author's intentions should constrain the ways in which it is properly interpreted.Biographia Literaria
Biographia Literaria, or in full Biographia Literaria; or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, is an autobiography in discourse by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, which he published in 1817, in two volumes of twenty-three chapters.English studies
English studies (usually called simply English) is an academic discipline taught in primary, secondary, and post-secondary education in English-speaking countries; it is not to be confused with English taught as a foreign language, which is a distinct discipline. English includes: the study of literature written in the English language (especially novels, short stories, and poetry), the majority of which comes from Britain, the United States, and Ireland (although English-language literature from any country may be studied, and local or national literature is usually emphasized in any given country); English composition, including writing essays, short stories, and poetry; English language arts, including the study of grammar, usage, and style; and English sociolinguistics, including discourse analysis of written and spoken texts in the English language, the history of the English language, English language learning and teaching, and the study of World Englishes. English linguistics (syntax, morphology, phonetics, phonology, etc.) is usually treated as a distinct discipline, taught in a department of linguistics.
The disciplinary divide between a dominant literature or usage orientation is one motivation for the division of the North American Modern Language Association (MLA) into two subgroups. At universities in non-English-speaking countries, the same department often covers all aspects of English studies, including linguistics: this is reflected, for example, in the structure and activities of the European Society for the Study of English (ESSE).
It is common for departments of English to offer courses and scholarship in the areas of the English language, literature (including literary criticism and literary theory), public speaking and speech-writing, rhetoric, composition studies, creative writing, philology and etymology, journalism, poetry, publishing, literacy, area studies (especially American studies), the philosophy of language, theater and play-writing, screenwriting, communication studies, technical communication, cultural studies, critical theory, gender studies, ethnic studies, disability studies, digital media and electronic publishing, film studies and other media studies, and various courses in the liberal arts and humanities, among others. In most English-speaking countries, the study at all educational levels of texts produced in non-English languages takes place in other departments, such as departments of foreign language or of comparative literature.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.Formalism (literature)
Formalism is a school of literary criticism and literary theory having mainly to do with structural purposes of a particular text. It is the study of a text without taking into account any outside influence. Formalism rejects or sometimes simply "brackets" (i.e., ignores for the purpose of analysis) notions of culture or societal influence, authorship, and content, and instead focuses on modes, genres, discourse, and forms.Genius (literature)
The concept of genius, in literary theory and literary history, derives from the later 18th century, when it began to be distinguished from ingenium in a discussion of the genius loci, or "spirit of the place." It was a way of discussing essence, in that each place was supposed to have its own unique and immutable nature, but this essence was determinant, in that all persons of a place would be infused or inspired by that nature. In the early nationalistic literary theories of the Augustan era, each nation was supposed to have a nature determined by its climate, air, and fauna that made a nation's poetry, manners, and art singular. It created national character.
T.V.F. Brogan argues that "genius" is a middle term in the evolution of the idea of inspiration and poetic ability from a belief in an external source (afflatus, or divine infection, and poetic phrenzy, or divine madness) and an internal source (imagination and the subconscious). However, the concept became nearly identical with poetic madness and divine madness in later Romanticism. The word itself was conflated with the Latin ingenium (natural ability) by the time of the Renaissance, and it thereby becomes a natural spirit or natural essence unique to the individual and yet derived from the place. In this sense, it is still a term synonymous with skill.Imitation (art)
Imitation is the doctrine of artistic creativity according to which the creative process should be based on the close imitation of the masterpieces of the preceding authors. This concept was first formulated by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the first century BCE as imitatio, and has since dominated for almost two thousand years the Western history of the arts and classicism; in the 18th century, Romanticism reversed it with the creation of the institution of romantic originality. In the 20th century, the modernist and postmodern movements in turn discarded the romantic idea of creativity, and heightened the practice of imitation, copying, plagiarism, rewriting, appropriation and so on as the central artistic device.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 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, Bookforum, and The New Yorker.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.Narrative structure
Narrative structure, a literary element, is generally described as the structural framework that underlies the order and manner in which a narrative is presented to a reader, listener, or viewer. The narrative text structures are the plot and the setting.Of Grammatology
Of Grammatology (French: De la grammatologie) is a 1967 book by French philosopher Jacques Derrida that has been called a foundational text for deconstructive criticism. The book discusses writers such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Étienne Condillac, Louis Hjelmslev, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Roman Jakobson, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, André Leroi-Gourhan, and William Warburton. The English translation by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak was first published in 1976. A revised edition of the translation was published in 1997. A further revised edition was published in January 2016.Poetics (Aristotle)
Aristotle's Poetics (Greek: Περὶ ποιητικῆς; Latin: De Poetica; c. 335 BC) is the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory and first extant philosophical treatise to focus on literary theory This has been the traditional view for centuries. However, recent work is now challenging whether Aristotle focuses on literary theory per se (given that not one poem exists in the treatise) or whether he focuses instead on dramatic musical theory that only has language as one of the elements.In it, Aristotle offers an account of what he calls "poetry" (a term that derives from a classical Greek term, ποιητής, that means "poet; author; maker" and in this context includes verse drama – comedy, tragedy, and the satyr play – as well as lyric poetry and epic poetry). They are similar in the fact that they are all imitations but different in the three ways that Aristotle describes:
Differences in music rhythm, harmony, meter and melody.
Difference of goodness in the characters.
Difference in how the narrative is presented: telling a story or acting it out.In examining its "first principles", Aristotle finds two: 1) imitation and 2) genres and other concepts by which that of truth is applied/revealed in the poesis. His analysis of tragedy constitutes the core of the discussion. Although Aristotle's Poetics is universally acknowledged in the Western critical tradition, "almost every detail about his seminal work has aroused divergent opinions".The work was lost to the Western world for a long time. It was available in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance only through a Latin translation of an Arabic version written by Averroes.Protologism
Protologism is a term invented in the early 2000s by Mikhail Epstein, an American literary theorist, to refer to a new word which has not gained wide acceptance in the language. A protologism becomes a neologism as soon as it appears in published press, on a website or book independent from the coiner.Reception theory
Reception theory is a version of reader response literary theory that emphasizes each particular reader's reception or interpretation in making meaning from a literary text. Reception theory is generally referred to as audience reception in the analysis of communications models. In literary studies, reception theory originated from the work of Hans-Robert Jauss in the late 1960s, and the most influential work was produced during the 1970s and early 1980s in Germany and the US (Fortier 132), with some notable work done in other Western European countries. A form of reception theory has also been applied to the study of historiography.
The cultural theorist Stuart Hall was one of the main proponents of reception theory, first developed in his 1973 essay 'Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse'. His approach, called the encoding/decoding model of communication, is a form of textual analysis that focuses on the scope of "negotiation" and "opposition" by the audience. This means that a "text"—be it a book, movie, or other creative work—is not simply passively accepted by the audience, but that the reader/viewer interprets the meanings of the text based on her or his individual cultural background and life experiences. In essence, the meaning of a text is not inherent within the text itself, but is created within the relationship between the text and the reader.
Hall also developed a theory of encoding and decoding, Hall's theory, which focuses on the communication processes at play in texts that are in televisual form.
Reception theory has since been extended to the spectators of performative events, focusing predominantly on the theatre. Susan Bennett is often credited with beginning this discourse. Reception theory has also been applied to the history and analysis of landscapes, through the work of the landscape historian John Dixon Hunt, as Hunt recognized that the survival of gardens and landscapes is largely related to their public reception.Structuralism
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.Terry Eagleton
Terence Francis Eagleton (born 1943) is a British literary theorist, critic, and public intellectual. He is currently Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University.
Eagleton has published over forty books, but remains best known for Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), which has sold over 750,000 copies. The work elucidated the emerging literary theory of the period, as well as arguing that all literary theory is necessarily political. He has also been a prominent critic of postmodernism, publishing works such as The Illusions of Postmodernism (1996) and After Theory (2003). He argues that, influenced by postmodernism, cultural theory has wrongly devalued objectivity and ethics. His thinking is influenced by Marxism and by Christian faith.
Formerly the Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford (1992–2001) and John Edward Taylor Professor of Cultural Theory at the University of Manchester (2001–2008), Eagleton has held visiting appointments at universities around the world including Cornell, Duke, Iowa, Melbourne, Trinity College in Dublin, and Yale.Eagleton delivered Yale University's 2008 Terry Lectures and the University of Edinburgh's 2010 Gifford Lecture entitled The God Debate. He gave the 2010 Richard Price Memorial Lecture at Newington Green Unitarian Church, speaking on "The New Atheism and the War on Terror". In 2009, he published a book which accompanied his lectures on religion, entitled Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.Text (literary theory)
In literary theory, a text is any object that can be "read", whether this object is a work of literature, a street sign, an arrangement of buildings on a city block, or styles of clothing. It is a coherent set of signs that transmits some kind of informative message. This set of symbols is considered in terms of the informative message's content, rather than in terms of its physical form or the medium in which it is represented.
Within the field of literary criticism, "text" also refers to the original information content of a particular piece of writing; that is, the "text" of a work is that primal symbolic arrangement of letters as originally composed, apart from later alterations, deterioration, commentary, translations, paratext, etc. Therefore, when literary criticism is concerned with the determination of a "text", it is concerned with the distinguishing of the original information content from whatever has been added to or subtracted from that content as it appears in a given textual document (that is, a physical representation of text).
Since the history of writing predates the concept of the "text", most texts were not written with this concept in mind. Most written works fall within a narrow range of the types described by text theory. The concept of "text" becomes relevant if and when a "coherent written message is completed and needs to be referred to independently of the circumstances in which it was created."The Poetic Principle
"The Poetic Principle" is an essay by Edgar Allan Poe, written near the end of his life and published posthumously in 1850, the year after his death. It is a work of literary criticism, in which Poe presents his literary theory. It is based on a series of lectures Poe had given late in his lifetime.