Thursday, January 2, 2014

Elementary Guide to Literary Criticism, by Franklin Newton Painter

“As a rule,” urges Franklin Newton Painter in his critically acclaimed classic, Elementary Guide to Literary Criticism,  “we should read only books of recognized excellence, and read them with sympathetic intelligence. Trashy books, whatever pleasure they may give, add but little to knowledge or culture; and immoral books often leave an ineradicable stain upon the soul.”

The ideas of “recognized excellence,” “sympathetic intelligence” and “ineradicable stain upon the soul” make one wonder about the criteria by which Painter determines and advocates such notions. Although the criteria for evaluating literature are as old as Homer, they have undergone massive expansion in the 20th century. Besides, in view of new trends in literary theory and criticism, it is also worth pausing for a moment to reconsider the meaning of "theory" itself. According to the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, today the term "theory" entails a mode of questioning and analysis that goes beyond the earlier criteria of "literariness" of literature.  To an earlier generation, it seems that theory is more of an advocacy rather than a disinterested, objective inquiry into poetics of literature. Because of the effects new social movements, especially the women's and civil rights movements, theory now entails skepticism towards previously taken for granted systems, institutions, and norms. Now theory shows a readiness to take critical stands and to engage in resistance, an interest in blind spots, contradictions, and distortions,  and a habit of linking local and personal practices to the larger economic, political, historical, and ethical forces of culture. How and why did that happen in the world of literature?

Please join us at Brooklyn Book Talk, as we compare Painter’s classical criteria from the beginnings of the 20th century to newer perspectives such as formalism, Marxism,  psychoanalysis, structuralism, post-structuralism, reader-response , feminism, deconstruction, queer theory, cultural studies, new historicism, post-colonial, race, and ethnicity studies, etcetera.

The electronic version of Painter's Elementary Guide to Literary Criticism is in the public domain and can be accessed from Project Gutenberg online at:



Anonymous said...

Among the new theories of literary criticism, I am a bit confused why postmodernism rejects truth. Is that the truth? Paradoxical it seems. Surely, senses can be fallible. Of course, reason can be erroneous. But senses can be refined, and reason redeemed. But if there is no truth, what is the point of pondering, education and research. And ironically, postmodernism seems to be one of the most popular schools of literary criticism. So confusing to say the least.

Anonymous said...

Someone pondering about the definition of truth, in the age of propaganda, has to adequately answer what Friedrich Nietzsche said about truth: “What therefore is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which became poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage seem to a notion fixed, canonic, and binding; truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses; coins which have their obverse effaced and now are no longer of account as coins but merely as metal.”