Literary Criticism

There is no single methodology that governs Literary Criticism as a whole, but generally critics tend to proceed by drawing together close readings of texts with historical sources and/or theoretical frameworks. There are many schools of criticism, founded on different approaches and value systems. Here, we outline some of the historical and theoretical frameworks relevant to ‘Poetry Beyond Text’.


Theories of aesthetics explore how we engage with and react to sensual objects and experiences, attempting to explain how we come to judgments such as ‘this is beautiful’ or ‘this is ugly’. Aesthetic experience, because it is sensory rather than conceptual, is difficult to put into language. We can agree that a painting or a sunset is beautiful for example, but we find it difficult to say what makes it so. In order to try and explain aesthetic experience, aesthetic theories of the arts have attempted to assign different types of sensory experience to each art, and delimiting them in this way, to describe how, for instance, visual beauty differs from musical or literary beauty.

Literature and visual art, the two modes upon which this project focuses, have been considered in relation to one another since antiquity. From the Horatian maxim, ut picture poesis, to the notion of the sister arts, the sense that both poetry and painting share a fundamental task as modes of representation has been passed down the centuries. Writing in 1766, however, the German aesthetician G.E. Lessing famously differentiated rather than conflated the two arts: poetry should appeal to the ear and consider time based actions, he argued, while painting should appeal to the eye and represent spatial configurations. Lessing’s argument was made in order to claim superiority for poetry. The abstract signs of language, he claimed, gave it greater freedom and expressivity than the natural signs of visual art. In this way, as the art critic Clement Greenberg would later claim, his work set up a hierarchy of the arts that would remain dominant for the following two centuries in which literature was considered the more powerful or more dominant art.

For Greenberg and other influential art critics writing in the middle of last century, the dominant art of the twentieth century was painting. Unlike literature, it was argued, visual art could retreat into its own materiality and be purely aesthetic, thus standing at a remove from the world and resisting any involvement or cooption into politics and society. Literature, on the other hand, was by its linguistic nature easily contaminated and bent to political purposes. The special power of visual art, these modernist critics argued, was in its opposition to language.

More recently, such aesthetic hierarchies have not only been thoroughly critiqued as ideological structures but also increasingly challenged by inter-media art. Rather than reinstate the hierarchy between literature and visual arts, it now seems much more interesting to explore works that draw the two together and examine how theses modes impact on one another. However, it should be noted that many contemporary thinkers would argue that we are living in a culture that is visually-led and increasingly dominated by images. The question of what value literature has in relation to visual art, then, is still under debate.

Reader Response

Reader-response theory is a general term for a range of theories of literature which focus on the process of reading and interpretation. Such theories draw on two principal philosophical traditions. The first is that of hermeneutics (the philosophy of interpretation), from the romantic hermeneutics of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who developed the concept of the ‘hermeneutical circle’, to the influential 20th-century thought of Hans-Georg Gadamer, who emphasized the historical and inter-subjective aspects of the interpretative act. The second is phenomenology, derived from Edmund Husserl’s project of founding philosophy on an enquiry into the nature of consciousness. Reader-response theory raises general questions such as the nature of meaning and the role of the reading subject, as well as focusing in detail on the processes of interaction between text and reader, on how interpretation takes place and how meanings are elicited or constructed.

Early forms of reader-response theory are found particularly in German-language philosophy and criticism. In the 1930s, Roman Ingarden, influenced by Husserl’s phenomenology, saw the text as an ‘intentional object’, dependant on a process of ‘concretization’ by the reader to bring it into full existence (The Literary Work of Art, 1931). Wolfgang Iser develops this position in the 1970s, in regarding meaning as emerging from a process in which the reader, interacting with the text, completes, or fills in, gaps or indeterminacies (The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response, 1976). Hans-Robert Jauss, writing in the 1960s, takes a more historical and collective approach; where Iser uses the term ‘horizon’ to refer to what is in the background of the individual reader’s attention at a particular point in reader (in contrast to the ‘theme’ or foreground), for Jauss ‘horizon of expectation’ refers to the shared assumptions of a generation of readers ('Literary History as a challenge to literary theory’, 1967). However, it is Gadamer who gives greatest importance to history and time. In Truth and Method (1965) he derives from Heidegger theories of interpretation and understanding to which concepts of ‘tradition’, of ‘foreunderstanding’ and of temporal distance are central, not as impediments to interpretation but as its essential basis. Here the concept of ‘horizon’ occurs with a different emphasis again: Gadamer argues that understanding must necessarily involve a ‘fusing’ of the reader’s horizon, or way of perceiving the world, with the horizon of the past, or historical ‘other’. Other notable contributors to and influences on reader response theory include the E.D. Hirsch (Validity in Interpretation, 1967), Paul Ricoeur (Interpretation Theory, 1976) and Stanley Fish (Is There a Text in this Class?, 1980).

In most cases, the ‘reader’ whose actions, context and perspective are considered in reader-response theory is a theoretical construct: the implied reader, the inscribed reader, the model reader, the intended reader or the ideal reader. Most widely used of these is probably Wolfgang Iser’s concept of the implied reader (developed in response to Wayne C. Booth’s implied author). The implied reader mediates between text and actual readers, and ‘designates a network of response-inviting structures, which impel the reader to grasp the text’ (Iser, The Act of Reading, p. 34).

The key difference between phenomenological and hermeneutic traditions lies in the former’s tendency to neglect temporal and historical factors in favour of some form of transcendental relationship between reader and text, in contrast to the latter’s historical emphasis. Elements of this tension are replayed in the negotiations currently taking place between mainstream and cognitive literary criticism. Literary studies have taken a strongly historical turn since the late 1990s, and have also inherited from postcolonial and feminist theory an acute awareness of the cultural situatedness of reading and interpretation. Cognitive literary criticism, drawing on fields such as neuroscience and evolutionary theory, is more likely to posit general features of the human brain, largely independent of contemporary cultural factors.

The Poetry Beyond Text project seeks to negotiate between these two positions. It has an empirical aspect, studying groups of real readers and attempting to learn from their various individual and collective interpretations and responses. But it aims to do this within a framework of understanding informed by literary theory and aesthetics: including asking how ‘real’ readers respond to, or situate themselves with respect to, the implied reader of a work, and the ‘horizon of expectation’ of the groups to which they are connected and the cultural moment they inhabit.

Cognitive Literary Theory

Cognitive Literary Theory is an interdisciplinary approach which attempts to integrate insights from cognitive sciences into the study of literature. Cognitive critics take recourse to models derived from cognitive psychology, cognitive linguistics, artificial intelligence, neurosciences and theories of evolution. All of these sciences are concerned with processes involved in the acquisition, organization and application of information, and can thus help explain phenomena crucial to the understanding of literature, such as perception, affect, modes of attention, representation, and interpretation and problem solving strategies.

Cognitive critics take reader-response theory, which Wolfgang Iser and Meir Sternberg developed in the 1970s, one step further: questions of literary interpretation are not just relocated firmly in the reader, but more specifically into their bodies and minds. By expanding the range of tools available for literary analysis, cognitive critics hope to open up new pathways for literary criticism and critical theory.

A first wave of cognitive studies emerged in the 1980s, and an active scholarly community materialized in the 1990s. During the last ten years, there has been a notable upsurge in publications in that field, which has led some critics to talk about a ‘cognitive turn’. Cognitive Literary Theory can be subdivided into the following sub-branches: cognitive rhetoric, cognitive poetics, cognitive narratology, cognitive aesthetics of reception, cognitive materialism, and evolutionary literary theory. Most of these schools not only seek to explain how literature operates in relation to empirical facts about psychological processes, but also offer accounts of literariness and embodiment. Furthermore, many cognitivists discuss the transformation of originally adaptationist devices into aesthetic techniques as well as questions related to the universalism of modes of cognition and behaviour. Finally, some but not all strands of Cognitive Literary Theory are a reaction against poststructuralism; some cognitive critics use cognitive sciences as a weapon against what they perceive as poststructuralist relativism.

Further Reading

Abbott, H. Porter. ‘Cognitive Literary Studies: The “Second Generation”’. Poetics Today 27: 4 (Winter 2006).

Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. 1970. Ed. G. Adorno and R. Tiedemann. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.

Bernstein, J.M. Against Voluptuous Bodies: Late Modernism and the Meaning of Painting. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.

---. The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.

Freund, Elizabeth. The Return of the Reader: Reader-Response Criticism . London and New York: Methuen, 1987.

Greenberg, C. “Towards a Newer Laocoon.” 1940. Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism. Volume 1: Perceptions and Judgments. 1939-1944. Ed. J.
O’Brian. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press, 1986. 23-37.

Jackson, Tony. ‘Questioning Interdisciplinarity: Cognitive Science, Evolutionary Psychology, and Literary Criticism’. Poetics Today 21:2 (Summer 2000).

Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Laocoon: or, The Limits of Poetry and Painting. 1766
Trans. W.C. Ross. London: J. Ridgway and Sons, 1836.

Maclean, Ian. ‘Reading and Interpretation’, in Modern Literary Theory: A Comparative Introduction . ed. Ann Jefferson and David Robey. London: Batsford, 1986. 122-144.

Richardson, Alan & Ellen Spolsky (eds.), The Work of Fiction. Cognition, Culture, and Complexity. London: Ashgate, 2004.

Spolsky, Ellen. Gaps in Nature. Literary Interpretation and the Modular Mind. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Tsur, Reuven. Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics. Brighton; Portland: Sussex Acedmic Press, 2008 [second revised, expanded and updated version].

Turner, Mark. Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

----The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.