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 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 criticism 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 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. Around the same time, Bharata Muni, in his Natya Shastra, had written 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.
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.
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 renown 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.
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 in Degenerate Moderns argues that Stanley Fish was influenced by his adulterous affairs to reject classic literature that condemned adultery, whilst in The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature, Elizabeth Kantor argues that in today’s college literature courses political correctness has completely displaced quality as the keystone for deciding what is taught.
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.
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