The differences between Literary Criticism,
Literary Theory and 'theory itself'

© copyright John Lye 1998. Prepared for my ENGL 4F70, Contemporary Literary Theory, course. Comments welcome, e-mail me at

I: Literary criticism

Literary criticism is fundamentally the estimation of the value of a particular work or body of work on such grounds as: the personal and/or cultural significance of the themes and the uses of language of a text; the insights and impact of a text; and the aesthetic production (or, performance) of the text; particularly as these areas are seen to be mutually dependent, supportive or inflective. The word 'criticism' has ordinary-use negative connotations, and to an extent that is right: for literary criticism is part of the disciplining of discourse generally and of what is considered literature in particular. One patrols the boundaries of good writing, admitting or excluding, determining what should be thought about a text, and why, what personal and cultural value should be placed on it.

Judgments of value are not simple, however. They require that one consider what constitutes value, what the personal and social value of literature is, what the value of 'the aesthetic' is. And they require that one interpret the text. As texts judged to be of high literary value tend to be marked by complexity and even ambiguity, and to yield diverse interpretations, judgment may ultimately require a theory of interpretation, or at least careful attention to the question of what constitutes, guides, and legitimates interpretation.

II: Theory

Theory is the process of understanding what the nature of literature is, what functions it has, what the relation of text is to author, to reader, to language, to society, to history. It is not judgment but understanding of the frames of judgment.

III: theory itself

Theory, however, particularly as "a theory of X," tends to operate within a frame of values and expectations itself. Full understanding requires one think as fully as possible about the sets of expectations, assumptions and values of theory and theorizing, and this (always incompletable) exercise I think of as theory itself.

IV: Literary Studies

In this discussion, I skip consideration of literary studies, which Roman Jakobson I think rightly in his famous essay "Linguistics and Poetics" insists must be differentiated from literary criticism. "Literary studies" refers to knowledge about the facts of the case as they illuminate the meaningfulness of texts -- facts of authorship, biography, influence, aesthetics, the pressures and modulations of contexts, rewriting and publication, historical interpretation, and so forth.

'Literary criticism'

In looking at the piece on Heart of Darkness by Edward Garnett reproduced below as literary criticism, we can discuss whether he is right about the value of the work and about the themes of the work. Is Garnett's judgment correct? Are the bases of his judgment an accurate description of the qualities of the text? The text in question is an unsigned review by Garnett in Academy and Literature 6, December 1902.
["Youth"and "The End of the Tether," stories published with "Heart of Darkness"] will be more popular than the third, "Heart of Darkness," "a study of the white man in Africa," which is most amazing, a consummate piece of artistic diablerie..... We...hold "Heart of Darkness" to be the high-water mark of the author's talent....

"Heart of Darkness," to present its theme bluntly, is an impression, taken from life, of the conquest by the European whites of a certain portion of Africa, an impression in particular of the civilizing methods of a certain great European Trading Company face to face with the "nigger." We say this must because the English reader likes to know where he is going before he takes his art seriously, and we add that he will find the human life, black and white, in "Heart of Darkness" and uncommonly and uncannily serious affair. If the ordinary reader, however, insists on taking the subject of a tale very seriously, the artist takes his method of presentation more seriously still, and rightly so. For the art of "Heart of Darkness" -- as in every psychological masterpiece -- lies in the relation of the things of the spirit to the things of the flesh, of the invisible life to the visible, of the sub-conscious life within us, our obscure motives and instincts, to our conscious actions, feelings and outlook. Just as landscape are implies the artist catching the exact relation of a tree to the earth from which it springs, of the earth to the sky, so the art of "Heart of Darkness" implies the catching of infinite shades of the white man's uneasy, disconcerted, and fantastic relation with the exploited barbarism of Africa; it implies the acutest analysis of the deterioration of the white man's morale, when he is let loose from European restraint, and planted down in the tropics as an "emissary of light" armed to the teeth, to make trade profits out of the "subject races." The weirdness, the brilliance the psychological truth of this masterly analysis of two Continents in conflict, of the abysmal gulf between the white man's system and the black man's comprehension of its results, is conveyed in a rapidly rushing narrative which calls for close attention on the reader's part. But the attention once surrendered, the pages of the narrative are as enthralling as the pages of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. The stillness of the sombre African forests, the glare of sunshine, the feeling of dawn, of noon, of night on the tropical rivers, the isolation of the unnerved, degenerating whites staring all day and every day at the heart of Darkness which alike meaningless and threatening to their own creed and conceptions of life, the helpless bewilderment of the unhappy savages in the grasp of their flabby and rapacious conquerors [note the use of Conrad's language and imagery] -- all this is a page torn form the life of the Dark continent -- a page which has been hitherto carefully blurred and kept away from European eyes. There is no "intention" in the story, no parti pris, no prejudice one way or the other; it is simple a piece of art, fascinating and remorseless, and the artist is but intent on presenting his sensations in that sequence and the arrangement whereby the meaning or the meaninglessness of the white man in uncivilized Africa can be felt in its really significant aspects....

This is literary criticism in that it is a valuation of the writing and the subject matter. It is the high-water mark of Conrad's talent, Garnett says, and along the way he attempts to explain why this is so. The style, the subject matter, and the treatment of the subject, are described. This is a "masterpiece," and Garnett tells use wherein the "art" lies. It lies in the qualities of perception and of writing, in the analysis as well as in the presentation of the subject. It is a psychological masterpiece, an enthralling representation of reality, a rapidly rushing narrative, and an astute treatment of a cultural phenomenon. Garnett classifies it by comparison with a work which had (in Constance Garnett's translation) recently burst on the English cultural scene, and was acknowledged to be a work of great psychological and dramatic power, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment; and he contrasts it implicitly to less powerful descriptions, and to descriptions which have political or social rather than simply representational motives. As literary criticism, one can contest his valuation, and/or the grounds of his valuation, of the work.

II Literary Theory

It should become clear, however, that Garnett is also operating with certain theories of literature. No criticism is innocent of theory, and what is at times called 'literary criticism' is often largely theory (Sidney's Defence of Poetry, Pope's Essay on Criticism, Wordsworth's "Preface" to the Lyrical Ballads, and so forth).

  1. Garnett believes that art is an exact representation of life, however one that is selected and arranged to elucidate truths. He praises the work for the precision with which it portrays what is, but also for a 'method' which brings to light that which is hidden. There are apparently two views of representation here, and of the nature of 'art': art represents, or art uncovers. It is not unusual for a critic to operate from different, even conflicting, theoretical positions, and in this case the conflict is as Flaubert long ago pointed out endemic to Realism: realism claims to represent the truth but in order to do so it necessarily selects and arranges, hence distorting the world as empirically experienced, and inflecting the 'truth' (as empirically conceived) with certain criteria of selection and arrangement.

  2. As an elucidation of things hidden Garnett sees this text as a psychological masterpiece, also as an astute analysis of a cultural conflict. There is a theory of the social function of literature here, and (as an enablement of that function) of literature as heuristic: literature does not merely teach by delighting (Horace, "Epistle to the Pises") or by saying "what oft was thought. but ne'er so well expressed" (Pope, "Essay on Criticism"); rather it discloses truths which otherwise would not be available but which are necessary if we are to live justly and to understand ourselves.

  3. In understanding literature as having heuristic powers Garnett reads with a certain model of human nature in mind, and with a certain model of social order. Were the article to be read by someone who did not understand the emerging theories of psychoanalysis, for instance, the ideas of the relation of our conscious and unconscious life (or even the existence of our unconscious life), the idea that we are governed by instincts and motives we only obscurely understand, then the Garnett's reading, and his grounds for valuing the text, might not be understood or accepted as valid.

  4. Similarly there is a politics in Garnett's reading, and a position in relation to imperialism; in fact he claims, and claims it apparently as a strength, that there is no political motivation to the text. This leads us to the perception that Garnett does not read literature of colonization with suspicion, does not think in terms of the language and sensibility of the Other, does not interrogate imperialist values -- or gender values, for another. Reading Heart of Darkness in that manner requires of set of theoretical conceptions and assumptions Garnett did not have.

  5. To return to the heuristic value, while Garnett does not claim that literature is the only way this uncovering of truth can be achieved, his faith in the eminence of this function is implicit, as are some of the reasons for this eminence (its representational power, its rhetorical force, its freedom from any interest other than the truth). There is an implicit valuation of literature as as means of conveying truth, that is to say.

  6. Garnett sees the work as proceeding from the intention of the author, and its effects as relying on capacities and attentions (hence the intention) to the audience. While this may seem unexceptional, there are operative assumptions here which could affect his reading, and his valuation. Garnett does not ask what psychic complexities allowed Conrad to see what he sees, he does not ask if the discursive formations which Conrad occupied inflected or occasioned his text, he assumes that language is responsive to the author's wish, that the reader receives the message the author sends and hence the reader's reception is conditioned only by a willingness to attend, he assumes that while there are hidden meanings in personal and social formations, there are none in textual formations, so what the text means is itself unproblematic and its representational power is unblemished.

  7. As well, an understanding of Garnett's theoretical position will comprehend why the review should have been taken seriously at the time, and so seriously since as to be often reprinted. Part of this will have to do with the institutions which regulate the publication, promotion, sales and valuation of texts, so that the reader of the theoretical assumptions of Garnett's piece will see that Garnett, a socially and culturally influential literary figure, is publishing in a review which proclaims the relation between the institutions of education and of 'literature,' Academy and Literature. Only a certain audience would have read this, and why Garnett chose to publish there rather than in the popular press, as well as the title of the publication, are themselves important statements about his understanding of what 'literature' is and ultimately about what its social functions in society are.

Consequently one can simply critique or approve Garnett's literary criticism and feel one has done one's job, but only if one chooses to ignore (or simply so fully agrees with as not to perceive) the theoretical position(s) on which his reading is based. Otherwise one must begin not with a critique of the criticism but with an attempt to understand and to articulate its theoretical assumptions.

III theory itself

While interrogating the theoretical assumptions, however, one ought to be aware of the difference between "Literary Theory" as a subject, and "theory itself." Literary Theory is, as Deleuze and Guattari remark in A Thousand Plateaus, an arrangement of ideas within a demarked space: one has the author, the reader, the text, society, etc, and a theoretical position will articulate the importance and the nature of the various relations among them. This is disciplined and disciplining theory, theory ready to hand for the practice of literary criticism, theory as practiced and approved by the regulatory bodies of the 'discipline.' One then has a 'theoretical position' from which, or through which, one acts, as a 'reader-response' theorist, or a 'psychoanalytic' theorist, or whatever. Theory Itself, on the other hand, is always one step off, is not to hand for criticism, because it is attempting to assess the assumptions and implications of the demarked space (why it is demarked, by what process, what the demarkation suggest, on what grounds and for what reasons these are authorized, and so forth). The practice of theory itself is self-reflexive, for it includes an examination of the grounds of one's own practice, authority, and goals.

The study of literary theory as I understand it occupies a site of struggle between these two locations, "Literary Theory" and "theory itself," between the attempt to locate literature in relation to its 'components', on the one hand, and an attempt to understand the ontological, epistemic, axiological and praxic nature and implications and assumptions of the very phenomenon of 'literature' as a cultural formation and practice. One can read Garnett's piece as a valuation of the text, one [must?] can read it for its theory of literature, and/or one can [must?] read it as an exercise of theory, in which case one must interrogate one's own assumptions, the very act one is engaged in, the categories one applies, the significance of the act.