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Lang&Lit: EH501 -- Introduction to Graduate Study in English: Part I: Literary Criticism

This LibGuide is the companion guide to the EH501 course offered by the English Department at Jacksonville State University. It is intended for graduate students and rising professionals in the field, and its content may be used to complement LibGuides f

Literary Criticism

This page addresses the practice of literary criticism, from defining it and classifying its types to listing relevant subject headings to offering suggestions for finding information on and examples of various critical approaches to literature.

What is Literary Criticism?

According to the entry for Criticism in the Handbook to lLterature, 10th edition (Ref PN41.H355  2006), criticism is defined as "[t]he analysis, study, and evaluation of individual works of art, as well as the formulation of general principlesfor the examination of such works."  This and a companion entry, Criticism, Types of, are good points of departure for further, in-depth study of literary criticism.

The Handbook to Literature also provides brief defining/descriptive entries for the better known approaches to literary criticism, such as feminist criticism, historical criticism, New Criticism, etc.

Critical Case Studies

A case study is a book that examines a subject from a variety of approaches or perspectives.  In the social sciences, this type of publication is quite common.  In literature, case studies often take the form of examination of a literary work from a variety of critical approaches, as do the books in the Macmillan series Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism (Googleable as "case studies in contemporary criticism").

A book that is a case study may not reveal this in its title, as the following literary case studies owned by Houston Cole Library illustrate.


LC Subject Headings for Literary Criticism

Literary Criticism falls under the broader rubric of General Literature (LC subclass PN) and has a parallel alphabet (for both reference and circulating books) whose boundaries are approximately PN81 - PN100.  These books are on Houston Cole Library's sixth floor, and if one is perusing the reference section there it would be wise to browse back as far as PN41 in order to harvest the handbooks to literature.

A detailed outline of the class, taken from SuperLCCS: Gale's Library of Congress Classification Schedules, is accessible via the link below.  Notice the "money zone" that begins with PN98.  Many items in the list are critical approaches and could be used to fill database or internet searchboxes when seeking literary criticism of a particular kind.   


Literary criticism is such an ever-evolving field that traditional analog sources (i.e., print) have a hard time remaining current.  New approaches (i.e., thing studies) are always being devised.  To keep up, a good strategy is to employ a single-box Google Search and in the box type "literary criticism types (list)" (or a variant meaning the same thing), and from the results list choose the links you like.  There will be omissions in individual websites and overlap among them, but often a webpage will offer something unique from its companion sites.

Locating Literary Criticism by Approach or School

Locating criticism on literature is easy; locating literary criticism from a particular school or approach, not so much.  Sometimes the introduction of a book will indicate which (if any) critical approach is employed, and sometimes reviews in scholarly journals will identify any critical approaches used in the book(s) reviewed.  But such discoveries are serendipitous and unpredictable and, due to the level of indexing in library catalog records, JaxCat searches do not provide the type of result sought consistently enough to be reliable.  A better course would be to consult the literature review annuals American Literary Scholarship (Ref PS3.A47) and  Year's Work in English Studies (Ref PE58.E6) to trace critical scholarship on literary topics.   Beyond these, there are still other approaches which yield helpful results.

1.  Discovery Search (Advanced)



This search should work for both books and articles in journals. The basic template is author, title of work, critical approach. 
Things to note:
Top Box:  Imprecision in the search results may be reduced by putting author's name within quotation marks or by changing the field label for the box to SU Subject.  Either of these options should result in a smaller number of results.
Middle Box:  To have the work's title searched as a unit, place it within quotation marks.  This step also should increase relevance  and reduce the number of results.
These steps are sometimes necessary but not always.  The entries in the Subjects line for each result harvested will in the boldface reveal if there is slop and wobble in the search.  Unless the literary work is very major, it may be better to omit it from a searchbox and instead look for the title in the Subject lines in the results list.
Bottom Box (or middle if the work's title is not included in the search):  This is for the critical approach being sought.  Unlike with the author/work searches, where precision is desired, in this box some flexibility is necessary to prevent relevant results from being omitted.  Concept takes precedence over language: meaning trumps word, theme with variations dominates strategy, the truncation symbol (*) becomes paramount.  For example:
femini* = feminine, feminism, feminist         approach to criticism
formali* = formalism/formalist                      approach to criticism
histori* =  historical/historicist                      approach to criticism
"new criticism"                                              [the "  " are necessary; just try a search without them]
psychol* =                                                     psychological
2.  Google Books Advanced Search. 
Because it drill so much more deeply than other search tools (right down into the full text), Google Books advanced search is the best tool for harvesting information difficult or impossible to surface through other means.  The implied Boolean operators between and wit
hin searchboxes makes the interface behave like a database.  For seeking particular critical approaches for an author/work, a good strategy would be to 

Find results
with all of the words  
with the exact phrase
with at least one of the words
without the words



1.  In the top box (all) place the author's name and an identifier for the critical approach sought (e.g., femini  marx  psychol).  These are words essential to the success of the search.

2.  In the second box (exact phrase) place essential phrases, such as the title of the work or identifier phrases for criticism (e.g. new criticism reader-response).

3.  In the third box (at least) type the words analysis criticism interpretation.  This is to harvest secondary sources about the work, not copies of the work itself (the primary source).


From your results list look for your search terms in boldface type.  Then, for the items you like, look for the word Preview hyperlink.   Peruse the Preview; if you like what you see, click on Get book in Print/Find in a Library in the left pane.  See if Houston Cole Library has the book.  If we do, then the entire book is available.  If not, then you still have the Preview.

For books the library does not have, check the Google Books record for subject headings.  Open a JaxCat window for Subject search, copy/paste a heading from Google Books, and see what books on the same subject Houston Cole Library does own.