How to Read Literary Criticism

Reading an essay can be quite different from reading a story—for one thing, there’s no central narrative. Rather, there’s an argument (sometimes more than one) about a text—an interpretation, an analysis, a contextualization, etc. The literary critical essays we will read focus primarily on fairy tales, sometimes on specific tales we’re reading,  and they are assigned to give you a sense of the scope of scholarly interest in fairy tales, to introduce you to some of the ways scholars have approached them, and to suggest some possible approaches for you to take in your own analysis. While you do not have to agree with everything you read—indeed, you’ll find that these experts often don’t agree with each other—you do need to take their arguments seriously and consider carefully whether you find them convincing.

As with stories, you may want to skim first. But as you skim, ask yourself the following questions:
What is this writer’s central claim?
What kind of evidence does the writer employ to support that claim? Are there quotations from literary texts? From other critics? From theorists?
Does the writer acknowledge counter-arguments?
Are the examples well chosen?

You’ll probably also want to note when and where the essay was first published, and see if you can ascertain anything about the intended audience from that information.

Once you’ve got a general sense of the contours of the argument, you will want to read it again more closely, this time paying attention to the way the writer handles evidence. Can you think of counter-examples? Has the writer ignored evidence that might invalidate the argument, or does s/he consider even counter-examples carefully? Does the evidence rely on expert analysis (other critics) or original research?

As you read, take notes or mark up your text. Look up words you don’t know and write down the definitions.

You may want to think about three different kinds of passages that you will encounter:
1) key details: evidence and/or examples that are central to the writer’s claim
2) formal features: the way the argument is constructed, literary techniques
3) larger implications: what is the central claim? What might follow from the central claim? Where does the writer want the reader to go next?

We’ll work with a variety of kinds of criticism in this course, and you will inevitably find some of it more accessible, and/or more convincing, than others. But if you read it with openness and curiosity you will find it repays your attention.