What is the purpose of criticism?
It's often said that those who aren't keen on theory are like fish who don't realise that they're in water - they're using theory all the time, but because they stick to the same theory they don't notice it's there.
Theory/criticism can help people appreciate poems they don't initially understand. The poems that "speak for themselves" only do so because of the particular aesthetic/cultural assumptions that readers grow up with. Some poems that once only spoke to others can speak to you too. But such poems aren't going to make the effort - you have to. Sometimes you might even see the water.
- To help the writer improve.
- To increase readers' understanding/appreciation.
- To judge quality. However, before one can say if literature is good,
shouldn't one know what it's for? Is it a search for truth? Is it to improve
the readers' mind or morality? "Critical practice ... began with strong
connections to moral philosophy and theology and has never moved far
from ethical concerns".
- Is it to keep critics employed? Is it an art form
in its own right?
What does the critic need to know?
- Should we learn about the author?
We know little about Shakespeare! If know that poet committed suicide the
day after writing the poem, it might help us appreciate why they wrote the
poem, but does it help us decide whether the poem's good?
- Should we learn about the author's intentions?
See "The Intentional Fallacy", Wimsatt and Beardsley, 1946. If doesn't fulfill
author's aims, can it ever be good? Does the author know best?
- Should we learn about the author's era and language?
What did words mean then? ("gay"). What were conventional
attitudes/lifestyle (was a male character being sexist or was it normal for
- Should we read other texts by the author, or other texts in the
- Should we find out what other readers think?
- Should we look at how readers come to appreciate the text?
- Should we be aware of other issues (politics for 1984, science for SF, India
for "Passage to India", the role of literature in that society)
Theorists mix the above factors in different proportions. Some for instance
deal purely with the text. Others focus on how readers engage with the piece.
The theorists fall into many groupings
- Literary criticism and literary theory - There are scientists
who work in labs taking
measurements. There are theoretical scientists who derive laws. Likewise,
literary theoreticians derive their general conclusions from many texts. In
the last 20-30 years things have got very technical.
- History of Criticism
- Mimesis - Quality judged by the accuracy of the depiction of external
world or felt life (Plato)
- Didacticism, Affect - Quality judged by its ability to delight and instruct
- Impressionism, Author - affect the author has on reader
- New Criticism - The text itself
- Structuralism - no reader, no author, no unity (words' meaning relative to
things outside the text, so the text can't be studied in isolation)
- Deconstructionism - Derrida, contradictions
- Others - CULTURAL STUDIES, CYBERCULTURE, ECOLITERATURE,
ECOCRITICISM, FEMINIST THEORY, MARXIST CRITIQUE,
POSTCOLONIAL, POSTMODERN (including Poststructuralist),
PSYCHOANALYTIC, SEMIOTICS, TECHNOLOGY THEORY
- "Writing poetry", Samson, Bloodaxe, 1995
- "The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics", Preminger and
Brogan, Princeton University Press, 1993.
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Updated in February 2005