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There are many excellent handbooks that cover literary critical terminology, together (often) with a good deal of useful literary history. And there are a number of on-line guides and glossaries devoted to reading and writing about literature.
The articles below tend to be moderately long, because they undertake to clear up certain confusions my experience tells me students can often benefit from clearing up. However, there are occasions on which such detail is beside the point, and a much briefer entry would be more helpful. Anthologies designed for classroom use often have this kind of apparatus, usually tucked away as an appendix. Be sure to look in the back of the one you are using. Meanwhile, here is a useful short glossary online
Glossary of Literary Terms at Research Links to accompany Michael Meyer's The Bedford Introduction to Literature
In the present project (designed for undergraduate courses I teach at Kansas State University) discussions are available for the highlighted terms in the list that follows. Non-highlighted terms will be addressed shortly, since they are referenced in the articles on the terms already discussed. Important terms not so far listed will be included in due time.
Several publishers of introductory literature texts have constructed web sites supporting their texts with additional material on authors covered and on critical concepts. These are definitely worth a look.
Writing centers at a couple of universities also offer some helpful brief guides to reading literature and writing about literary works.:
In addition, there are some fairly sophisticated glossaries of literary critical and rhetorical terms that can be consulted on the web. The definitions given are succinct, and therefore (with few exceptions) do not touch on some of the complexities worth thinking about, but they extend to many more terms than will be covered on this site. Here are some:
Return to List of Critical Terms.
By far the most extensive and informative discussions of literary critical terminology is to be found in books, not on the Web. Here is a list of a few items well worth seeking out. Serious readers of literature will want to own at least one. Later editions than the ones I have listed may be available. (Conversely, you may be able to run across older editions - still highly useful! to be had at very little expense. You can shop for these on the web at several sites offering new or used books.) I have listed the following in approximate order of complexity and thoroughness.
For a more thorough bibliography of such works, see "Some Dictionaries of Literary Theory and Related Areas," compiled by Lowell Edmunds of the Classics Department at Rutgers University.
An excellent introduction to contemporary debates in "literary theory" is David H. Richter, ed., Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature, 2nd Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's. 2000.
This contains a number of clearly written, passionately committed, conflicting answers to three questions that serious readers (not confined to people majoring in literature, but certainly including them!) will sooner or later want to develop their own answers to: (1) Why should we read? (More specifically: why read literature in analytical way (instead of "just enjoying it" in an immediate way, without "thinking about it")? (2) What should we read? (That is, how might we decide what works are worth spending our time on)? (3) How should we read? (Or: since there are so many different approaches and points of view that we might adopt, which should we pick, and why?) There is a website designed to supplement this text, but of course can't be (and isn't intended to be) a substitute for dipping into the text itself.
An illuminating discussion of the ethical issues raised by various positions within contemporary literary theory is Wayne C. Booth's The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
There is a useful annotation on Booth's book at the Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database at New York University
Return to List of Critical Terms.
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This document last revised 26 August, 2004 .