What Are the Pros and Cons of New Criticism?

E. Reeder

New criticism is a type of literary criticism that focuses mainly on an extremely close and analytical reading of the text. This is opposed to the many older types of literary criticism, the focus of which is the historical and social context in which the piece was written and the biographical information about the author. Some of the advantages of new criticism are that it is so closely text-based that it invites coherent conclusions and that the analyses focus primarily on the literature itself instead of on sometimes extraneous historical and social matters. The drawbacks include that it might miss vital details about the context in which the piece was written, leading to incomplete analyses, and that it also might lead to uninformed conclusions if the life of the author is not examined enough along with the text.

New criticism focuses on a close, analytical reading of the text.
New criticism focuses on a close, analytical reading of the text.

One benefit of new criticism as a method of literary analysis is that it demands explication or close reading of the text for purposes of analysis. A work of literature is viewed as a separate entity unto itself. It is examined, analyzed, and subjected to scrutiny to see what messages, themes, and patterns are contained in the text itself. This means that each piece of writing that is analyzed is vibrant, alive, and full of meaning because all of the analyses are based entirely on the text itself.

The historical and social background of a work is not considered in new criticism.
The historical and social background of a work is not considered in new criticism.

This method of criticism can notice subtle features that might otherwise be missed. Other types of criticism might focus only on certain elements, such as the psychology and motivation of characters in psychoanalytic literary criticism. New criticism can notice things such as the repetition of certain words, phrases or themes or the effect that the point of view or central conflict has on the work as a whole.

The drawbacks of new criticism are that it ignores the historical and social context in which the work was written as well as the author’s biographical information. Ignoring this means overlooking the fact that what was going on where and when the piece was written can have a major effect on the work. Many critics argue that a piece of literature cannot truly be divorced from the context in which it was developed.

It can also be detrimental to serious analyses of a work to ignore the author’s life and the influence that it has upon the work, especially because authors often choose topics important to them or write works that are subconsciously or consciously autobiographical. Even explicit statements by authors from their speeches or other writings explaining the meanings of their works are ignored in this form of criticism. It also denies the subjective way that literature can be read and interpreted. The method also can be overly technical, focusing on the patterns of rhyme scheme in a work instead of the broad overall meaning, for example. Criticism types, such as reader response, place value on the subjective experience of individual readers when analyzing a work.

Texts may be interpreted in many different ways by many different readers.
Texts may be interpreted in many different ways by many different readers.

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Discussion Comments


Who are the most prominent new critics? I am looking for a good introduction to the theory and major thinkers/works of this area of literary thought. Where should I start?


I will be interesting to see what kind of impact deconstruction and other techniques of new criticism make on the lasting body of critical theory. They were all the rage for a while, but in just a few short decades it became more stylish to criticize them then to explore them.

I wonder if they will end up as a foot note, somebodies interesting idea that turned out to be more hollow than it seemed.


I was an English major in college and we spent a lot of time studying critical theory. Most of it was interesting and relevant but I always had a hard time wrapping my head around new criticism.

It is all so abstract and so unproductive. But for me the part that always tripped me up was how divorced this kind of criticism is from the author's intentions. It seemed to rely on so many assumptions, so many dubious conclusions. I respect the thought that goes in to it but I could never get on board.

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