Literary criticism is the study, discussion, evaluation, and interpretation of literature. Modern literary criticism is often informed by literary theory, which is the philosophical discussion of its methods and goals. Though the two activities are closely related, literary critics are not always, and have not always been, theorists.
Modern literary criticism is often published in essay or book form. Academic literary critics teach in literature departments and publish in academic journals, and more popular critics publish their criticism in broadly circulating periodicals such as the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, The Nation, and The New Yorker.
History of literary criticism
Classical and medieval criticism
Literary criticism has probably existed for as long as literature. Aristotle wrote the Poetics, a typology and description of literary forms with many specific criticisms of contemporary works, in the 4th century BC. Poetics developed for the first time the concepts of mimesis and catharsis, which are still crucial in literary study. Plato's attacks on poetry as imitative, secondary, and false were formative as well.
Later classical and medieval criticism often focused on religious texts, and the several long religious traditions of hermeneutics and textual exegesis have had a profound influence on the study of secular texts.
The literary criticism of the Renaissance developed classical ideas of unity of form and content into a literary neoclassicism which proclaimed literature to be central to culture and entrusted the poet or author with the preservation of a long literary tradition.
(Much more could be said about pre-19th-century literary interpretation.)
The British Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century brought new aesthetic ideas to the study of literature, including the idea that the object of literature did not always have to be beautiful, noble, or perfect, but that literature itself could elevate a common subject to the level of the sublime. German Romanticism, which followed closely after the late development of German classicism, emphasized an aesthetic of fragmentation which can seem startlingly modern to a reader of English literature, and valued Witz – that is, "wit" or "humor" of a certain sort – more highly than the apparently serious Anglophone Romanticism.
The late nineteenth century brought several authors better known for their critical writings than for their own literary work, such as Matthew Arnold.
The New Criticism
However important all of these aesthetic movements were as antecedents, current ideas about literary criticism derive almost entirely from the new direction taken in the early twentieth century. Early in the century the school of criticism known as Russian Formalism, and slightly later the New Criticism in Britain and America, came to dominate the study and discussion of literature. Both schools emphasized the close reading of texts, elevating it far above generalizing discussion and speculation about either authorial intention (to say nothing of the author's psychology or biography, which became almost taboo subjects) or reader response. This emphasis on form and precise attention to "the words themselves" has persisted, after the decline of these critical doctrines themselves.
In the British and American literary establishment the New Criticism was more or less dominant until the late 1960s. Around that time Anglo-American university literature departments began to witness a rise of a more explicitly philosophical literary theory, influenced by structuralism, then post-structuralism, and other kinds of Continental philosophy. It continued until the mid-1980s, when interest in "theory" peaked. Many later critics, though undoubtedly still influenced by theoretical work, have been comfortable simply interpreting literature rather than writing explicitly about methodology and philosophical presumptions.
The current state of literary criticism
Today interest in literary theory and Continental philosophy coexists in university literature departments with a more conservative literary criticism of which the New Critics would probably have approved. Acrimonious disagreements over the goals and methods of literary criticism, which characterized both sides taken by critics during the "rise" of theory, have declined (though they still happen), and many critics feel that they now have a great plurality of methods and approaches from which to choose.
Some critics work largely with theoretical texts, while others read traditional literature; interest in the literary canon is still great, but many critics are also interested in minority and women's literatures, while some critics influenced by cultural studies read popular texts like comic books or pulp/genre fiction. Many literary critics also work in film criticism or media studies. Some write intellectual history; others bring the results and methods of social history to bear on reading literature.