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Summary Article: literary criticism from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Assessment and interpretation of literary works. The term ‘criticism’ is often taken to mean exclusively adverse comment, but in fact it refers to all literary assessment, whether positive or negative. Contemporary criticism offers analyses of literary works from structuralist, semiological, feminist, Marxist, and psychoanalytical perspectives, whereas earlier criticism tended to deal with moral or political ideas, or with a literary work as a formal object independent of its creator.

The earliest systematic literary criticism was the Poetics of Aristotle; a later Greek critic was the author of the treatise On the Sublime, usually attributed to Longinus. Horace and Quintilian were influential Latin critics. The Italian Renaissance introduced humanist criticism, and the revival of classical scholarship exalted the authority of Aristotle and Horace. Like literature itself, European criticism then applied neoclassical, Romantic, and modern approaches.

Writing literary criticism Students are often asked to adopt one of three approaches for a text analysis: a character and relationship study, a description of the principal themes and ideas in a work, or a review. Each of these approaches requires a detailed knowledge of the text and careful selection of relevant examples to support arguments. In general, it is useful to pay particular attention to the following aspects of a text: What sort of atmosphere is the author trying to create? What are the central themes of the work? What is the style of writing? What literary techniques does the author use to achieve the intended effect? (especially relevant to poetry). Pre-twentieth-century texts may also require some historical research – for example to find out the expectations and sense of humour of the audience in Shakespeare's day.

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