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Finding Literary Criticism Tutorial: I. What is Literary Criticism?


Encyclopedia Britannica defines Literary Criticism as "the reasoned consideration of literary works and issues."  In other words, it is the act of studying, evaluating, discussing, and/or interpreting a work of literature.  

What else is Literary Criticism?close-up on dictionary entry for the word criticism

  • an in-depth analysis
  • can be about a poem, play, novel, or short story
  • can help you understand the main ideas of a work of literature and identify the significant parts 
  • is usually found in books and academic journals in the form of an essay
  • has references
  • can be written from different perspectives, such as historical, sociological, or psychological
  • can compare & contrast works by the same author or works by different authors
  • does not have one "right" answer

Uses for Literary Criticism

There are many reasons for engaging in Literary Criticism.  For example:

  • Understanding literature can help us better understand similar situations in real life.
  • Analyzing a complex issue in literature from multiple viewpoints can make us more empathetic.
  • Learning about the views of other critical readers can help you develop your own interpretations of literature.
  • Considering all the possible meanings of a work of literature can help you appreciate it on a deeper level.
  • It provides the opportunity to practice developing and defending an argument.

Professional Organizations

The following organizations promote Literary Criticism:

Modern Humanities Research Association

"The Modern Humanities Research Association (UK) encourages and promotes advanced study and research in the field of the modern humanities... The Association fulfils this purpose through the publication of journals, bibliographies, monographs, critical editions, and the MHRA Style Guide, and by making grants in support of research."

Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States

"MELUS endeavors to expand the definition of new, more broadly conceived US literature through the study and teaching of Latino, Native American, African American, Asian and Pacific American, and ethnically specific Euro-American literary works, their authors, and their cultural contexts."

Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers

"The ALSCW seeks to promote excellence in literary criticism and scholarship, and works to ensure that literature thrives in both scholarly and creative environments... publishers of Literary Imagination (an acclaimed review, issued three times per year), Literary Matters (an online journal), and Forum (an imprint on literary advocacy and public policy)."


Websites with Dictionaries of Literary Terms:

These Things are NOT Literary Criticism

Literary Criticism is not the same thing as:

  • a summary.  When you write a summary, you are merely retelling the plot of a story.  Literary Criticism is written about the events in the story;  it is not the events themselves.
  • a book review.  Book reviews attempt to determine the quality of a work of literature, i.e. "How good is it?"  They can be found in such places as the New York Times or on websites like Goodreads, and are intended for the casual reader.  Literary Criticism, however, attempts to understand and explain the work, i.e. "What does it mean?"  It is intended for an academic audience.
  • finding fault.  This is certainly one definition of being "critical," but in literary criticism you are actually trying to "critique" all of the qualities of a work, not just the negative ones.
  • a primary source.  In literature, a primary source would be the actual poem, play, novel, or short story you are analyzing.  Literary Criticism is a secondary source, because it is written about a primary source.  It might take the form of an article in a journal, or a book of essays about an author or work.

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