It is often helpful to find out what others have written about the literery work you are studying. Keep in mind that criticism has not been published on all literary works. It is easier to find criticism on famous authors than on more obscure writers. Individual short stories or poems can also be challenging.
Literery criticism may be found in a number of forms:
Criticism in Books
Use the NCSU Libraries Catalog to find books by critics who have studied and written about your literary author. Here's a sample search - click for demo.
1) Type Eudora Welty in Search for words: (Anywhere) box
2) Look at the Refine Your Search box on the left, and find the Subject section. Click on Criticism and Interpretation
Criticism in Journal Articles
The library subscribes to a number of online databases that help you locate literary criticism articles.
- Tip: When using any of these databases, keep in mind that your literary author would be considered the subject or topic of the article. The word author in these databases would ordinarily refer to the person who wrote the article, rather than the literary author you are studying.
MLA International Bibliography
This is the most complete database that indexes scholarly literature journals. The articles are often very focused on a narrow topic. Note that MLA does not include research with a primary focus on ancient Greek and Roman (classical) authors. For literary research on classical authors, see the Classics Research Guide.
Tip: To search for criticism on a literary author, you can usually just type the authors name in the 1st search box without limiting to a specific field .If your your literary author has also written criticism, and you want to limit to articles that are about your author, you can use the pulldown to change to SU Subjects-ALL. To narrow your search to criticism of a particular work, you can type the name of the literary work.
Literary Reference Center Plus
Database including full text versions of selected literary criticism.
Academic Search Complete
This is a general interdisciplinary databases that covers many topics. It's not as complete as MLA (see above). But it includes many full-text articles, so it is often a quick way to find an article.
Tip: Since this database also covers popular magazines, you should limit your search by checking the box that says Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals.
This is a general interdisciplinary databases that covers many topics. It's not as complete as MLA (see above). JSTOR specializes in providing full text articles going back to the earliest issues of a journal. It has only scholarly journals, not popular magazines.
Tip: To search for criticism on Virginia Woolf, for example, try this:
1) Click on Advanced Search
2) Type Virginia Woolf in The Exact Phrase Box (or, type the name of the specific literary work)
3) Check off Language and Literature in the bottom section under These Discipline(s) and/or Journal(s)
For some current literature or popular books, there may be no criticism published in scholary books or journals, but you may still find book reviews in popular magazines or newspapers.
Academic Search Complete
This is a general interdisciplinary databases that covers many topics, including both scholarly journals and popular magazines, so it includes many book review.
Tip: Type the name of the book. If you choose, you can limit your search book reviews by using the Document Type box under Limit Your Results
Book Reviews Guide
For older books that do not have reviews listed in Academic Search Premier, there are some specialized sources that index book reviews in older periodicals.
This series of reference books collects and reprints literary criticism that was originally published in other places. It includes both excerpts and full reprints. This makes it easy to find criticism written by different people collected in one place. The reprints are arranged chronologically, starting with the earliest. Therefore, these is a good place to look if you want to learn what people were saying about a particular literary work right after it was published, and then trace how opinions evolved over time. The list below show the different series, which are based on the time period that the author live and wrote. If you don't know which set to use, keep in mind that the cumulative indexes in the last volume of each series cross-index one another.
Contemporary Literary Criticism (CLC)
[authors now living, or who died after December 31, 1999]
D.H. Hill Library. PN80 .C65 (6th floor bookstacks)
Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism(TCLC)
[authors who died between 1900 and 1999]
D.H. Hill Library. PN771 .G27 (6th floor bookstacks)
Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism (NCLC)
[authors who died between 1800 and 1899]
D.H. Hill Library PN761 .N56 (6th floor bookstacks)
Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800(LC)
[authors who died between 1400 and 1799]
D. H. Hill Library. PN86 .L53 (6th floor bookstacks)
Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism (CMLC)
[authors who died before 1400]
D.H. Hill Library PN661 .C42 (Learning Commons)
What is literary criticism? What is its goal? How is a literary article structured? And most importantly for you, how can you use it as evidence in your English research paper?
To start: literary criticism makes an argument about how a text works using close readings of that text (or those texts) as evidence. It then adds a theoretical framework or component to its close reading–that is, it will rely on literary theory and prior literary criticism as a lens through which to look at a literary work.
PRIMARY TEXT + THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK = LITERARY CRITICISM
You’ve all already seen literary criticism performed: both Professor Griffin (in pretty much every lecture) and Shay (in her guest lecture connecting affect and psychoanalysis with Never Let Me Go) have used literary criticism and theory to further their own arguments about a text. When making an argument about a text, both Professor Griffin and Shay answered the questions: what do critics have to say about a particular text or a particular topic? While Shay and Professor Griffin haven’t made explicit thesis statements in their arguments (their lectures were not structured like essays), they still made interpretive claims about what was going on in a particular text–their own personal contribution to the larger critical discussion surrounding a text–through an argument about something that isn’t obvious about how a text works and what it is doing.
As you all start surveying the critical field for evidence for your own arguments, the articles you will use as evidence will be, essentially, doing the same work you will be performing–albeit at a professional level. Take a look at how they incorporate others’ arguments, and how they engage with their primary (source) text(s).
When reading criticism, it may be helpful to keep in mind the basic structure of a piece of criticism: 1. This is my argument. 2. This is what has been said by other critics about this/closely related topic(s) (this is why it seems that so much of a critical article is comprised of reiterating other people’s arguments). 3. This is how my argument builds on these other peoples arguments. In this assignment, you will really only be concerned with 1 and 3–you don’t need to spend time accounting for what the field at large has to say about your subject, only to explain how the 2-3 critics you have chosen to engage with have contributed to your argument.
When writing with literary criticism, you are inserting yourself into a pre-existing critical conversation. It’s your job to figure out, “Where exactly do I fit?” (How is my argument different from everyone else’s? Have I adequately explained how these other critical arguments I’m engaging relate to what I’m trying to argue?)
You’ve already written essays in which you provide your own close reading of a text, but so far we’ve been limited to the primary text as our source. In your past essays, you’ve been asked to make an interpretive argument about a text, using evidence from that text to support your interpretation–this is what close reading is. But now you will be looking at the arguments of others as a way of making your own more specific, more powerful, more tailored to your own interests.
As I’ve told many of you, there are a few different ways to engage with criticism: 1) by agreeing with it, using it as evidence to on which to found/with which to further your argument; 2) by disagreeing with it, pointing out how the point it’s making fails to account for something in the text; and 3) looking to it as a source of an idea, term, or concept that you may find especially helpful.
For the first, I should point out that this doesn’t mean that you agree with the entire argument of an article, or that the whole argument is pertinent to your argument. It’s not. It couldn’t be, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing anything other than repeating what this other critic has already said. Don’t lose your voice in other people’s.
Instead, it might be a sentence, or an idea that you agree with. It may only be part of a sentence. But if you can use that to help build your argument, use it. Just be sure to transition satisfactorily from one idea to another; that is, your use criticism should flow along with your argument, and you should explain what it is doing there. Here is an example from a paper of mine, in which I use several critical sources to further my larger argument about two particular poems written on a particularly famous rape case in the 18th century:
In contrast, the poem seems to imply that it is Grey’s body on which needless violence has been performed. Dickie notes, “It was… widely thought that death was too harsh a penalty for [rape], and any woman must be really vindictive to pursue the matter so far” (Cruelty 224). Halsband agrees that Murray’s situation placed her in a fraught social position: “Some of [her] friends told her that if the footman was reprieved she would be ruined in her reputation; others that if he was hanged she would be cruelly revenged: her dilemma gave her no choice but to be thought unchaste or bloodthirsty” (696). This leaves Murray in the impossible situation of responsibility for Grey’s death, a responsibility that Grey places on her as well (“Condemn’d by you, I wait the righteous doom” (89)), all the while asserting that he is the victim of her ruthlessness—not she of his. “Sure you may pity what you can’t approve,” Grey begs (93).
This is an example where I use the arguments of others to further my own about sex, spectacle, and speculation, as it is figured in these two poems and as it relates to the historical and personal documentation of those involved in the scandal.
But this doesn’t mean that I agreed with everything critics have to say on my chosen subject–at times I feel their characterizations, analyses, or conclusions are oversimplified, misguided, or just plain wrong. Consider the following, from a paper about the unconscious and imagination in two under-read Gerard Manley Hopkins sonnets, “The Candle Indoors” and “The Lantern Out of Doors”:
When critics do address these two sonnets, the treatment is generally brief: Loomis merely designates “Lantern” as “the affective paean to Christic beauty” (110), stating that Hopkins’s “boisterous confidence…advertising universalism” in the poem is off-putting, but belies the “naïveté” of Hopkins’s 1877 devotional poetry (72, 70). He adds that the “basic thesis of the poem” can be summed up as “Christ’s rich love” (72). Heuser, meanwhile, treats the poem with half of a page of attention, essentially considering at as simply one of the “sonnets of 1877”, that apparently all shared the concern of “the current of grace” in “unfallen Eden” (54).
Oftentimes, it is most helpful to also pull in a term, idea, or argument from a source that isn’t dealing with the work you will be addressing, but nevertheless offers something that you think would be extremely productive in to your argument. If you choose to do this, be sure to clearly define/explain what that term/idea/argument is, in words of the critic/theorist. This is again from the Hopkins paper, in which I wanted to discuss the “traffic” between the conscious and unconscious in the poems, as well as between the poems as a complementary pair:
Specifically, I’d like to demonstrate the presence of what E.S. Dallas, a contemporary of Hopkins, calls the “traffic” between the “two spheres of consciousness” (52), and the role that imagination plays as both messenger and message in this “dynamic and vitalistic” exchange (Hayes 12 ). In tracing the similarities between Dallas’s theory of the imagination and Hopkins’s depiction of the speakers in the two sonnets, we can see a common interest: namely, the desire to break down the binary opposition between the conscious and the unconscious, promoting instead a kind of appositional situatedness and interconscious permeability fueled by a dynamic imaginative process.
In any case, make the relevance of any criticism you use extremely clear in your argument: what is it doing here? How are you engaging with it? How are you building on it–adding something new to the critical conversation. I hope this helps–feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts/questions/feedback.