Formalism, with is often associated with Russian literary theory of the 1920s, but also with the New Criticism being developed in Cambridge in the same period, focuses on the text (the words themselves) of a work of literature. It does not look at the biography of the author, the history...
Formalism, with is often associated with Russian literary theory of the 1920s, but also with the New Criticism being developed in Cambridge in the same period, focuses on the text (the words themselves) of a work of literature. It does not look at the biography of the author, the history of the times in which the text was composed, or at the sources which influenced a text. These types of literary criticism, known respectively as biographical criticism, historical criticism, and source study, were believed to interfere with an encounter with the text as text.
Formalism focuses on what elements make a work literary, and what differentiates—what is added—that makes a literary text different, say, from a scientific paper. Formalists focus on language—metaphor, symbol, and so on—and such elements as ambiguity, irony, paradox, and unity within a text.
The formalist method of focusing on the text itself solved problems such as a tendency to read a work of literature too much through the life of the author—for instance, arguing that Emily Brontë "must have" had a lover to write Wuthering Heights or to get sidetracked into debates over whether Francis Bacon was Shakespeare. It also allowed students who didn't have the advantages of years and years of education in Latin and Greek, and who therefore might not immediately understand allusions in texts, to have access to literature. It was also considered a "scientific" approach to literature that offered a "methodology" at a time when science was considered all-important.
Though formalist techniques are still the backbone of how we approach literature, the idea of isolating a text from its historical context or its author has fallen out of fashion. Most literature classes try to layer on a number of different critical methods.