Literary Criticism Questions and Answers

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Why is criticism in crisis?  literary criticism 

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Jason Lulos eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In traditional literary theory and criticism, scholars analyze works of literature, and, using critical procedures, they determine the truth and meaning of those works. The focus of those truths changed a bit with the Romantics; it became a bit more subjective and more of a personal access to truth. But even then, there was this humanistic notion that great literature could or should convey some universal truth.

Beginning with the New Critics and Formalists of the early twentieth century, the focus shifted from truth and great literature to how literature conveys that truth and what makes literature different from other types of writing. From there, we move to structuralism, which uncovered the interdependence of meaning. With the advent of other theories (Marxism, feminism, New Historicism, and deconstruction), the field became more specialized with competing theories of how meaning is produced and consumed. Is it the author's intent that matters? Is it his or her historical context? Is it the isolated text itself? Is it the political climate of the author or the political bias of the reader? You can see the increasing complexity of what literature means, how it was written, what it means, what makes it "good," and how we might approach studying it by asking these questions. Deconstruction brings methods of questioning canonical texts (such as Plato), thus suggesting that literary criticism should at least partially be concerned with reevaluating or even challenging traditionally celebrated texts and ideas of "truth." Combine all of this with a technological shift and hypertext, and we have a rich, new set of critical tools but a complicated project of how frame them all in some coherent discipline. Some have suggested replacing "literary" with "textual" to accommodate this complication. But this ignores the primary study, which is what makes literature stand apart from other writing.

The "crisis" should be thought of as an opportunity. The expanding canon is a good thing. Specialized theories are complicated by existing theories. The shrinking of English departments as a result of the technological shifting of collegiate pedagogy is not such a good thing. The idea (from deconstruction) that all meaning is "always already deferred" suggests that there is no way to ever get to a definitive, final meaning. This is obviously a problem with a field once concerned with uncovering "truth." With this indeterminacy, we have a skeptical eye toward all things absolute or universal. This applies to identity, any particular text, and any given meaning. Finally, English departments are shrinking even as the scope of literature and "textual studies" seems to be increasingly complicated and indeterminate. Overcoming the crisis will require a readiness to adapt, a willingness to consider any number of interpretations, and a number of ways of accessing "truth"—whatever that currently means in literary studies.

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francis-xavier eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I'm assuming "crisis" is being defined as less diverse interpretations of literary works.

A large amount of literary criticism comes from academics at universities and graduates of universities. So, it is important to focus on the approach of the personnel involved in these institutions.

Literary criticism typically falls into the hands of the humanities, a common university department that focuses on history, literature, and many of the arts. Academic heads of these departments have adopted postmodernism, a recently established philosophical approach to perceiving the world.

Postmodernism is heavily critical of the values and structures that much of Western civilization was built on, such as reason and morality. It often posits that there are an infinite number of ways to interpret something, and therefore there are no "true" interpretations.

Some critics believe that multiple literary interpretations are being narrowed down to the same meaningless conclusion because the personnel who have a kind of academic monopoly on the subject all utilize the same approach.

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wordprof eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There was a time when literary criticism drew a path of influence from one author to the next, showing influences, relationship between periods, etc.  This was called "traditional" criticism, and provided a basis for studying literature's progress through time.  Then "new criticism" concentrated on figurative language, irony, and language nuances. Next, the "Chicago school" put value on structural forms, genres, etc, a throwback to Aristotle.  Today, the word "criticism" is less accurate than "stylistics", and innovations of modernist authors acttually step outside linear progress; social criticism, such as feminism, or reader-response criticism, are all under attack by such scholars as Stanley Fish, and authorial intent is adumbrated by the hidden rhetorical messages inside the author's social assumptions.  So, the contemporary literary critic may see criticism, as a discipline, "in crisis" because its center (in Yeats' metaphor) cannot hold.   




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