Why do we study literary criticism and what is the purpose of literary criticism?

There are a range of purposes for literary criticism. One of the most prevalent has traditionally been to appreciate the beauty of great literature and learn what it has to teach. Another purpose, which has become more common in recent decades, is to understand the political and social conditions described in works of literature, and to use literature to critique society from a certain political standpoint.

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The purpose of literary criticism likely depends on who’s answering the question. A person with a conservative philosophy could answer that studying literary criticism is nefarious and subversive. They might argue that literary criticism, such as postcolonialism or queer theory, undermines American education and its supposed values. In 2006, neoconservative writer David Horowitz published a book entitled The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. The list includes notable literary critics, including bell hooks and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

Speaking of Sedgwick, she might answer that the purpose of studying literary criticism is to illuminate and uncover unexplored parts of culture and society. Sedgwick used queer theory to show how Western texts, and the culture that they represent, might not be so heterosexual after all.

Toni Morrison, too, could answer that literary criticism serves an illuminating purpose. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison uses literary criticism to further understand white America’s relationship to race.

Other people believe that whatever the purpose of literary criticism might or might not be, its influence is decidedly limited. Artist and rapper Mykki Blanco does not outright dismiss literary criticism like queer theory; however, she does question the impact that it has on real life and people not a part of the academic community. With Blanco, the purpose of literary criticism comes across as theoretical and exclusive as opposed to practical and inclusive.

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There is no single purpose for literary criticism, and the reasons for studying it are the subject of fierce academic debate. Although there are many schools of thought contending in this argument, one might identify two general trends in the opposing views.

Critics of the aesthetic school, from Oscar Wilde to Harold Bloom, agree that the point of literary criticism to to heighten one's appreciation of beauty, wisdom, and other qualities to be found in great literature. Although "criticism" in everyday language has come to be associated with making negative observations, the majority of this criticism is appreciation. Aesthetic critics look at great works such as Hamlet or Paradise Lost and try to define what is so important and enduring about them. What makes a masterpiece? What do some of the greatest geniuses in history have to communicate to us?

A contrasting approach is taken by the critics who belong to a myriad of schools from feminism to postcolonialism to Marxism. These critics study literature and practice criticism in such a way as to use texts to illuminate political and social conditions. Their efforts often include a reappraisal of literary texts, looking at them from a different point of view. They are also concerned to redefine and reshape the canon of great literature, or sometimes to dispense with it entirely, in order to ensure that new voices are heard, particularly from minorities. According to these critics, the social purpose of literature is paramount, and literary criticism in the academy can eventually be used to change the world.

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In addition to the excellent posted comments, literary criticism helps reader develop critical thinking skills.  Criticisms take the reader to a higher level of cognitive thought by evaluating what the critic says, and then applying it to the piece of literature in ways that the reader may not have originally thought.  It then becomes useful in class discussion and/or composition.  Evaluating material and then synthesizing it into an original piece of writing is one of the most effective ways to study literature.

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Literary criticism is certainly of value for the reasons mentioned by previous posters.  After all, it is a way of opening new avenues of thinking for readers as well as increasing their understanding of the various perspectives of a work of literature.  Literary criticism is a way of having a "conversation" about a work, placing the work not only in its own context, but also in the context of the thinking of the time of the criticism. Indeed, literary criticism helps to keep good literature alive.

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Well, if you think of literature as an artistic or realistic (Realism) depiction of reality, then literary criticism and literary theory (which is more abstract) is the study of how we interpret literary representations (mimesis) of reality. Even if we're talking about fiction and poetry, literary criticism is the study of the representation of different worlds - different stories about experience.

I think the purpose of literary criticism has broadened especially over the last century with the additions of Feminism, Marxism, Psychoanalysis, Gay and Gender Studies, Postcolonialism, and the more abstract Deconstruction, Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism. So the purpose was once the study of authorial intent, Historicism (the interpretation of History through literature) and style (New Criticism, Formalism and Structuralism) and now it includes all manner of social, economic, cultural and philosophical interpretations of literature and the application of that analysis is also used to study life itself. Literary theory has not just used other disciplines to augment its own analysis. Other areas in academia have adopted literary theories: for example, deconstruction is used in Law and justice. This is controversial since Derrida's deconstruction is predicated upon indeterminacy, but my point is that literary criticism is no longer a closed discipline practiced by elitist scholars only to be read by other elitist scholars. It has opened up and overlaps with lots of other disciplines: philosophy, psychology, history, sociology, economics.

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