The practice of literary theory became a profession in the 20th century, but it has historical roots as far back as ancient Greece (Aristotle’s Poetics is an often cited early example), ancient India (Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra), ancient Rome (Longinus’s On the Sublime) and medieval Iraq (Al-Jahiz’s al-Bayan wa-‘l-tabyinand al-Hayawan, and ibn al-Mu’tazz’s Kitab al-Badi). The aesthetic theories of philosophers from ancient philosophy through the 18th and 19th centuries are important influences on current literary study. The theory and criticism of literature are, of course, also closely tied to the history of literature.
The modern sense of “literary theory,” however, dates only to approximately the 1950s, when the structuralist linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure began strongly to influence English language literary criticism. The New Critics and various European-influenced formalists (particularly the Russian Formalists) had described some of their more abstract efforts as “theoretical” as well. But it was not until the broad impact of structuralism began to be felt in the English-speaking academic world that “literary theory” was thought of as a unified domain.
In the academic world of the United Kingdom and the United States, literary theory was at its most popular from the late 1960s (when its influence was beginning to spread outward from elite universities like Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Cornell) through the 1980s (by which time it was taught nearly everywhere in some form).
By the early 1990s, the popularity of “theory” as a subject of interest by itself was declining slightly even as the texts of literary theory were incorporated into the study of almost all literature.
One of the fundamental questions of literary theory is “what is literature?” – although many contemporary theorists and literary scholars believe either that “literature” cannot be defined or that it can refer to any use of language. Specific theories are distinguished not only by their methods and conclusions, but even by how they define a “text.”
There are many types of literary theory, which take different approaches to texts. Even among those listed below, combine methods from more than one of these approaches (for instance, the deconstructive approach of Paul de Man drew on a long tradition of close reading pioneered by the New Critics, and de Man was trained in the European hermeneutic tradition).
Broad schools of theory that have historically been important include historical and biographical criticism, New Criticism, formalism, Russian formalism, and structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxism, feminism and French feminism, post-colonialism, new historicism, deconstruction, reader-response criticism, and psychoanalytic criticism.
Schools of Literary Theory
Listed below are some of the most commonly identified schools of literary theory, along with their major authors. In many cases, such as those of the historian and philosopher Michel Foucault and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the authors were not primarily literary critics, but their work has been broadly influential in literary theory.
- Aestheticism – often associated with Romanticism, a philosophy defining aesthetic value as the primary goal in understanding literature. This includes both literary critics who have tried to understand and/or identify aesthetic values and those like Oscar Wilde who have stressed art for art’s sake.
- Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Harold Bloom
- American pragmatism and other American approaches
- Harold Bloom, Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty
- Cognitive Cultural Studies – applies research in cognitive neuroscience, cognitive evolutionary psychology and anthropology, and philosophy of mind to the study of literature and culture
- Frederick Luis Aldama, Mary Thomas Crane, Nancy Easterlin, William Flesch, David Herman, Suzanne Keen, Patrick Colm Hogan, Alan Richardson, Ellen Spolsky, Blakey Vermeule, Lisa Zunshine
- Cultural studies – emphasizes the role of literature in everyday life
- Raymond Williams, Dick Hebdige, and Stuart Hall (British Cultural Studies); Max Horkheimer andTheodor Adorno; Michel de Certeau; also Paul Gilroy, John Guillory
- Darwinian literary studies – situates literature in the context of evolution and natural selection
- Deconstruction – a strategy of “close” reading that elicits the ways that key terms and concepts may be paradoxical or self-undermining, rendering their meaning undecidable
- Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Gayatri Spivak, Avital Ronell
- Gender (see feminist literary criticism) – which emphasizes themes of gender relations
- Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, Hélène Cixous, Elaine Showalter
- Formalism – a school of literary criticism and literary theory having mainly to do with structural purposes of a particular text
- German hermeneutics and philology
- Friedrich Schleiermacher, Wilhelm Dilthey, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Erich Auerbach, René Wellek
- Marxism (see Marxist literary criticism) – which emphasizes themes of class conflict
- Georg Lukács, Valentin Voloshinov, Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin
- New Criticism – looks at literary works on the basis of what is written, and not at the goals of the author or biographical issues
- W. K. Wimsatt, F. R. Leavis, John Crowe Ransom, Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren
- New Historicism – which examines the work through its historical context and seeks to understand cultural and intellectual history through literature
- Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Montrose, Jonathan Goldberg, H. Aram Veeser
- Postcolonialism – focuses on the influences of colonialism in literature, especially regarding the historical conflict resulting from the exploitation of less developed countries and indigenous peoples by Western nations
- Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha and Declan Kiberd
- Postmodernism – criticism of the conditions present in the twentieth century, often with concern for those viewed as social deviants or the Other
- Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Maurice Blanchot
- Post-structuralism – a catch-all term for various theoretical approaches (such as deconstruction) that criticize or go beyond Structuralism’s aspirations to create a rational science of culture by extrapolating the model of linguistics to other discursive and aesthetic formations
- Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva
- Psychoanalysis (see psychoanalytic literary criticism) – explores the role of consciousnesses and the unconscious in literature including that of the author, reader, and characters in the text
- Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Harold Bloom, Slavoj Žižek, Viktor Tausk
- Queer theory – examines, questions, and criticizes the role of gender identity and sexuality in literature
- Judith Butler, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Michel Foucault
- Reader-response criticism – focuses upon the active response of the reader to a text
- Louise Rosenblatt, Wolfgang Iser, Norman Holland, Hans-Robert Jauss, Stuart Hall
- Russian formalism
- Victor Shklovsky, Vladimir Propp
- Structuralism and semiotics (see semiotic literary criticism) – examines the universal underlying structures in a text, the linguistic units in a text and how the author conveys meaning through any structures
- Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Mikhail Bakhtin, Yurii Lotman, Umberto Eco, Jacques Ehrmann, Northrop Frye and morphology of folklore
- Eco-criticism – explores cultural connections and human relationships to the natural world
- Other theorists: Robert Graves, Alamgir Hashmi, John Sutherland, Leslie Fiedler, Kenneth Burke, Paul Bénichou, Barbara Johnson, Blanca de Lizaur, Dr Seuss