“Literary work should be regarded not as an object whose properties the student seeks to know but rather as an experience of the reader, so that false starts, errors, changes of mind are to be thought of, not as undesirable experiences of ill-prepared students, but as part of the experience, and thus part of the meaning of the work" (Stanley Fish, "Self-Consuming Artifacts").
“The literary critic, or the critic of any other specific form of artistic expression, may detach himself from the world for as long as the work of art he is contemplating appears to do the same.” Clive James
The Purpose of Criticism: Literary criticism has at least three primary purposes:
To help us resolve a question, problem, or difficulty in the reading.
To help us decide which is the better of two conflicting readings.
To enable us to form judgments about literature.
Historical / Biographical Approach: An Overview
Definition: Historical / Biographical critics see works as the reflection of an author's life and times (or of the characters' life and times). They believe it is necessary to know about the author and the political, economical, and sociological context of his times in order to truly understand his works.
Advantages: This approach works well for some works--like those of Alexander Pope, John Dryden, and Milton--which are obviously political in nature. One must know Milton was blind, for instance, for "On His Blindness" to have any meaning. And one must know something about Dante Alighieri’s political exile to appreciate the satire in his Inferno. It also is necessary to take a historical approach in order to place allusions in their proper classical, political, or biblical background.
Disadvantages: New Critics refer to the historical / biographical critic's belief that the meaning or value of a work may be determined by the author's intention as "the intentional fallacy." They believe that this approach tends to reduce art to the level of biography and make it relative (to the times) rather than universal.
Biographical Criticism: Beginning with the Author
This approach “begins with the simple but central insight that literature is written by actual people and that understanding an author’s life can help readers more thoroughly comprehend the work.” Hence, it often affords a practical method by which readers can better understand a text. However, a biographical critic must be careful not to take the biographical facts of a writer’s life too far in criticizing the works of that writer: the biographical critic “focuses on explicating the literary work by using the insight provided by knowledge of the author’s life.... [B]iographical data should amplify the meaning of the text, not drown it out with irrelevant material.”
Central Biographical Questions:
What biographical facts has the author used in the text?
What biographical facts has the author changed? Why?
What insights do we acquire about the author’s life by reading the text?
How do these facts and insights increase (or diminish) our understanding of the text?
In what ways does the author seem to consider his or her own life as "typical" or significant?
Historical Criticism: Putting Literature in its Place (and time, and culture, and language…)
This approach “seeks to understand a literary work by investigating the social, cultural, and intellectual context that produced it—a context that necessarily includes the artist’s biography and milieu.” A key goal for historical critics is to understand the effect of a literary work upon its original readers.
Central Historical Questions:
What specific historical events were happening when the work was being composed? (See timelines in history or literature texts.)
What historical events does the work deal with?
In what ways did history affect the writer's outlook?
In what ways did history affect the style? language? content?
In what ways and for what reasons did the writer alter historical events?