Up until recently, I was aware that there existed a number of critical approaches to analyzing literature. However, my understanding of the subject was at best, sketchy. I had gained a fair amount of knowledge concerning only couple of them. I knew a little bit about the conflicts that adherents of particular approaches engaged in. However, I had no unified, coherent understanding about these techniques, or how they related to one another. As I have become recently interested in the subject, I decided that it was time for a primer on the topic.
I recently read Charles Bressler’s Literary Criticism. Though this work is used as a kind of textbook in many introductory literature and humanities classes, the book is extremely readable and presents all of the major critical systems, as well as some important subsystems. Bressler’s summaries are understandable, even when technical. The book presents the reader with a clear and concise overview that includes the history as well as examples of each of these methods. In addition, Bressler chronicles the history of literary criticism from Plato on down to the present day. Not only did I find this text interesting, but I also found exploring the various approaches to be fun.
I also spent a fair amount of time reading online articles and opinions relating to the various schools in order to round out my introduction. Finally, I reread various essays and book chapters written by Harold Bloom on this subject.
I tried to reach a level where I could at least articulate the basics of the various critical approaches and sub approaches. New Criticism, Constructionism, Deconstructionism, Reader-response criticism, Feminist Criticism, New Humanist Criticism, African - American Criticism and Psychoanalytic literary criticism are just a few examples.
Blogging about books is not the same thing as practicing academic literary criticism. Instead, both my fellow bloggers and myself are simply discussing books. With that said, much of the discussions that occur on our blogs involve elements of literary criticism. We often try to analyze meanings, themes, characters, etc. Of course, most of us do not claim to be attempting to write professionally, academically or even in a formal structure. Yet, anyone familiar with even a few of the book blogs out there will find elements of most of the approaches ingrained in our posts and discussions.
Furthermore, I find these various methods, even when I disagree with them, fascinating. Understanding the various approaches, the histories and theories behind them, as well as their methodologies, is just another piece of the puzzle to understanding art and aesthetics.
I will not go into much detail concerning most of the schools. There is a lot of complexity and nuance, and my understanding is rudimentary at best. Some of the philosophies behind these methods are radically different from one another. Personally, it turns out that in my thinking and writing about literature, I often parallel aspects of several approaches. I am very partial to a Holistic strategy, where aspects of several methods are employed.
I strongly question the value of a few of the schools, particularly Deconstructionism. At the risk of oversimplifying this method, adherents would look for the basic themes and symbols used in the text. Since, according to the theory, all concepts are subjective, the analysis would proceed by elevating themes that would traditionally be considered inferior or negative, to the level of the superior or the positive. Thus, a Deconstructive reading of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol might begin by interpreting the story as being in favor of hard work and frugality and critical of charity, leisure, etc. All sorts of variations in between the traditional interpretation of the story and this alternate interpretation could next be explored. I have doubts if this approach in any way moves us anywhere near to understanding art, ideas or the work itself.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding several of the approaches, particularly the Feminist and Cultural Studies schools, such as the Post Colonial and the African American approaches. I believe that these approaches are useful when examining texts whose themes directly involve their subjects. Thus, a Feminist reading of Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City Of Ladies or William Shakespeare’s The Taming of The Shrew makes perfect sense to me as one way to examine these texts. When such approaches are applied to all literary works, even those whose do not have related themes, these methodologies also seem to have value in terms of examining their respective subjects. Thus, if one wanted to consider or discuss the role of women in 16th century Europe, a Feminist analysis of just about any work written in 16th century Europe can be fruitful. However, these approaches seem ill equipped to understand and examine the works themselves if the themes of the work do not directly touch upon their subjects. For instance, Bressler presents a Feminist analysis of Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. I believe such analysis can be useful and interesting when examining gender related issues and the role and views of women when the story was written. However, in terms of understanding and appreciating this work, such an analysis seems, to me, unenlightening. Some adherents of these schools would argue the contrary, however.
I must mention that there is a school of thought that rejects many of these approaches outright. In several of his books, but particularly in his The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, Harold Bloom is highly critical of most of these systems. Bloom is very opinioned, as well as curmudgeonly, however I find his reasoning thought - provoking, even when I do not entirely agree with him.
I will likely not read much more on the theory and methods of literary criticism, as there is too much great literature itself out there waiting to be read. However, I do want to read Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. Afterward, I will likely leave this subject be. I am glad that I did spend a week or so exploring some of the basics, however. In a small way, at least, it will make me a better reader and help me to understand the world a bit more.
This sounds like a fascinating and worthwhile introduction to different types of literary criticism. I find myself agreeing with your description of literary blogging as "simply discussing books".
While you also note that we often go beyond simple discussion (a notion with which I also agree), in my commentaries I try to follow an approach that primarily focuses on the text with references to ideas the resonate with my own reading and background when trying to understand a work.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts about literary criticism ins some of its many forms.
Hi James - As I alluded to I think that most of us bloggers, as well as mosts folks who casually discuss books draw from many of the theories. Or maybe there is another way of looking at it, perhaps many of the theories just draw from many aspects of book discussion.
You brought me right back to St. Catherine's English Literature classes with your post. I loved to use the analytical side of my brain, but I also thought it could mess up a really good read sometimes too! Sometimes a book just does not need to be analyzed.
Hi Belle - Lots of folks have said similar things to me. Personally, I find analyzing things never detracts from my enjoyment of books or anything else. With books in particular I find that the analysis in no gets in the way of lighter parts. Without looking deep into a work that is really a great work, I think one misses out on so much.
Of course I am a bit nutty when it comes to analyzing things. I do it with food, movies, beer, books, etc. I really get immense enjoyment from these things. This enjoyment includes a lot of what I would call fun.
I also find that certain things, such as books, that do not have things that I can dig into, seem flat and dull.
This does sound like an interesting book that would enhance my own reading and writing. When my thinking becomes stale, my writing suffers--it's helpful to garner ideas and refresh my approach to literature. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention, Brian Joseph!
Hi Suko - Think that you are on to something with your point about avoiding staleness. Many of these approaches are just looking at things from a different direction. Just changing things up a little is good sometimes.
What a fascinating topic and one I'm definitely wanting to read up on, thanks for whetting my appetite.
Great post! I must get some of the books you've mentioned for my final year of university. For my first year I read Terry Eagleton's guide to criticism, but I must revisit some of the ideas. The Bressler book does sound interesting.
However, like you've said, I do think that it's sometimes best not to look too deeply into criticism... being too critical can limit the magic of literature, I think!
Hi Tracy - I was actually a little timid in a humorous sort of way about posting this. I was thinking that this was a bit geeky :)
Hi Lucy - Perhaps it is my geekiness, but I tend to think that sometimes this analyzing of books adds to their magic.
This sounds like an interesting book on the schools of literary criticism. It sounds as if you've enjoyed this one as well as reading online articles about the subject.
Hi Naida- I guess my unquenchable fascination with stuff comes through here.
Geeky I like.
I tend to like lit crit, although I have little patience (must be the Bloomism curmudgeon in me coming out) for those who slavishly follow a school of thought. I think lit crit should enhance understanding not pigeonhole every artistic expression into one way of viewing the world of literature and authorship.
Kudos to you for delving into the arcane stuff for fun!
Sounds like a really good book that would enhance the way we look at critiquing books but not something I will be rushing out to get. I like to keep my optional reading mostly fiction.
Hi Jane - I agree with you, sticking to one school seems to make little sense to me. From whet I have read however, there are many adherents to particular schools who just that. A holistic approach really opens up a lot of fun thought and conversation.
Hi Lainy - As I alluded to, I always struggle as to whether or not to read this stuff when there is so much of the great literature itself out there to be read.
My daughter is studying English in college for her undergrad. So, we've been having some discussions on this. She was writing a paper in support of one method of literary criticism, and I had commented to her it sounded a lot like a Hindu philosophy. Come to find out, it was a literary method based on literature from India. Interesting how philosophy and religion pop up everywhere, eh? It is a fascinating subject.
Hi Heidi - I may not have heard of that one. Do you know what it is called?
Oh my. I can't remember. It was something about analyzing the literature based on a circle from the past. I'll have to ask my daughter.
Great post as usual, Brian. I love reading these kinds of books. I enjoy breaking down what I've read, what I got out of it, what I think the writer was trying to say etc...
I read Bloom's learning taxonomy when I was getting my educator certification. I agree with a lot of his theories.
I also have a lot of misgivings about deconstructivist and feminist analysis. One seems to want one to prove everything from a negative standpoint (e.g. prove to me this is a chair) and the other seems incapable of looking at anything accept through the filter of their own ideologies.
Some books you might enjoy are Mortimer Adler's "How to Read a Book" and "The Trivium" by Sister Miriam Joseph. The latter is also about the mechanics of language but it is also about how to think logically when approaching literature.
Hi Sharon - I Alder's book a while ago. I really liked it. Joseph's book sounds very good.
It seems like some of these speciaized forms of criticism can be useful but become silly when applied universally. Unfortunately it seems that many of their proponents try to do that.
Fascinating Brian. A topic I know little about - despite being a book blogger. For me criticism is simply about "is the book enjoyable, satisfying, rewarding?". A wholly inadequate approach I expect! Perhaps on the other hand, literary criticism is best left to those who have an academic approach and have time to devote to it. As they say, "life is too short to stuff a mushroom" !
Sorry Brian - the last comment from southcoastsounds is from me, A Common Reader. I signed in under the wrong id option
Hi Tom - I would say that for me, part of the satisfaction and enjoyment, in a least a little way, lies in some analysis and digging.
Sometimes those stuffed mushrooms are delicious!
Very interesting. I was familiar with most schools as I studied literature but I wouldn't mind a refresher.
I'm glad to hear it was accessible. This is often a problem with books like this. It would be interesting for me to see how some apparoches are viewed differently, some ten years after I've got introduced to them.
Hi Caroline - I think that Bressler’s book is just the latest version of many editions. My guess is that there has not been too much change in the schools, there are just more schools all the time!
I notice that you entirely skipped Freudian criticism, which is my favorite school of criticism to roll my eyes at. :)
Also, this post made me chuckle, since I JUST finished pondering reviews of the book What Would Jesus Deconstruct, by John D Caputo. I want to buy that book just because the title tickles me.
Hi Rachel - I read about a lot of school including Freudian. I myself am skeptical that Freudianism describes much that is fundamental or basic about our minds. However, I do thing that as a thought system it has had a tremendous impact upon our culture and society so I think that as a Literary Theory it might have value.
What Would Jesus Deconstruct, does sound strange but amusing. If you read it I would love to read what you think of it.
(I deleted the previous comment because of typos. Lol.)
Another fascinating and wonderful post, Brian!!
You're right, of course, in stating that we book bloggers engage in some form of literary criticism, even though it's of the most basic type. We cover such things as prose style, characterization, believability of setting and plot, and so on, It would be great if we could delve more deeply into novels using the methods you've mentioned here! I guess we'd need to take a course or two on the subject, however.
I agree with you that the method of Feminist Criticism would not be valid for every single novel out there. I guess I would have to read "Rip Van Winkle" again, but it does seem ridiculous to apply this method to that particular story. The two literary examples you mention in connection with Feminist Criticism are, of course, perfect for this method!
I greatly enjoyed reading this post! Also, I've put all the works you've referenced on my Amazon "Literary Criticism" wish list. Oh, yes, I have more than one Amazon wish list....in fact, I have over 40! Most of the items on them are books, of course!! Lol.
Thanks for a most illuminating post on a highly interesting subject!!
Hey Maria - Thanks for the great comment.
I will say that having read a bot of literary Criticism I find that many of our blogging, yours included as least tries to dig as deep as the professions. Though no one I know attempts to follow any of the schools strictly.
I hear you when it comes to wanting so may books! In terms of criticism I really want to read Northrop Frye. In terms of criticism it seems that it garners praise from all quarters.
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