Literary Criticism, Its Purpose and Usage

The term literary criticism refers directly to the ‘reasoned consideration’ of literary works and their relatable issues. It encompasses all arguments about literature – whether or not specific literary works are analyzed. The earliest form of literary criticism can be seen in Plato’s warnings against the potentially detrimental effects of poetic inspiration in his work, Republic.

More specifically, literary criticism includes what has been referred to as ‘practical criticism’, or the interpretation of intended meanings and the overall judgement of quality. Criticism at this level can be seen not only from an artistic vantage point, but also from other viewpoints that might be relevant to students and others who study literature in more depth than the traditional reader.

For example, bibliographical questions, historical knowledge, influential sources, and even problems of method. For this reason, criticism is often considered to be in a different category than conventional scholarship. That is where the separation ends, however.  At the root of all criticism is informed outside knowledge.

Literary criticism depends on all phases of literary understanding, including keen emphasis on the evaluation of the work itself and a strong understanding of the life and times of the author.

Function of Literary Criticism

The overall functions of literary criticism are not easily compartmentalized. If someone were to attempt to critique a literary work, they might find that they are doing a broad spectrum of activities, ranging from book reviews to more in-depth theoretical discussions of not only the book, but also the person who wrote the book and the historical events that occurred during the time of original writing. Book reviews have the potential to determine whether or not a book will be sold in mass quantities.

However, there are several famous books that have enjoyed great commercial success despite receiving negative reviews – including one of the most famous works ever written. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) did not receive glowing reviews from critics, yet it has enjoyed tremendous success in both print and movie form for almost two hundred years.

One of the guiding functions of literary criticism is to explore and express shifts in sensibility that make it possible to revaluate books . In fact, the only requirement for a new critique is that the original text survive over the years.

The literary critic sometimes finds that they must wear multiple hats, acting as a pseudo-detective, uncovering, verifying and editing unknown manuscripts. Occasionally, literary critics have the unique opportunity to introduce the public to literary works that have either been forgotten or may not have generated a strong interest in previous years.

The depth of the functions involved in a proper literary critique will determine the range of publications the critique appears in. For example, literary criticisms that are published in the daily press will seldom include detailed analysis and often have little more information than a summary of the publishers claim for book interest.

Weekly or biweekly magazines will contain slightly more information, however, they are often bias in their judgement and some magazines (such as the New York Review of Books) prefer to publish reviews of more popular works. It is also possible to find sustained criticism in monthly and quarterly publications, scholarly journals and books.

Given the role that critics play in demonstrating which written work should garner the most respect from the public and in deciding what the work is ‘really’ about, literary critics are often the target of resentment. Critics who are misinformed or malicious have the capability to steamroll or discourage writers who have been struggling to enter new realms of writing. Plodding critics can hinder new literature by diverting deserved attention away from pivotal points in the work and reflecting on inessential maters.

Literary critics might even antagonize writers despite optimal performance of their work. Those writers who possess minimal regard for literary critics aren’t less pleased when they are told that their finished work might possess unintended meanings or when it is viewed as incomplete.

What authors who believe that there is no need for literary criticism fail to recognize is that their work, after publication, is ‘theirs’ only in the legal sense. The genuine ‘owners’ of the work, in the broad sense, is the public who will now be in a position to form their own opinions regardless of what critics say or believe.

The responsibility of the critic is not to stroke the ego of the writer, but rather to compel the public to become involved in the conversation and to develop their own standard of judgement. A critic can be useful to the public because they focus on what the public wants in literature or popular culture and what they stand to receive from literature and popular culture.

Interestingly, despite the fact that literary critics are often the basis of the personal opinions of the critics themselves, it is these reviews that help to create a thirst for art in the public. It is the role of the critic to identify authentic talent in authors and to make sure that the public has the opportunity to explore those talents.

That said, there are critics who feel strongly that literature must be discussed separately from other matters, however many feel that social and political debates will augment these conversations. Literature is known to be partisan, meaning that it will always, in one way or another, bare connection to local circumstance and can call upon values and affirmations – It is not surprising to hear that the best critics pay little attention to the boundaries between criticism and other social conventions.

This is particularly true in modern European nations where literary criticism has held a formative place in ongoing debates about political and cultural issues. What is Literature (1947) by Sarte is a prime example of how literary ideals can relate to the development of society and various freedoms.

Existing Forms of Literary Criticism

There are many different types of literary criticism, most focus on specific issues or identities. Here are a few examples:

  • Moral Criticism, Dramatic Construction(-360 BC to Present Time)
  • Formalism, New Criticism, Neo-Aristotelian Criticism (1930 to Present Time)
  • Psychoanalytic Criticism, Jungian Criticism (1930 to Present Time)
  • Marxist Criticism (1930 to Present Time)
  • Reader-Response Criticism (1960 to Present Time)
  • Structuralism / Semiotics (1920 to Present Time)
  • New Historicism / Cultural Studies (1980 to Present Time)
  • Post Colonial Criticism (1990 to Present Time)
  • Feminist Criticism (1960 to Present Time)
  • Gender or Queer Studies (1970 to Present Time)

Sociological Criticism: Similar to historical criticism, this type of critique explores the written work in the cultural, economic, and political context in which it was originally written. This might include things like the analysis of the social content of the written work or the cultural, economic and / or political values expressed.

Reader-Response Criticism: This method of criticism aims to demonstrate what occurs in the minds of readers while they interpret a specific piece of text. A reader-response critic might attempt to investigate the impact that a specific text has on their own thought process or beliefs or values. For instance, one might take into consideration who a character appears to be likeable and for what reason. They might also explore how their religion, culture or social values affect reading.

Gender Criticism: Here, critics explore how gender identity can influence the development and understanding of a literary work. Gender studies were first seen during the feminist movement, when literary critics began to explore the role of gender in writing. Feminist critics look at how the gender of a writer might – knowingly or unknowingly – influence their writing. These critics also explore how images of males and females in literature relate to the social norms of gender in society.

Mythological Criticism: As the name suggests, this type of literary critique explores universal patterns and draws upon insights from history, anthropology, psychology, and religion to determine how an author might use myths and symbolism in the development of their work. A central concept of this type of criticism is the archtype – a character, situation or image that evokes a profound universal response.

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Biographical Criticism: These types of critics will explore how details of the author’s life might assist readers in developing a more thorough understanding of their writing.  This is not to say that biographical critics concern themselves only with describing the life and times of the author, but rather with interpreting the written work using keen insights and examples extrapolated from their understanding of the author’s life.

Formalist Criticism: Formalist’s examine the written work as closely as possible, they analyze each of the various elements as a way of interpretation.

Historical Development of Literary Criticism

Nearly all literary criticism was document from the 20th century onward. That said, the questions first raised by Aristotle and Plato are still considered valid, and every single critic who has ever attempted to justify the social value of literature has done so by first having to come to terms with Plato’s argument in Republic.

Plato morality found poetry as a statement untrustworthy and believed that poetry could never been seen as more than transcendent ideas. It was with this statement that we was, in essence, saying that literature could only serve to move truth seekers away from the truth. Plato credited the poet with inspiration, but insisted that this was a cause for worry; ‘A man possess by such madness would subvert rational’ Because of this, poets were to be banished from the hypothetical republic.

In Poetics, Aristotle countered Plato’s argument by stressing his views of what was normal and helpful in literature. It was his argument that the poet was not inspired by the divine, but was instead motivated by basic human desire to imitate the universe around him. Imitation is perceived to have value for those who are empathetic to it.

Both Aristotle and Plato are seen as antagonists, but their inability to agree with each other’s viewpoint is noteworthy. Both agree that poetry is imitative, both agree that it evokes emotions in readers, and both feel that poetry gains justification from its service to the public. Poets, in history, had power over others. Modern critics feel that poetry is much more than a past-time , where Aristotle believes that it was not the social marvel that it was made out to be.

Other notable periods of literary criticism include:

  • The Medieval Period
  • The Renaissance
  • Neoclassicism and its decline
  • Romanticism
  • The late 19thCentury
  • The 20thCentury

Some Important Terms in Literary Criticism

Allegory: A story in which the narrative or the characters carry an underlying metaphorical, symbolic or ethical meaning.

Alliteration: The repetition of one or more consonants in a group of words or lines of poetry

Ambiguity: A vagueness of meaning, a conscious lack of clarity.

Anachronism: A person, event or other element that fails to correspond with the era or time the literary work is set in.

Analogy: A comparison that points out the similarities between to unlike objects.

Antithesis: A rhetorical opposition or contrast of ideas by means of an arrangement of clauses, words or sentences.

Ballad: A narrative verse that tells a story that is sung.

Bathos: The use of insincere sentiments.

Burlesque: A literary work that is meant to bring ridicule to the subject

Caesura: A pause located in the middle of a verse, marked by punctuation.

Carpe Diem: Translate literally as meaning ‘seize the day.’

Catharsis: A cleansing of the spirit, brought on by pity and terror during tragedy.

Coming of Age Story: A story where a young protagonist experiences the introduction to adulthood. The character will develop a firsthand understanding of education, disillusionment, or some other experience that will alter their emotional maturity.