Literary Criticism: Definition, Examples & Forms

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Taught by

Ann Casano

Ann has taught university level Film classes and has a Master's Degree in Cinema Studies.

For as long as writers have been writing, there have been critics evaluating their work. In this lesson, we will take a look at why literary criticism is important and a few different common approaches used to analyze literature.

We also recommend watching Poetry as Literary Form: Overview and Examples and Non-Fiction as Literary Form: Definition and Examples


All forms of art have their critics. We read film reviews in our daily newspapers, television reviews in weekly blogs and, of course, book reviews in magazines. Criticism is how we evaluate and interpret art. Critics let us know if a movie is worth spending our hard-earned money to see in a theater or whether we can wait for it on cable or even if we can skip the film all together.

Literary criticism goes all the way back to the days of Plato. Through the years, it has developed and grown, and ultimately provides us with parameters on how to study literature. Because there are a million different ways to dissect written works such as novels or poems, literary criticism provides some general guidelines to help us analyze, deconstruct, interpret and evaluate. We usually see literary criticism in a book review or critical essay; however, the Internet has made all forms of criticism readily available in everything from personal blogs to social media.

Why It's Important

Every one of us has taken at least one English class in our lives. Maybe we have been asked to analyze the works of Shakespeare, Faulkner or Poe. But whether or not we are reading a tragedy or a comedy, one of the most important things we learn from our English classes is how to read and discuss literature. Books and poems help us to expand our imaginations, while stories allow us to experience worlds other than our own. By learning how to deconstruct literature through class discussions or in our reading, we get to experience how other people live. Literary criticism helps us to go inside of the text and understand the written work from many different viewpoints. Often times, these perspectives will not be readily apparent to us unless we delve into the work and learn how to look past the surface.

There are many different ways to evaluate literature. Some critics care about when and where an author was born, while other critics feel that information is irrelevant. Below are a few different approaches to literary criticism.

Traditional Criticism

Traditional critics feel that in order to truly evaluate an author's work, they must know some basic biographical information about the writer. They then look to see how that information reflects on the work. They ask questions like: When and where was the author born? Was he married? Where did he go to college (if he did go to college)?

Traditional critics also feel that it helps to be familiar with an author's past works - if there are any. They have determined that every writer has a unique style, a certain way with prose or structure that makes him or her different from everyone else. For example, Mark Twain used a lot of humor and satire in his writing. Besides Twain's major literary works, he penned numerous essays and short stories. In order to truly evaluate a work by an author like Twain, traditional critics would also probably recommend reading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Evaluation of Mark Twain may benefit from reading his past works
Mark Twain

Sociological Criticism

As we can imagine, a little boy growing up in the American South at the height of the Civil War is going to have a lot of different life shape-experiences than a little boy growing up in Communist Russia in the 1980s. Sociological critics focus on how society and historical events shape a writer's work. They examine what sort of politics the author may draw from: Marxism, feminism, liberalism, socialism, etc.

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