Topic 37 – Literary language, lit. Genres & literary criticism

Topic 37 – Literary language, lit. Genres & literary criticism

Throughout this topic I am going to deal with literature. In order to present different aspects related to that topic, I am going to establish three different sections. In the first one, I will deal with the main aspects having to do with literary language. Then, I will move on to establish a classification of the different literary genre, and finally, I will give an overview of the main forms of literary criticism.

Let’s start with the first section, dealing with the language of literature. We should start by wondering ourselves: What is literary language? In order to offer a definition of literary language, I am going to follow the Structuralist view, which tried to define literary language based on the reasons for its use rather than what kind of vocabulary it has. The most influential definition states that ordinary language disappears once it has been understood, whereas literary language can be defined as language that does not disappear in that way. For instance, in ordinary language we may say “What time is it?” and get the answer “It’s 4 o’clock”, without further reflections after the statement. Let’s see now a literary example drawn from Hamlet, by Shakespeare:

HAMLET: What hour now?

HORATIO: I think it lacks of twelve.

MARCELLUS: No, it is struck

HORATIO: Really? I heard it not

Asking the time in Hamlet has a great significance, because it is indicating whether or not the ghost is due.

Another celebrated formulation of literary language was posed by Roman Jakobson, who asserted that the poetic or literary function of language is “the sending of the message for its own sake”. According to Jakobson, in any act of communication, an addresser sends a message to an addressee within a specific context through a specific channel and referred to a certain code. In the case of literary language, the main focus of attention is the message itself.

Once I have defined what literary language is, I am going to reflect on its nature. Although there are important differences between literary and everyday language, in contemporary discourse studies little attention is given to strictly literary texts. The study of the literary or poetic function of language is limited to literary phenomena that can also occur in everyday language. Examples are the effect of literary techniques in advertising texts, graffiti, flyers or newspaper headlines.

In some literatures, notably classical Chinese, Old Norse and Old Irish, the language employed is quite different from that spoken or used in ordinary writing. This marks off the reading of literature as a special experience. In the Western tradition, it is only in comparatively modern times that literature has been written in the common speech of cultivated men. The Elizabethans did not talk like Shakespeare, nor 18th century people in the stately prose of Samuel Johnson. The first person to write major works of literature in the ordinary English language of the educated man was Daniel Defoe.

Having all this in mind, it is very difficult to find a suitable and precise definition for literary texts. It is widely accepted that literary texts are highly heterogeneous. They do not have a singular, generic purpose as do most of the other genres. In many cases, they have an entertaining objective, but this is not the only, and in many cases, it is not even the most important one. Literary texts have also a powerful social role; they are a powerful medium for changing social opinions and attitudes, as well as an important way of expressing personal impressions, convictions and feelings.

Literary texts are unique and cannot be associated with any closed kind of register. This openness gives them special value. A literary text is a text that is valued on its own right, which means that it is different from all other texts. Moreover, it usually has more than one possible meaning depending of the context, level of analysis, etc.

Although I have previously stated that many literary works are written using ordinary, everyday language, there is a kind of language which is typical of literary texts, and which is not frequently used in everyday speech. I am referring to figurative language. Figurative language is a departure from what speakers of a particular language apprehend to be the standard meaning of words, or the standard order of words, in order to achieve some special meaning or effect. Since classical times, figurative language has often been divided into two classes:

  • Figures of thought or tropes, in which words or phrases are used in a way that effects a conspicuous change in what we take to be their standard meaning.
  • Figures of speech or rhetorical figures, in which the departure from the standard usage is not, primarily, in the meaning but in the order of words.

Up to this point I have been dealing with literary language. Now I am going to move on to my second section, in which I am going to discuss the main literary genres. A genre, in literary criticism, denotes a type or species of literature. The genres into which literary works have been classified are numerous, and the criteria used for such classification have been highly variable. There has endured, however, since Aristotle, the tendency to order the total literary domain into three overall classes: lyric, uttered throughout in the first person; epic or narrative, in which the narrator speaks in the first person, then lets his characters speak for themselves; and drama, in which the characters do all the talking. Within this division, critics since classic times have specified a great number of more limited genres. The most common names are still ancient ones such as epic, tragedy, comedy, satire…, plus some relative newcomers like biography, essay and novel.

From the Renaissance through much of the 18th c., the recognized genres were widely thought to be fixed literary types, somewhat like species in the biological order of nature. Many neoclassic critics insisted that each kind must remain “pure”: for instance, there must not be mixing of tragedy and comedy. They also proposed rules which specified the subject matter, structure, style and emotional effect proper to each kind.

In the course of the 18th c. the emergence of new literary types, such as the novel, weakened neoclassic confidence in the fixity and stability of genres. From the Romantic period until recent past, genres have frequently been conceived as convenient but rather arbitrary ways to classify literature. Since 1950 or so, genre theory has been revived by some critical theorists, although on various new principles of classification. Chicago critics, for instance, have defended the utility for practical criticism of a redefined distinction among genres.

For Structuralist critics, a genre is conceived as a set of conventions and codes, altering from age to age, but shared by a kind of implicit contract between writer and reader. These sets of conventions are what make possible the writing of a particular work of literature, though the writer may play against, as well as with, the prevailing generic conventions. For the reader, such conventions function as a set of expectations which may be controverted rather than satisfied, but enable the reader to make the work intelligible.

As we can see, different periods have classified literary works according to the criticism or general ideas about literature and art and about their relation with society and human feelings. Each period favoured different kinds of literary works. For instance, fables and allegories were typical forms of the Middle Ages, having the religious and moral significance proper of the time, while satires and epigrams were typical, for instance, of the 18th c. Some of the most important genres of today are, in fact, quite recent in the history of literature. Novels, for instance, did not exist as such until the 18th c.

There are many different classifications of literary genres. However, one of the simplest and most accepted ones distinguishes between three different genres: poetry, narrative and drama. Many authors add a further genre: the didactic genre.

In a basic definition, we can say that poetry, often referred to as lyric, can be defined as “fiction in verse”. The author expresses his feelings in a subjective way. The verse component is the specific element that opposes poetry to prose. Poetic language can be defined, formally, as intensely rhythmical, and full of figures of speech and thought. The appeal of poetry is semantic as well as phonic. There are several subgenres that can be distinguished within poetry. For instance, we find epic poems, romances, ballads, songs, elegies, odes, hymns, and so on.

Within the narrative, sometimes also called epic, we include those literary texts which narrate either real or fictional events. This genre is so vast and includes such a wide range of subgenres that it is nearly impossible to generalize about it. Its main exponent is novel. However, once more, it is possible to distinguish between different types of novels, such as picaresque novel, epistolary novel, historical novel, psychological novel, etc. Other types of narrative genres that are worth mentioning are tales, legends, and so on. However, and despite the differences between the subgenres, some common features to most narratives works are the presence of characters, the existence of a narrator, and the importance of the time and setting to which the narration is referred.

Dramatic literary works present communication in process. In drama, we find functional communication in which each turn of a speaker addresses his partner in the dialogue, and, at the same time, explicitly or implicitly, addresses a hypothetical receiver of the message (the audience) outside the fictional world. The dramatist’s intention is fulfilled by the presentation with actors and theatrical devices. Drama is therefore a visual creation whose written form (script) is a preparation, an aid to performance and a printed text for critical and educational scrutiny. The main dramatic forms have always been tragedy and comedy, and a hybrid of both, the so called tragicomedy. Other lesser forms include the interlude and the farce, among others.

Finally, some authors recognize a further genre, the didactic, which is distinguished by its aim. The author’s main aim is teaching, and he does so by means of a literary language which makes that teaching more attractive. Within this didactic genre we find subgenres such as epistle, fable, essay, doctrine and so on.

Up to this point I have dealt with literary language and with the different literary genres. Now I am going to move on to my third and last section, in which I will offer an overview of the main movements attached to literary criticism. Criticism is the overall term for studies concerned with defining, classifying analysing, interpreting and evaluating works of literature. Within literary criticism, we can distinguish between theoretical and practical criticism.

Theoretical criticism undertakes to establish, on the basis of general principles, a set of terms, distinctions and categories to be applied to the identification and analysis of literature, as well as the criteria by which these works and their writers are to be evaluated. The earliest great work of theoretical criticism was Aristotle’s Poetics. In the 20th c. there has been relevant works of theoretical criticism from authors such as Kenneth Burke and Northrop Frye.

Practical criticism, or applied criticism, concerns itself with the discussion of particular works and writers; in applied critique, the theoretical principles controlling the analysis interpretation and evaluation are often left implicit, or brought in only as the occasion demands. Among the major works of applied criticism in England are the literary essays of Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, F.R. Leavis and Virginia Woolf, among others. Practical criticism is sometimes distinguished into:

  • Impressionistic criticism: it attempts to represent in words the felt qualities of a particular passage or work, and to express the responses, the impression that the work directly evokes from the critic. Impressionistic critics decide from feeling, not from reason, that is, from the impression of a number of things on the mind.
  • Judicial criticism, on the other hand, attempts not merely to communicate, but to analyze and explain the effects of a work by reference to its subject, organization, techniques, and style, and to base the critic’s individual judgement on general standards of literary excellence.

Impressionistic and judicial criticism are rarely sharply distinct in practice, but good examples of primarily impressionistic commentary can be found in Greek Longinus, and in Patter, E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf.

Types of traditional critical theories and applied criticism can be discriminated according to whether, in explaining and judging a work of literature, they refer the work primarily to the outer world, or to the reader, or to the author, or else look upon the work as an entity in itself.

1. Mimetic criticism views the literary work as an imitation or reflection of the world and human life, and the primary criterion applied to a work is that of truth of its representation to the objects it represents or should represent. This mode of criticism first appeared in Plato and Aristotle.

2. Pragmatic criticism views the work as something which is constructed in order to achieve certain effects on the audience and it tends to judge the value of the work according to its success in achieving that aim. This approach, which dominated literary discussion from Horace through the 18th c., has revived in recent rhetorical criticism, which emphasizes the artistic strategies by which an author engages and influences the responses of readers to the matters represented in a literary work. It has also revived in Structuralists such as Robert Barthes, who analyze a literary work as a systematic play of codes which effect the interpretative responses of readers.

3. Expressive criticism treats a literary work primarily in relation to its author. It defines poetry as an expression, or overflow, or utterance of feelings, or as the product of the poet’s imagination operating on his perceptions, thoughts and feelings. It tends to judge the work by its sincerity or adequacy to the poet’s individual vision or state of mind. It often looks in the work for evidences of the particular temperament and experiences of the author, who has revealed himself in it. Such views were developed mainly by romantic critics, and remain current in our time, especially in the writings of psychological and psychoanalytic critics and critics of consciousness.

4. Objective criticism approaches the work as something which stands free from reference to the poet, the audience and the environing world. It describes the literary product as a self-sufficient and autonomous object, as a world-in-itself, which is to be analysed and judged by intrinsic criteria such as complexity, coherence, integrity… This is the approach of a number of important critics since the 1920s, including the New Critics, Chicagoo School and the proponents of European formalism.

An essential literary enterprise that the ordinary reader takes for granted is textual criticism, whose aim is to establish as accurately as possible what an author actually wrote, or intended to be the final version. The textual critic puts side by side for comparison the printed texts of a work, together with any surviving manuscripts, in order to detect variants and to identify and correct sources of error.

It is also common to distinguish types of criticism that bring literature close to special areas of knowledge and theory, in the attempts to account for the influences or causes which determined the particular characteristics of a literary work. Accordingly, we have historical criticism, biographical criticism, sociological criticism, psychological criticism, and so on.

The proliferation of critical schools and the mixing of their views and terms can be bewildering for students of literature. Critical theory is now a well-established academic subject and most critics are now trained professionals rather than enthusiastic amateurs who wrote reviews for literary periodicals. Academic literary theory is currently in an unsettled state, with the possibility, as some see it, of becoming an end in itself –criticism for the sake of criticism- rather than as a mean of understanding the literary heritage of a language.

Throughout this topic I have covered three sections dealing with literary languages, literary genres and literary criticism. As a final word I would like to point out that literary studies have always been quite controversial, and that many different views have arisen throughout its history. For this reason, the terminology, classifications and concepts employed are not always clear-cut and depend on the perspective one adopts.