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Wikipedia notes

Whether or not literary criticism should be considered a separate field of inquiry from literary theory, or conversely from book reviewing, is a matter of some controversy. For example, the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism draws no distinction between literary theory and literary criticism, and almost always uses the terms together to describe the same concept.

Criticism is

the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literature

(ibid.), while theory is

the systematic study of the nature of literature and of the methods for literary analysis.

Admittedly, "literary analysis" links back to literary criticism. But the most helpful way to define these terms - so they can refer to different things both worth being able to refer to, without the names being misleading - would be something like the following:

  • Theory can deduce facts about authors' techniques and their conscious and subconscious intent, including their awareness of likely and intended effects on consumers. It would not judge such intentions and techniques (but see below).
  • Criticism can document and explain specific opinions about the quality of a work. It need not imply such opinions are "correct", but it can understand the thinking that underlies them, and may even predict their likely prevalence. For example, one would hope literary criticism can make sense of why Shakespeare's works are widely considered among the best in English literature.

Insofar as there is a controversy over whether criticism and theory are even different in the first place, there is either a desire not to define the concepts in the above manner, or a recognition such definitions cannot be expected to match or become how the terms are widely used. (In particular, the aforementioned guide uses both terms, but makes no effort to make them non-synonymous, even though this could let us refer clearly to more ideas.) But none of that changes the following indisputable facts:

  • Opinions about works' qualities are common, whether or not they're "correct" contra Hume;
  • Some such opinions are more popular than others, especially with specific types of people;
  • All this happens as a psychological result of how people react to works they encounter.

Is there a controversy over it being worth trying to theoretically make sense of these details, over it being worth separating such an effort from other aspects of analyzing literature, or over whether this is the right way to bifurcate these ideas? To me, it seems straightforward and helpful to distinguish between study of the positive and normative. (Other fields, e.g. economics, have no problem with this, even though normative assessment has to cite some positive facts.)

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  • There is or there has been a controversy over theory versus criticism but not along the lines suggested by your definitions. I'll try to write something up about this.
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 2, 2021 at 10:46
  • Could you explain what you mean by "Opinions about works' qualities are common, whether or not they're 'correct' contra Hume"? Academic literary criticism is not primarily about the quality of literary works; that is what book reviews are about (and book reviews are something totally different than academic literary criticism).
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 2, 2021 at 11:02
  • @Tsundoku Thanks in advance for the answer you'll write. Perhaps I've misunderstood what criticism aims to do. Wikipedia obviously doesn't define terms, but FWIW it refers to evaluation, and describes it as "a systematic determination of a subject's merit, worth and significance". I started out wondering about the theoretical understanding of attitudes, but asked this question because I discovered the aforementioned controversy.
    – J.G.
    Nov 2, 2021 at 11:08
  • Thanks. To my knowledge, criticism that tried to determine a work's merit and worth predates the controversy about theory versus criticism.
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 2, 2021 at 11:27

2 Answers 2

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I'm not aware of any controversy as such, more that these are somewhat nebulous fields with a degree of overlap. But it strikes me that one can make a dividing line between literary theory and literary criticism in terms of the latter being the application of the former.

Take, for example, some of the figures that are taught in literary theory courses. EH Hirsch and Gadamer are essentially hermeneutic philosophers. Saussure is a linguist and Claude Levi-Strauss an anthropologist. You've got the whole field of French philosophy that comprises post-structuralism and the psychoanalysts Freud and Lacan.

What all these figures have in common is that they wrote about text, language and understanding without applying it to specific works of literature. Indeed many of them didn't even have a background in literature or saw themselves as students of it. Hirsch did, but his most enduring works were broadly about how we find meaning in a text. Harold Bloom is a similar story, with his contribution to theory concerning how authors misread and re-represent the works of earlier authors.

Their ideas were broad and high level, sufficiently so that almost any literary work could be read and interpreted through one or more of the intellectual lenses they created. Indeed it's common in literary theory courses to have one set work of fiction and to do just that to illustrate the ideas as the course progresses.

This application of a theoretical lens to an actual text is what literary criticism is. So one can have a Freudian criticism of a text, such as that by Ernest Jones on Hamlet where he argues that the character has a considerable Oedipal complex. Likewise, you can have a deconstructionist reading of a text, in debt to post-structuralism or a Marxist reading of the same text, after Marx.

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It is more common outside of highly academic, theoretical literary discourse to consider “criticism” as the discipline of reviewing and appraising literary works and theory as any attempt at explanation and analysis of literature. But some figures see criticism and theory as deeply intertwined. Northrop Frye considered “criticism” to mean “the study of literature”. He said that physics is a framework which studies physical reality, and criticism is a framework which studies literature. He felt that poor quality criticism is marked by a superficial and easy concern with espousing value judgments, i.e., extolling this or that author but without attempting a deeper investigation into truths, patterns, or theses from the phenomenon of literature. He believed value judgments had their place but they needed to rest on more than just fads of society deciding which authors or literary periods ought to be acclaimed. In other words, he felt the task of criticism was to analyse and unearth deep facts about literature and it was easier for prescriptive statements to follow if they rested on deeper and more sound understanding. So for Frye, in order to appraise, one must have deep comprehension. And that undertaking of comprehension is a deep activity of interpretation, which is theoretical by nature. For Frye, theory and judgment are inseparable. So that’s one figure who sees the entire art of receiving literary works as being subsumed by a single undifferentiated term, “criticism”.

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  • 2
    Thank you for posting an answer. Unfortunately, it raises a few questions. (1) Who are those "some figures [who] criticism and theory as deeply intertwined". (2) In which of his publications did Frye define criticism as “the study of literature”? Anatomy of Criticism (1957) predates the controversy over criticism versus theory by roughly 20 years (if not more). (3) The answer does not talk about how "Theory" at some point seemed to take over literary studies (and I'm not sure Frye commented on it since it happened so late in his career).
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 4, 2021 at 1:01
  • (4) The controversy of theory versus criticism in literary studies is not about poor-quality criticism versus high-quality criticism.
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 4, 2021 at 1:01
  • @Tsundoku So when did the controversy begin, c. 1980?
    – J.G.
    Nov 4, 2021 at 7:26
  • @J.G. As far as I know, it began around 1980.
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 4, 2021 at 10:39
  • Coming from the realm of film, I'd add that the line between theory & criticism is blurred not only for literature. Part of the explanation is that a lot of criticism draws upon theory, both to motivate its judgments, and as a defense against disagreement; and theory often does a little criticism by way of illustration. Since they often appear together, it's easy to miss (or misinterpret) the boundary.
    – Tom
    Apr 3 at 21:35

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