From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
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.
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.
- Plato: Ion, Republic, Cratylus
- Aristotle: Poetics, Rhetoric
- Horace: Art of Poetry
- Longinus: On the Sublime
- Plotinus: On the Intellectual Beauties
- St. Augustine: On Christian Doctrine
- Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy
- Aquinas: The Nature and Domain of Sacred Doctrine
- Dante: The Banquet, Letter to Can Grande Della Scala
- Boccaccio: Life of Dante, Genealogy of the Gentile Gods
- Bharata Muni: Natya Shastra
- Al-Jahiz: al-Bayan wa-'l-tabyin, al-Hayawan
- Abdullah ibn al-Mu'tazz: Kitab al-Badi
- Rajashekhara: Inquiry into Literature
- Valmiki: The Invention of Poetry (from the Ramayana)
- Anandavardhana: Light on Suggestion
- Cao Pi: A Discourse on Literature
- Lu Ji: Rhymeprose on Literature
- Liu Xie: The Literary Mind
- Wang Changling: A Discussion of Literature and Meaning
- Sikong Tu: The Twenty-Four Classes of Poetry
The literary criticism of the Renaissance developed classical ideas of unity of form and content into a literary neoclassicism which proclaimed literature to be central to culture and entrusted the poet or author with the preservation of a long literary tradition. The birth of Renaissance criticism started with the recovery of classic texts, most notably, the one of Giorgio Valla's translation of Aristotle's Poetics into Latin in 1498. The work of Aristotle, especially his Poetics, was the most important influence on literary criticism until the later part of the 18th century. One of the most influential of Renaissance critics was Lodovico Castelvetro who wrote 1570 commentaries on Aristotle's Poetics.
The British Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century brought new aesthetic ideas to the study of literature, including the idea that the object of literature did not always have to 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 which can seem startlingly modern to a reader of English literature, and valued Witz – that is, "wit" or "humor" of a certain sort – more highly than the apparently serious Anglophone Romanticism.
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.
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.
- Literary theory
- History of the Book
- Deconstruction (c.f. Jacques Derrida)
- Marxist literary criticism
- Feminist literary criticism
- Postcolonial literary criticism
- Psychoanalytic literary criticism
- Semiotic literary criticism
- Genre studies
- Hysterical realism
- Modern Language Association
- Comparative Literature
- Poetic tradition
- Darwinian literary studies
- Reader-Response Criticism