What are the Critical Resources?
In advanced high school and college English courses, you will be expected to use what I’m calling "critical" resources when you write about literature. (For an overview of other type of resources, see our lesson on background sources.) Critical resources fall into two broad categories: literary criticism and literary theory.
- Literary criticism is written specifically about an author or a work. For instance, a study of Milton’s Paradise Lost would be literary criticism.
Note: In many people’s minds, "criticism" means deciding whether a work is "good" or "bad." Book reviewers, for instance, practice this type of criticism. However, I’m using the term in a more general way, meaning a study or interpretation of a work of literature. A study of several works by the same author, or a comparative study of two authors, would also fall into this category.
- Literary theory is a more general discussion of how literature "works." Theory’s scope is broader than one or two authors or books; instead, it offers—as the term implies—theories about the nature of literature itself. Literary theory overlaps considerably with philosophical writing; its practitioners often draw on philosophers like Kant, Freud, Marx, Derrida, and many others. Just to confuse matters, literary theory is often called "critical theory."
It is not easy—nor is it necessary—to clearly distinguish these categories. The point, as always, is to use theory and criticism to help you develop your own ideas.
Uses and types
When people refer to literary theory or criticism, they often implicitly mean the "postmodern" variety. Again, "postmodernism" is a very broad category. In general terms, postmodernism is based on the concept that all value systems result from the environments in which they developed. There are no fixed, universal definitions of terms (such as "good," "evil," "feminine," "masculine," etc.); rather, people define such values according to the needs of their own time and place. Postmodern theorists aim to uncover the sources of those definitions within a given work of art; they also attempt to reveal how such definitions may conflict, or have multiple meanings.
Here are just a few branches of postmodern theory that have been especially influential. Many of these overlap:
- Gender theory focuses on how gender, sexuality, the social roles of women and men, and other issues affect writing.
- Post-colonial theory studies the influence of colonial occupations upon writing. For example, post-colonial theorists might ask how the British occupation of India affected both Indian and British writing. Race studies consider how race and ethnicity affect the writing and interpretation of literature.
- Deconstruction proposes that writing often undermines or subverts its apparent meaning. Deconstructionist readings reveal a considerable amount of "play" in language, often focusing on puns, and obscure or multiple meanings of words.
- Psychoanalytic theory uses concepts derived from Freud, the French analyst Jacques Lacan, and others as a basis for interpreting literature.
- Note: you will quickly find that much literary theory is exceptionally difficult to read. Each branch of theory employs a number of specialized terms that are unfamiliar to readers outside the field. Many teachers and students of literature have protested this use of excessively complex language; they’ve even suggested that some theorists use it to cover their own muddled thinking!
Don’t worry if you don’t understand some theoretical essay or book. Many, many highly educated people don’t understand it either. I urge you to bring up lots of questions in class, or in a reading group, so you can work out the problems together.
Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to imitate "theory-speak" in your own writing.
Example of using a critical resource
Remember that the purpose of theory or criticism is to help you develop your own ideas. So, let’s say you are writing a paper on Walden. Here’s a passage from the critic Stanley Cavell’s book, The Senses of Walden:
We know the specific day in the specific year on which all the ancestors of New England took up their abode in the woods. That moment of origin is the national event reenacted in the events of Walden, in order this time to do it right, or to prove that it is impossible…(Cavell, The Senses of Walden. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981, p. 8)
So, Cavell argues that in Walden, Thoreau reenacts the settling of America. What are you going to do with this information?
WRONG: use the rest of your paper to prove that Cavell’s ideas are true.
RIGHT: use Cavell’s statement as a jumping-off point for your own thinking. You might find that you completely disagree with Cavell—so your job is to show why he is wrong. Or you’ll agree with him up to a point—but your paper must go further, or in a different direction.
This is your paper, not the critics’.
Secondary sources are a beginning, not the endpoint, for your paper.
Every year, the Modern Language Association (MLA) publishes a bibliography of nearly all the works of criticism that have been published in a given year. Organized by subject and by author, the MLA Bibliography is available in the reference room of most university and some public libraries. So, if you’re writing on Walden, you could look under Thoreau and find a list of critical works on Walden that were published in 1999, or in previous years.