What is Russian Formalism, and what was its effect on literature?

Expert Answers
amarang9 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Russian Formalism was a literary movement and primarily a school of literary criticism/theory which developed in Russia in the early 20th century. Although the practitioners of this method had diverse ways of approaching formalism, the general idea is that these critics focused on poetic techniques, language, and the structure of literature. This was an attempt at making the study of literature more scientific. They focused on the texts themselves, giving less attention to authorial intent, biographical information, and cultural/historical significance. One of the goals was to distinguish literary language from all other language. What makes poetry poetic? 

Viktor Shklovsky was one of the more influential Russian Formalists. He endeavored to study literature for its structural functions and what makes it different from other language formations. He wanted to get away from critiquing and analyzing literature in terms of social, political, emotional, and psychological meanings and manifestations. He coined the term "defamiliarization" to denote the way that literary and poetic language differs from ordinary language. Literary language is unfamiliar. It causes the reader to slow down the reading process. The technique is artful because it makes the familiar unfamiliar.

Formalists also studied the novel in structural terms. They analyzed the connection between story (chronology of events) and plot (the raw material of the story). In Russian, story is "fabula" and the plot is called "sjuzhet." The Russian Formalists were different from but are often compared to the New Critics in America. Both groups shared some similar formalist methods.

The formalist method widely influenced literary theory from the early 1900s onward. Given the focus on literary structure, the Formalists had a large influence on subsequent Structuralist theorists. And in turn, they would have an indirect influence on Post-structuralist theorists. Although Feminist, Marxist, Post-colonial, Gender, and Postmodern theorists focus more on political and social issues in literature, the notion of distinguishing the uniqueness of literary language is still a part of many modern traditions.