Saturday 5 April 2014

English Literature Study Skills: Using Criticism

In my previous post I looked at strategies for reading when it comes to approaching a new novel for study, discussing note taking, note reading, pace of progression, reference to additional resources and using introductions as afterwords. In this post I look at the next steps for studying a text – looking at what happens when you start dipping your toe into the scary world of criticism and identifying the best places to start:

Introductions: Here’s where I left off last time. Reading the intro before finishing the text leads to boredom, bias and spoilers, but reading it straight after finishing can be incredibly helpful. A well-written introduction references the key critical ideas when it comes to a text and can point you to some good pieces of criticism from which to start. But beware. That bargain fifth-hand copy you bought on Ebay may not be up to date when it comes to critical reception. And your teachers, tutors or lecturers are going to want to see analysis from you which goes beyond that provided in the most commonly read copy.

Companions: The Cambridge Companions can be a great place to start when it comes to approaching a new author, genre or period. Each Companion is comprised of essays by prominent scholars in the field, covering a range of important issues affecting the topic. e.g. the Companion to George Eliot has essays dealing with her life, politics in her novels, and the representation of gender in her work (among others). What’s great about the Companions is that they serve as a general introduction when read cover to cover without being dumbed down because of the calibre in contributors. Alternatively, they are useful as reference books. The chapter on gender will cite multiple other critics who have dealt with this topic, meaning it can act as a handy guide to their arguments, if this is an area you are also looking at.

Contemporary reviews: You can find collections of these for major authors and you can also usually find them online. They are important for understanding context and can act as good starting points for your own essays – especially if you use one which is less well known.

Journals: Students are often under time pressures and all too often you are quite far into a critical work before you realise it’s not going to be helpful to you - journal articles help solve this problem as they are quicker to read and often state in the first paragraph what their argument will be. Some authors even have whole journals dedicated to them (e.g. The Wellsian on H.G. Wells) which means you can use their catalogues as an index for identifying critics and arguments you want to pursue.

Do you have any other tips when it comes to starting your critical reading? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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