What is Criticism?
Criticism, in the sense that we use it as students of literature, has nothing to do
with its everyday meaning, which is something like 'complaint'. Literary criticism is
commentary on a text. The focus in literary criticism is on the reader's response to the
text. Again, 'reader's response' means something more exact than it would to a non-
specialist. Most people respond to literature in a highly personal way, relating it to their
own experience or to their own philosophy of life. Literary criticism is something
different. It aims to comment in a more objective way on the themes and techniques of
the text. It explores such issues as why the writer chose certain words and not others, or
why the writer included certain details and not others.
"Gut-level" response to a literary work; immediate & intuitive judgment of its
worth, determined to a great extent by the reader's personality type and past experiences
(including his/her past experiences with other works of literature). Also: the literary
"critiques" of many pre-20th-century (especially 19th-century Romantic) critics, whose
criticism was as much self-expression as anything else. Valuable--and perhaps inevitable-
-starting-point to any response of literature, but dangerously subjective ("oh, no!"), and
best combined with one or more of the following, more "intellectually reputable," types
of literary criticism.
Reader-Response criticism attempts a psycho-philosophical analysis of how a
reader encounters & interprets a text. Some of the more radical permutations lead to an
almost complete reader subjectivism (the text is what the individual reader thinks it
means, however absurd), while other versions analyze the means by which various
readers arrive at a consensus regarding the "meaning"--which can then be assumed to be
a pretty much "correct" interpretation by the "ideal reader."
Fascinating and dangerous in its attempt to apply details from an author's life to
his/her works--and then drawing conclusions, perhaps, about the author's "inner mental
workings." In any case, the author's personal biography becomes the focus.
Psychoanalytical critics interpret a literary work à la Freud, that is, in terms of
unconscious fantasies & desires, fixations & complexes, displacement & repression.
Early psychoanalytical critics assumed, with Freud, that even creative works of literature
are at last products of the author's (sexual) libido.
Mythic/Archetypal (Jungian) Criticism
Another "both fascinating and dangerous" approach that assumes that all of
humankind's creative works--including literature, myths, and religious rituals & symbols,
and indeed, our very dreams--emanate from another inner psychic source, the collective
unconscious, as formulated by Carl Jung. Therefore one may find in many works of
literature archetypal (universal-to-our-species) symbols that represent the various
emotions and aspirations of humankind's ancestral psychological heritage.
The archetypal method is also commonly called MYTH or MYTHIC criticism
because archetypal figures & processes--such as the shadow, the anima/animus, the wise
old man, the god-image (or "Self"), the journey, the "divine marriage," and rebirth--are
profusely evident in humankind's myths and rituals.
The drawbacks of archetypal criticism are two-fold: 1) the Jungian critic is
sometimes guilty of finding an "archetype" in every image, character, and twist of plot,
thus weakening the impact of the critic's discoveries of the truly(?!) archetypal; 2) this
approach is not able to judge the greatness of an artistic work solely on the presence of
archetypal symbols, for, although Macbeth is replete with archetypal symbolism, so, too,
is the graffiti on the bathroom walls in the bar downtown (but, of course, this latter
limitation is really true of all "extrinsic" criticism); and 3) Jung's archetypes, as he
presents them, are very much culturally and racially specific: e.g., to claim that dreaming
of a "black man" is archetypally symbolic of the "shadow figure" applies, at best, to a
quite white, Eurocentric psyche.
For the formalist, the careful-thoughtful-and-well-informed reader judges the
merits of the work as a finely-crafted aesthetic whole--considering, for instance, in a
work of fiction, its use of plot, style, characterization, etc.; in a work of poetry, matters of
prosody, diction, figurative language, et al. At last, attentiveness to the purely formal
aspects of literature is an antidote to the reader's propensity for straying too far from the
text. Indeed, formalist criticism is supposedly unique among critical methods in being
completely "intrinsic," dealing only with aesthetic techniques evident within the work per
se. All other critical approaches are extrinsic, bringing to bear considerations outside the
text. For the formalist, such intrinsic analyses should at least be an integral part of any
well-rounded critical discussion of literature, and the psychologically or politically based
critic (for example) runs the danger of a distorted interpretation if formalistic matters are
not also taken into consideration.
The paragraph above presents formalism in its best light. On the negative side, in
dealing with specific literary "devices" in isolation (irony, point of view, etc.), this
approach may actually tend to destroy a work's "organic unity": as Wordsworth says,
"We murder to dissect." Also, the claim to non-political "objectivity" has been severely
called into question by politically-oriented critics, for whom all critical statements are
ideological, even--and especially--those that claim not to be so. In sum, a "retreat" to
formalism might well be said to be an implicit support of the political status quo.
Next to formalist criticism, traditionally considered the most "objective" critical
approach. The historical critic may be concerned with 1) the historical context per se, and
thus be concerned about the effects of the writer's historical milieu (race, place, & time
[cf. Taine]) upon the literary work at hand--e.g., the effects of the Industrial Revolution
on the work of a particular English Romantic poet; or 2) the cultural/philosophical--
"HISTORY OF IDEAS"--background of the writer's milieu--e.g., the impact of Einstein's
theory of relativity on, say, the novels of James Joyce--or 3) the effects of previous works
of literature (literary history) on the writer & his/her work--e.g., the influence of
Whitman's free verse and mystical worldview on American Beat poetry of the 1950's &
From Aristotle on, many scholars have emphasized the readers' expectations
about what such-and-such type of literature should be and do. (Thus Aristotle thought
that a good tragedy has a noble hero with a tragic flaw, creates some emotional catharsis
in the audience, etc.) And so the genre critic considers the conventions that make up a
particular literary type (e.g., the gothic romance, the pastoral poem), often analyzing how
a particular example of that genre follows--or flaunts--those conventions, and to what
effect. (Thus this approach can best be deemed a type of formalist criticism with
rhetorical/reader-response considerations factored in.) The most famous "genre" school
of the 20th century is the neo-Aristotelian Chicago School, of R.S. Crane, Wayne Booth,
etc. However, Mikhail Bakhtin's DIALOGIC theory--with its emphasis on the novel
genre and its sociological implications--has been more influential recently, in part
because such notions as polyphony and heteroglossia allow for a quite politically
"against-the-grain" reading of the text.
Here, the critic brings the cultural/religious assumptions of his or her own time to
bear upon a literary work, judging the text according to how well it fits the critic's own
ethical values system. At its best, this approach heaps praise on works of literature for
their superlative expression of humankind's highest ideals & aspirations. (Thus are the
writings of Homer, Shakespeare, and Goethe often lauded.) However, the critic's
subjective bias often leads to abuse; this method can easily evolve into dogmatic
condemnation and censorship, and indeed, many works otherwise deemed as
"aesthetically" great have been blacklisted, banned, or burned throughout the history of
humankind by well-meaning "moral" critics.
"Post structuralism" describes the various theories of social and linguistic
constructivism that critique the project of the "whole"--finding instead a "hole," that
leaves the truth and meaning of the text in flux, doubt, and relativity. Above all,
poststructuralism is a de-centering of all the dominant stances of Western Civilization,
including philosophy and socio-politics, class, racegender, sexuality, and culture.
Marxist criticism (very simply put) champions the downtrodden of socio-
economic class, critiquing texts that assume a classist society of economic elitism, and
championing texts that support the "common man." Finally, "Cultural Studies" and
postcolonial theories (among other approaches below) commonly adopt a Marxist
methodology in their critiques of the dominant culture.
Feminist criticism (very simply put) champions the downtrodden of the "war of
the sexes," critiquing patriarchal texts and championing neglected (and recent) "pro-
woman" literary works. Like Marxism, feminism quite often teams up with post-
structuralism in its critique of the dominant male culture. One might conveniently divide
feminism into two "camps": 1) those who posit an innate (and culturally repressed)
"female" way of writing, reading, even thinking (essentialist); and 2) those who see sex
or gender as socially conditioned and linguistically constructed (constructivist). Either
way, patriarchal dominance/oppression has been--and continues to be, the focus of such
With class and gender, race may be said to complete the main triad of oppressed
social groups "writing back" against dominant Western culture. But with such demeaning
labels as "African-American Studies" and "Native American Studies," much of the
scholarship here may also be said to be truly on the "outside lookin' in."