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Critical Practices

In your introductory courses in English, you learned about the many different approaches literary scholars take to reading and interpreting texts. It's a good idea to review your notes from those classes before your certification exam. Understanding the basic differences between critical approaches will help you to decide which approaches to take in your own writing as well as to understand the literary criticism that you read better. On the certification exam for secondary English, you'll be tasked with recognizing how scholars aligned with each of these approaches would read a particular text. The list below isn't exhaustive, but it should help to jog your memory. Keep in mind that in practice, scholars tend to blend multiple approaches. Each brief explanation is followed by an example of the kinds of questions scholars ask when using each approach.

Biographical Criticism

Biographical critics believe that understanding the author's life and historical context is necessary in order to understand his/her writing. Questions of authorial intent—what the writer sought to accomplish—are important to biographical critics.

Question: How does reading this text alongside the author’s biography illuminate its content?

Formalism/New Criticism

In the eyes of a New Critic, everything you need in order to analyze a work of literature is contained within the work itself—no need to look into the author's biography, the historical context, etc. New Critics are responsible for bringing close reading into the critic’s toolbox. Formalist critics are very interested in the formal components of texts, like structure, tone, and literary elements. Formalist critics seek to figure out how these literary elements work together to impact readers.

Question: How do the elements of the text work together to develop a theme of universal significance?

Archetypal/Mythological Criticism

Archetypal criticism is based on the idea that there are symbols, images, characters, and motifs, like the hero’s quest or the garden as a symbol of fertility, that evoke the same response across individuals and culture. These shared elements are called archetypes. According to Carl Jung, a psychologist whose work is foundational to archetypal criticism, humans share a “collective unconscious” that is the source of archetypes. The work of the archetypal critic is to explain how these universal patterns shape literary texts.

Question: What universal themes or symbols are employed in the text?

Psychoanalytic Criticism

Psychoanalytic criticism is rooted in the theories of Sigmund Freud, especially his thinking about the family. According for Freud, people are motivated by unconscious desires, needs, and conflicts. Psychoanalytic critics emphasize the ways authors appeal to readers’ repressed fantasies and desires through their texts. Jacques Lacan, another important psychoanalytic theorist, revised Freud’s thinking by foregrounding the importance of language. Psychoanalytic critics may focus on the writer’s psyche, the creative process, the ways literature affects readers, or the psychology of the characters.

Question: How is the text shaped by the psychological desires, needs, and conflicts of its characters or author?

Marxist Criticism

Marxists are interested in the clash between the dominant classes (the bourgeoisie) and the repressed classes (the proletariat), working to understand and critique class inequality. As such, Marxist critics focus on how literary texts support or attack the capitalist socioeconomic system and economic inequality. Marxist critics may also think about how literary texts become commodified, valued not for their use but for their ability to impress audience or achieve high sales.

Question: How is the text shaped by its representation of class politics?

Reader-Response Criticism

The basic assumption of reader-response criticism is that the meaning of a literary text isn't inherent on the page— instead, a text exists as a transaction between the document the writer produced and the mind of the reader. The reader actively constructs meaning while reading a text, which is why different readers produce different interpretations. That doesn't mean, however, that anything goes-- the words on the page do limit the interpretive possibilities.

Question: How do readers use the details of the text to create meaning?

Structuralism

Structuralism is rooted in the work of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and literary scholar Roland Barthes. Structuralists look not at the specificity of individual texts but instead look for patterns, systems, and structures. According to structuralists, we don’t speak language—language speaks us. Since we can only think through language, the structure of language itself creates what we call reality. The author isn’t seen as the creator of the text, since authors simply inhabit preexisting structures (langue) that allow them to tell particular stories (parole). In addition to not being interested in the author, structuralists also aren’t interested in historical context or reader response because structures are universal and timeless.

Question: What is the underlying structure that allows us to make sense of the text?

Deconstruction

Deconstruction is a response to structuralism, rooted in the work of Jacques Derrida. According to Derrida, every system is built around a center (God, the self, the mind, etc.), which is outside the system and not governed by its rules. All systems are built based on binary oppositions in which one term is valued and marked as positive and the other as negative (ex: good and evil, light and dark, masculine and feminine). To perform a deconstructionist reading, one finds a binary opposition, then shows how the terms aren’t actually opposites, “collapsing” the binary and causing it to lose its meaning. Deconstructionists also challenge the idea that authors “own” the texts they write and create their meanings.

Question: What do we learn about the text by analyzing the ways it contradicts itself?

New Historicism

New Historicists read literary texts alongside non-literary texts written in the same cultural moment, weighing both kinds of texts equally. Literary texts are seen as both reflecting and participating in the cultures that created them. New Historicists believe that objective accounts of historical fact are impossible—all accounts of history are shaped by the needs and understandings of the writer. As such, readings of literary and non-literary texts written by New Historicists aim to unsettle the idea that there is a single master narrative of history that can be recovered.

Question: How does the text reflect and participate in the discourses of the culture in which it was produced?

Cultural Criticism

Cultural criticism shares many assumptions with New Historicism but is generally more politically oriented. Cultural critics do not distinguish between “high” and “low” culture—instead, they try to understand the cultural work texts perform, the ways they shape our lives and experiences and participate in systems of power. Cultural critics are especially interested in pop culture.

Question: How does the text support or undermine the power structures of the time when it was produced?

Post-Colonial Criticism

Post-colonialists study the cultures of former colonies and their relationship to the wider world. Post-colonial writers try to resurrect their cultures and to combat widespread stereotypes about them that are the products of (and often the justifications for) empire. Important concepts include Orientalism, a term that describes the images of the East created by the western world to reinforce a belief in western superiority, and alterity, or “otherness.”

Question: How does the text support or undermine colonialist ideologies?

Feminist Criticism

Feminist literary criticism, a product of the social movement for gender equality, focuses on uncovering a female tradition of writing, recovering forgotten texts by women writers, and analyzing texts for the ways they represent women and gender. Feminist critics frequently look at things like the role women play in the text and their power within it, the existence or resistance of gender stereotypes, and the use of feminine imagery.

Question: How does the text represent or undermine patriarchal/sexist norms and values?

Queer Criticism

According to queer theorists, our sexuality is socially constructed rather than innate—we experience sexuality in culturally specific ways. Queer critics read texts to problematize their representations of sexual categories, to show how our binary way of thinking about sexuality—heterosexual versus homosexual—is inadequate to understanding human experience. Queer criticism often focuses on representations of homosocial (same sex) bonding, markers of gay and lesbian identity, and evidence of transgressive sexualities.

Question: How is the text shaped by its representation of LGBTQ sexualities?

African American Criticism

African American criticism is interested in recovering the work of unduly neglected African American authors and revealing how texts participate in the social construction of race and racial inequality. In addition to studying how texts reveal or challenge racism, critics interested in race also study the poetics that govern the African American literary tradition, techniques like the use of black vernacular or the incorporation of elements of oral folktales. African American critics also study texts by white writers to understand how they use an Africanist presence (black characters, representations of black speech, images of Africa or blackness) in order to create a favorable portrayal of white characters and reinforce white privilege.

Question: How is the text shaped by its representation of racial difference?

To write these short descriptions, I consulted the following useful sources:

Lois Tyson, Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide

Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism, Purdue University Online Writing Lab, https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/722/01/

Critical Approaches to Literature, John B. Padgett,http://home.olemiss.edu/~egjbp/spring97/litcrit.html

Introduction to Literary Theories and Criticisms, Minasie Gessesse, http://www.academia.edu/4425864/A_Course_Material_to_Introduction_to_Literary_Criticism