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What Is Literary Criticism?

By Meghan Perry
Updated May 23, 2024
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Literary criticism has multiple functions. It is used as a vehicle to interpret or analyze various types of literature, including poetry, novels, and plays. There are many different types, or schools, of literary criticism that can be applied to works of literature. Critical essays are the most common form of literary criticism, and they are generally found in scholarly journals or in books of collected essays or anthologies.

In effect, literary criticism explores different possible meanings that a text may have. Criticism may look at an idea in a single text or may compare ideas found in multiple texts. These texts may be by the same author, or they may be from the same time period, or they may include similar themes. Often, literary critics use examples from the text or texts to emphasize or support the points they are making in their interpretations or analyses. In addition, ideas from other critical essays may be used to support or defend a point in an essay.

This type of criticism, which is also known as literary theory, has many different schools of thought. The type of criticism being used will influence the way that the critic views the text, and because of this, texts can be interpreted in many different ways. This is often referred to as looking at literature through different lenses, depending on which type of criticism is being used. For example, a psychoanalytic critic will view a text very differently than a critic using Marxist theory, which views the text from an economic standpoint.

Another school of literary criticism is postcolonial. A critic using this theory will often look at the way the colonized people were viewed and treated by the colonizers in a work of literature, for instance. New Historicism or cultural theory, is another school of criticism. This theory views a text in the cultural and social context in which it was written. For example, a critic who uses this theory to explore a work of literature may also look at letters the author wrote or newspaper accounts of what was happening at the time the work was written to try to understand the meaning of the text more completely.

Reader-response criticism is another theory used to study literature. This school of criticism looks at how groups of readers respond to the same text and explores differences and similarities in their interpretations. Feminist criticism looks at works from a female perspective; for example, it may explore how the female characters in literature are treated by the male characters and draw conclusions based on that examination.

There are other schools of literary criticism as well, including formalism, deconstruction, and gender/queer criticism. The main purpose of any type of literary criticism is to form a judgment about the text and its meaning. It may also allow the reader to see things through a closer exploration of the text. In addition, if there are conflicts within the text, using literary criticism may help to resolve them and offer a clearer understanding.

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Discussion Comments
By lluviaporos — On Oct 31, 2013

I really enjoy being able to deconstruct a text when it adds to my understanding of the novel and of the world around the novel.

But I also like being able to just read a book without having to analyze every little thing. It took a long time to get to the point where being able to analyze books (from taking several literary criticism courses) didn't interfere with my ability to enjoy them for their own merits.

By indigomoth — On Oct 31, 2013

@browncoat - I wonder if that applies to books as much as films. Films are generally targeted towards both men and women and it's a common perception that men won't watch female characters. But there is also a perception that men don't read, or that they only read books targeted to men.

Contemporary literary criticism is generally not that concerned with novels that are targeted to one gender or another (since these tend to be genre novels).

By browncoat — On Oct 30, 2013

I never realized why we needed feminism so much until I started reading some works of literary feminist criticism. It really is strange to realize the way that women are often treated in novels and other works of fiction.

The simple way of showing people this is to explain the Bechdel test to them. It's not perfect, but it does help to illuminate the different ways that men and women are portrayed in fiction.

The way the test works is to examine a work of fiction (usually a film, but it can work for novels as well) and see if there are more than two women, if they talk to each other and if that conversation is about something other than a man.

It is surprising how many famous novels and films will fail this test. And it's because women are almost always shown in relation to men, rather than as characters in their own right.

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