Literature is the expression of life, criticism of literature. Literature derives its material from the very life of human beings, criticism from literature. When we read different types of books (literature), we consciously or unconsciously compare them with its qualities and form our opinion—‘this is a very good book or novel’, ‘this drama depicts the human follies’, ‘this collection of poetry is appealing to our baser instinct’, ‘this is not a very good novel to read and spend much time over it’, ‘it’s very difficult work of art to understand’, etc. How do we form such views? What is the base of our opinion? When we think in this direction of passing our opinion about a novel or drama or poetry, we are entering in the realm of criticism, more specific literary criticism, the most integral branch of literature has a great role to play in understanding and interpreting a piece of literature, and broadly of art. It is a judgment including both sides—in favour of a work or against it. Only because of the study of literary criticism, we could define and categorise a wok of literature and frame it into the particular genre or group. E.g. we have different genres or branches of literature like novel, short story, drama, poetry, etc. which helps us a lot to interpret that particular branch or sub-form of literature. 

Literary criticism has a very long history as literature has. Almost English literary criticism is based on the Greek and Roman masters or philosophers like Plato (427 B.C.-348 B.C.), Aristotle (384 B.C.-322 B.C.), Horace (65 B.C.-8 B.C.), Longinus (213-273 A.D.), etc. The critical works such as Plato’s Dialogues, Republic and Ion, Aristotle’s Poetics, Horace’s Ars Poetica (Art of Poetry), Longinus’ On the Sublime are pioneer works in the field of literary criticism and have set forth the arguments on literature and its qualities. 

Literary criticism and literary theory are just two different words but most of the times connoting the same meaning and function. We can draw a blur line of difference to understand the two. Literary criticism, being an ancient phenomenon, literary theory as a nomenclature is a recent progress in the 20th century, especially in 1920s with the emergence of Formalism and English Studies. Today it occupied a prominent place in universities and academia, literary theory found its inclusion in almost syllabuses or curricula of English departments around the world. Many theories of literature and criticism sprang over a century and the syllabus of English is filled with such different and vast range of literary theories. Now we prefer saying theory instead criticism like Plato’s theory of poetry, Aristotle’s theory of tragedy, Longinus’ theory of sublimity, etc. Basically theory is rooted in criticism and we can consider theory cropped up or originated from criticism. 

Definitions of Literary Criticism/ Theory: here are a few definitions of and views of critics on criticism and theory:

1. Mathew Arnold: “criticism is a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world”. 

Though the definition is short but covers the significant part of literary criticism which should manifest the best and is an objective, unbiased attempt.  

2. Walter Pater: “criticism is the art interpreting art. It serves as an intermediary between the author and the reader by explaining the one to the other. By his special aptitude and training, the critic feels the virtue of a masterpiece, disengages it, and sets forth”. 

Here Pater simply states the connection between author and reader and function of criticism. The task of a critic is to become a mediator for reader for all needs explaining the text in simple words. He further adds the qualification of a critic should possess special aptitude and training to draw out the virtues of a masterpiece. 

3. Thomas Carlyle: “criticism stands like an interpreter between the inspired and uninspired; between the prophet and those who hear the melody of his words, and catch some glimpse of their material meaning, but understand not their deeper import”. 

Carlyle also assign a task to critic i.e. of a mediator and interpreter of readers. The word inspired is used for author and uninspired for reader. 

4. M.H. Abrams: “criticism, or more specifically literary criticism, is the overall term for studies concerned with defining, classifying, analysing, interpreting, and evaluating works of literature”. 

Abrams’ definition is more specific and holistic covering all the aspects of criticism and fixed the functions of the critics i.e. to define, classify, analyse, interpret and evaluate literature.  

The very primary work of criticism or critic is to make readers understand a piece of literature, say a poem or novel or drama or short story in its easiest way. This is a great responsibility over critics to dissect the text for readers. The secondary works of the critics are: they can put forward the virtues and vices of a text and label it in a particular category. Here a critic can pass a judgment on a literary text. Such judgment or opinion may influence the readers and readership and causes to change the taste. And hence critics, sometime are blamed for the bad in literature. 

Salient Features & Functions of Literary Criticism/ Theory: 

1. Literary criticism or theory interprets the original text and put before the readers its layers of structure, theme, subject, plot, etc. 

2. The very basic function is to simplify the text and derive meaning out of it and present it in simple language and form before readers. It helps readers to understand the point of view of the author and relate it to the text and contemporary scenario. 

3. According to Abrams, literary criticism should define, classify, analyse, interpret and evaluate the literature. To do so the literary critic must be well trained and possess the sound knowledge of the text, author and the conditions in which the text is born. 

4. Criticism of a literary text and the critic should be objective and without prejudice. It is the responsibility of the critic to reveal the merits and demerits as well of a literary text—“disinterested endeavor”.

5. It is the task of criticism to explore and disclose the best in a text and emphasise over it. 

6. Criticism, finally is a judgment on a literary text. But the judgment need to have certain value and should be the meaningful attempt on the part of author and readers. It can influence the taste of the readers.

7. Reviewing of text is one of the primary functions of literary criticism whereas analysis and evaluation is secondary but a critic has to perform both the tasks. 

8. We think literature as the criticism of life and criticism is the criticism of that criticism; it is the interpretation of interpretation but also can directly relate to life because the object of literature and criticism revolves around human life. 

9. A critic, indirectly or ultimately, presents the personality of the author, his/ her temperament, skills and art of writing. It shows the merits and defects as well of the literary personality. It is assumed that the basic rule of criticism is not to pass the moral judgment on the text or author.   

Inspite of the above, there are wide range of functions of criticism and can vary as per the critics but these are the very basic features and functions of criticism. 

Forms/ Types/ Kinds of Literary Criticism: there is variation of forms of criticism but M.H. Abrams states the following types in his Glossary: 

1. Theoretical Criticism

2. Practical/ Applied Criticism

3. Impressionistic Criticism

4. Judicial Criticism

5. Mimetic Criticism

6. Pragmatic Criticism

7. Expressive Criticism

8. Objective Criticism (for details of these forms, see the entry Criticism in Abrams’ Glossary) 

Based on the theories of literature, we can categories or name the following types of criticism:

9. Psychoanalytic Criticism

10. Feminist Criticism

11. Lesbian/ Gay Criticism

12. Marxist Criticism

13. Postcolonial Criticism

14. Eco Criticism

15. Structural/ Structuralist Criticism 

The above types alternatively can be called theories such as psychoanalytic theory, feminist theory, lesbian/ gay theory, Marxist theory of literature, postcolonial theory, etc.       

Works Cited:

1. Abrams, M.H. and Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. A Handbook of Literary Terms. New Delhi: Cengage Learning India Private Limited, 2009. Print.

2. Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Chennai: T.R. Publications, 2006. Print. 

3. Blamires, Harry. A History of Literary Criticism. New Delhi: MacMillan India Ltd., 2004. Print.

4. Gosh, D.N. Principles of Literary Criticism. Gwalior: Kitab Ghar, 1964. Print. 

5. Hudson, W.H. An Introduction to the Study of English Literature. Delhi: AITBS Publishers & Distributors, 2004. Print.

6. Krishnaswami, N. Contemporary Literary Theory: A Student’s Companion. New Delhi: MacMillan India Ltd., 2005. Print.

7. Prasad, B. A Background to the Study of English Literature. Chennai: Macmillan India Limited, 2007. Print. 

8. Prasad, B. An Introduction to English Criticism. New Delhi: MacMillan India Ltd., 2006. Print.

9. Selden, Raman, A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. New Delhi: Pearson Education, 2005. Print. 

10. Thorat, Ashok, A Spectrum of Literary Criticism. New Delhi: Frank Bros. & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 2001. Print.


Check our full course: Introduction to Classical Criticism/ Critics

Author: Datta G Sawant