Literary Criticism

What is literary criticism? How do I find it?

Literary criticism is the evaluation, analysis, description, or interpretation of literary works. It is usually in the form of a critical essay, but in-depth book reviews can sometimes be considered literary criticism. Criticism may examine a particular literary work, or may look at an author’s writings as a whole. Finding literary criticism can be challenging. This pathfinder is designed to help students in researching and writing a paper that requires sources of literary criticism.

On the Internet vs. At the Library

There are many good sources of literary criticism that are now available on the Web. However, there are lots of things that are not yet available electronically, or that require a subscription. Therefore, you will probably need to do some research at a library in your area in order to write a paper that requires literary criticism.

Different libraries have different sources. Your school or public library will have some good resources for literary criticism, but if you need more, you may be able to do some research at an academic library near you. This pathfinder suggests some online and print sources, to show you what kinds of things are available on the Web and in libraries. If you can’t find a particular title at your library, don’t worry; just ask a librarian your question, and he or she can help you locate a similar resource.

Terms &Concepts | Author Information | Criticism &Summaries | Finding Books | Finding Articles | Writing the Paper

Terms &Concepts

Need a definition of allusion, Romanticism, satire, or other literary concept?

A Glossary of Literary Terms and A Handbook of Rhetorical Devices
Listings of terms with definitions and useful examples, written by an English professor.

There are lots of books which define literary terms. These are two which are commonly found in libraries.

Cuddon, J.A., A Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory
A fairly comprehensive dictionary of common literary terms in several languages.

Harmon, William and Holman, C. Hugh, A Handbook to Literature
Concise definitions of a wide range of English literary terminology, including concepts, genres, movements, periods, etc.

Author Information

Want to read more about the author of the book you are researching, or the historical context in which it was written?

Literary Criticism Collection
Many author biographies are listed in this IPL collection. You can browse by your author’s last name.

Colorado State University’s Literary Authors Listing
A listing of biographical resources for famous World, British, and American authors.

The following three sources are published by the Gale Group, and one or more of them may be in your library. There are also hundreds of other books which have similar collections of author biographies. Ask your librarian to help you find one that includes your author.

Contemporary Authors
Biographical and critical essays about recent and current authors worldwide. Also includes bibliographies of further readings about those authors.

Dictionary of Literary Biography
Similar to Contemporary Authors, but covers both currently and historically influential British and American literary figures.

Discovering Authors
This includes biographical and limited critical information on authors commonly studied in schools and colleges. Also lists further readings about the authors. This is in electronic format only.

Criticism &Summaries

Looking for some representative criticism on an author or book? Want a plot summary and character list for Crime and Punishment?

Literary Criticism Collection
This IPL collection provides links to online sources of biography, bibliography, and criticism about major authors and works written worldwide. The most comprehensive coverage is in American and British authors. As mentioned in the Author Information section above, this collection has developed some technical problems. However, it still holds valuable information. If the author or work you are interested in is not available, try the Online Literary Criticism Guide, /div/litcrit/guide.html, for other good places to start looking on the Web.

The Gale Group publishes several series of literary criticism which are often found in libraries. These volumes usually include some biographical information on an author, a listing of major works, and a variety of excerpts from critical essays written about the author and works. There is a free index to 40 of these series, available online. You can search this Literary Index,, to find out which Gale series you might look at for information on your topic. Some of the major Gale series are:

Contemporary Literary Criticism
Includes authors now living, and those who died after 1960.
Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800
Includes authors who died between 1400 and 1799, excluding Shakespeare.
Twentieth Century Literary Criticism
Includes authors who died between 1900 and 1959.
Shakespearean Criticism
Includes criticism about Shakespeare’s works from their earliest publication till today.
Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism
Includes authors who died between 1800 and 1899.
Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism
Includes authors from antiquity through 1399.

There are lots of series which include plot synopses and basic criticism of famous novels. Frank Magill’s Masterplots and Critical Surveys are reasonably reliable and most articles are written by scholars. Other sources, like Cliff’s Notes, are sometimes also written by scholars, but be sure and check to see that the author has good credentials (for example, a master’s degree or PhD in literature).

Magill, Frank N., Masterplots: 2010 Plot Stories and Essay Reviews from the World’s Fine Literature, Revised Edition
Plot synopses and brief critical evaluations of major works of international literature.

Magill, Frank N., Critical Survey of Long Fiction, English Language Series, Revised Edition and Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Foreign Language Series
These two series have short biographical and in-depth critical essays on major authors and their works. Each essay also includes a brief annotated bibliography of further readings.

Finding Books

Looking for a book about your author, or a volume of critical essays about a literary work?

When searching for books in your library’s online catalog, you can do a keyword search, but the best way to find good sources of information is to do a subject search. Subject searches look for the Library of Congress Subject Headings assigned to a particular book. These headings help you find books which are specifically about your topic.

In many online catalogs, you can simply do a subject search for your author’s name, and then browse a list of headings which begin with that name. Good subject headings for literary criticism often include the words “criticism and interpretation.” Another way to find a good subject heading is to look in the red LCSH books, which your librarian can help you find and use. Look for your author’s last name, and then browse for useful headings.

Some examples of useful subject headings for literary criticism might be:

  • Chaucer, Geoffrey, d. 1400—Criticism and interpretation.
  • Walker, Alice, 1944—Color Purple.
  • American fiction—Indian authors—History and criticism.

Finding Articles

Need some critical articles about an author or book? Want to find a book review?

Articles published in newspapers, popular magazines, or scholarly journals are listed in a variety of different periodical indexes. A periodical is simply a publication that is produced a particular number of times a year: daily, weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Periodical indexes may be available in online, CD-ROM, or print form.

These indexes contain citations to articles. A citation includes an article’s title, author, page numbers, publication date, and the name of the periodical in which it was published. Once you have this information, you need to check your library’s online catalog for the call number of the periodical you are looking for. Why isn’t this included in the citation? Because libraries mostly subscribe to the same indexes, and often the same periodicals, but they don’t always organize those periodicals in the same way. Once you have the call number of the periodical, you’re ready to go look for the article.

Public libraries or high school libraries usually subscribe to a few periodical indexes, especially general indexes which include newspapers, magazines, and some scholarly journals. Ask your reference librarian which index will be most useful to you in your research.

If you can’t find many articles on your topic, you may want to try a periodical index which focuses on a specific academic field. Academic libraries often subscribe to this kind of subject index. One subject index that is particularly useful for finding literary criticism is the Modern Language Association’s MLA International Bibliography, which includes scholarly writings on literature, languages, linguistics, and folklore. Ask your librarian to help you find a library near you where you can use this index, or to suggest other indexes that may be useful to you.

To find articles on your topic in a periodical index, do a keyword search as you would in a library’s online catalog. Before you start searching, you may want to look at Skills for Online Searching , /div/aplus/skills.htm, which has advice on how to search electronic databases and the World Wide Web, and links to useful tutorials.

Writing the Paper

Need some help formulating your paper or citing sources?

A+ Research and Writing Guide
This IPL guide walks you through the process of writing a research paper, from choosing a topic to doing research to writing your bibliography.

Guide to Conducting Literary Research
“This guide is designed to support you as you use electronic and print resources to: choose a topic, craft a thesis, evaluate thesis and sources, identify a variety of information sources, take efficient notes, begin and organize a research paper, use parenthetical documentation, prepare a Works Cited page, draft and revise a research paper.”

Writers Workshop: Writer Resources
Excellent handbooks on grammatical rules, writing techniques, and citing sources.

Documentation Styles
A guide to citing print and electronic sources in APA, MLA, Chicago, and some other styles.

Citation Styles: APA, MLA, Chicago, Turabian, IEEE: Home
Learn to cite various electronic sources in APA, MLA, Chicago, and IEEE styles.

This pathfinder was created by Hilary Leon, but it is based in part on work by Ken Irwin, Nettie Lagace, and Sara Ryan.

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