Using Literary Criticism

Literary criticism is a disciplined attempt to analyze some aspect or aspects of one or more works of art—for our purposes, mostly literary art (plays, novels, short stories, essays, poems). Serious literary critics study their primary materials very closely and repeatedly, examine the contexts in which the works they are studying were produced, and read widely in the work of other literary critics on their subject before producing their own original analysis of a work or works of literature. Generally, literary criticism is published in one of three forms: in a book; in an article published in a professional journal, whether print-based or online; or in an article published in a book as part of a collection. These formats insure that experts in the appropriate field(s) have reviewed the literary criticism and judged its accuracy in points of fact, its attention to scholarship in the field, etc. These formats are peer-reviewed sources (also known as “refereed sources”). Peer-reviewed means that a source has been rigorously scrutinized by other experts before publication.

Why consult and cite literary criticism?

  • Reading a variety of views increases your knowledge of your subject and helps you to demonstrate to your reader that you have considered views other than your own.
  • Reading literary criticism enables you to weigh your conclusions against others’ to check your logic and to see whether you have covered all significant aspects of your argument.
  • Citing others’ views makes you appear a more knowledgeable writer to your readers.
  • Citing literary critics whose views agree with yours can strengthen your case (although you must still supply the appropriate evidence).
  • Taking issue with a critic with whom you disagree can also strengthen your case if you present your counterargument effectively.
  • Literary criticism can enable you and your readers to see how evaluations and analyses of literature have changed over time.

Where do I find literary criticism?

Encyclopedia articles do not offer true literary criticism, nor do Cliff’s Notes, Spark Notes, or “overviews” of authors, works, or literary topics available online. Some websites post serious scholarship, but many are run by fans or students who may or may not know more than you do(!) Wikipedia, for example, is not a peer-reviewed source; any one can post and update information on this site and, as a result, it is not a reliable resource. If you find your sources either through the UM Library Database catalogue or the MLA Bibliography database online (the bibliographical resource of the Modern Language Association), you are unlikely to go wrong:

  • Use books and articles from the Library or other libraries and articles located via the library databases. Internet material must have been published in a book or journal before being placed online. (Recall your library workshop.)
  • Good sources can be found through Project Muse and the MLA Bibliography database, but avoid the “Biographies” and “Overview” tabs in the Literature Resource Center. This information can be useful to provide background for your research, but you should not use it in your paper as one of the documented sources.
  • The MLA Bibliography database is the primary research database for researchers in literature. If a this database doesn’t supply a .pdf of an article you want to look at, write down the full publication information, and search for the journal in the ejournals section of our library’s homepage.