Literary theory

systematic study of the nature of literature

Literary theory is the study of the nature of literature and of the methods for analyzing literature.


  • Literary critics like Lionel Trilling ... demand that our novels illuminate the manners and morals of prevailing society. Professor Trilling is right, because otherwise what use are they for us? But he is wrong-headed, because he does not see that the burden of proof is not on the artist but on our society. If such convenient criticism of prevalent life does not get to be written, it is likely that the prevailing society is not inspiring enough; its humanity is not great enough, it does not have enough future, to be worth the novelist’s trouble.
  • The intellectual origins of literary theory in Europe were, I think it is accurate to say, insurrectionary. The traditional university, the hegemony of determinism and positivism, the reification of ideological bourgeois “humanism,” the rigid barriers between academic specialties: it was powerful responses to all these that linked together such influential progenitors of today’s literary theorist as Saussure, Lukács, Bataille, Lévi-Strauss, Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx. Theory proposed itself as a synthesis overriding the petty fiefdoms within the world of intellectual production, and it was manifestly to be hoped as a result that all the domains of human activity could be seen, and lived, as a unity. ...
Literary theory, whether of the Left or the Right, has turned its back on these things. This can be considered, I think, the triumph of the ethic of professionalism. But it is no accident that the emergence of so narrowly defined a philosophy of pure textuality and critical noninterference has coincided with the ascendancy of Reaganism.
  • Edward Said, The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), pp. 3-4

See also

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