Expanding the notion of literary criticism

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-05-17

Generally speaking, literary criticism refers exclusively to the analysis and evaluation of specific works. In fact, literary criticism overlaps with literary theory and literary history in many respects. The evaluation of works is not the exclusive domain of literary criticism. Literary theory and literary history can also be regarded as different forms of criticism, thus expanding the notion of literary criticism while elucidating the respective focus of and the dialectical relationship between literary theory and literary history.

To be specific, literary criticism involves the review, introduction and dissemination of works; literary theory emphasizes the noumenal and systemic dimensions; literary history is established on the basis of material. Literary criticism and literary history usually lack the abstractness of theoretical criticism, but they explain historical facts in a vivid and specific way, which is absent in theoretical criticism. Literary criticism is supposed to have the essence of literary theory and the depth of literary history. Criticism of specific works should also draw on the knowledge and perspective of literary theory and literary history. While literary theory incorporates the evaluation of writers and works with the rigor and systematicity of theoretical speculation, literary history provides literary criticism with a multi-level reference and comparative vision. Literary criticism in contemporary Chinese literary studies has its particularities, which makes it necessary to analyze the different tasks undertaken by different types of literary criticism.

The first type is literary criticism in the strict sense. A common form of criticism in contemporary literature is “on-site criticism” which targets very recent works and follows literary trends closely to evaluate and analyze specific works. Certain qualities are typically required of literary critics: first, systemic knowledge of literary theories as well as the ability to carry out systematic and in-depth interpretation of writers and works; second, rich artistic sensibility that enables a profound understanding of the works, thus helping readers appreciate the subtleties of the plots, characters, scenes and language.

The second type is literary criticism enriched by literary history. Different from “on-site criticism,” literary history studies “the past” rather than “the present”; that is to say, writers, works, intellectual movements, schools of thought and literary phenomena deemed “classic” by generations of readers and scholars. Although theoretical literacy and artistic sensibility are important for this type of criticism, literary historians primarily rely on their understanding of history, material, and historical knowledge to identify and summarize literary rules. To be precise, literary history must deal with complex factors surrounding writers and works, such as periodization, signs of the times, human geography, and the writer’s chronicles. The aim is to analyze the factors of production in a piece of work rather than directly dealing with the content. This tendency has become quite common in contemporary Chinese literary history.

The third type is literary criticism informed by literary theory. Literary theory has always been considered a work of speculation and summary which requires basic means such as definition, concept and category in its pursuit of system construction. Contemporary Chinese literature has been deeply influenced by literary theory since the 1980s with the rise of “theoretical fever” and “cultural fever.” Although this influence is mediated by definition, concept and category, it still reflects the “criticality” of theoretical criticism.

From the turn of the 21st century, the field of literary theory has been captivated by cultural studies and is no longer centered on writers and works. Current works on literary theory are brimming with notions such as morality, religion, reform, truth, class, race, identity, gender, region, hegemony, ideology, imperialism and colonialism. The exploration of these conceptual categories and the questions behind them breaks the natural boundary between academic research and practice, leading theories directly to the examination of relations of production, social institutions, ideas and beliefs. This kind of theory cannot be considered literary criticism because it “does not discuss literary works directly” and no longer speaks to the literary field directly. The introduction of these theoretical perspectives has broadened the notion of literary criticism, and thanks to the interdisciplinary approaches involved, people’s understanding of writers and works has been extended to all aspects of society and is no longer limited to the “scope of literature.”

As literary theory withdraws from the literary field, literary criticism no longer relies on the abstract speculation of literary theory, and literary theory loses the contemporary sense it should have when confronting societal trends. To some extent, the absence of contemporary sense in literary theory weakens its concern for reality, making it likely to become a minority discourse.


Zhao Na is an associate professor in the Department of Chinese Language and Literature in the School of Journalism at Nanjing University of Finance and Economics.

Editor:Yu Hui

Copyright©2023 CSSN All Rights Reserved

Copyright©2023 CSSN All Rights Reserved