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The Importance of Literary Criticism

Regular readers of Slightly Foxed magazine will know that within its good cream pages lie essays filled not with literary criticism but instead with personal enthusiasms and recommendations for books of lasting interest, old and new, some of them quite eccentric.

Slightly Foxed is the book review magazine for the independent-minded – people who don’t want to read only what the big publishers are hyping and the literary critics are reviewing. Subscribers tell us Slightly Foxed dispels gloom, and that its entertaining contributions stimulate, cheer, and broaden their horizons. That’s all well and good but is literary criticism more important than enthusiasms?

Our website developer buffs tell us that we really ought to tackle this burning question on a page here on our website for the benefit of organic Search Engine Optimisation. We should discuss at length the many and varied points around the subject of literary criticism, under pertinent headings, such as:

Literary criticism meaning

What is the meaning of literary criticism? According to the Cambridge English Dictionary  Literary Criticism is ‘the formal study and discussion of works of literature, for example by judging and explaining their importance and meaning’. Here at Slightly Foxed we leave the judging and explaining to the professional literary critics and take a more informal and personal approach.

Our contributors are established writers, journalists and people from other fields who share their passion for particular books and authors. Since it is entirely independent, Slightly Foxed is free to follow its own bent, to promote unfashionable enthusiasms, to celebrate the offbeat and the unusual. Contributors are encouraged to discuss their chosen books with passion and wit, to air arcane knowledge, to delight in eccentricity and to share the joys of exploring the extraordinary, the little-known and the downright peculiar.

All of our writers are paid for their contributions and although most contributors are published and often well-known (P. D. James, Robert Macfarlane, Peter Oborne, Richard Ingrams, Diana Athill, Michael Holroyd, John Walsh, Justin Marozzi, Penelope Lively, Emma Tennant, Melissa Harrison, Richard Mabey, Sarah Perry and Margaret Drabble to name but a few) the editors also accept interesting reviews from the general public ‒ the only criteria being the quality of the writing.

As one of our readers wrote recently:

‘The articles aren’t remotely lit crit, and that’s exactly why I love them . . . Each edition features 96 pages of articles, all around the 2,000 word mark, written by eccentric and dedicated bibliophiles on a mission to spread the love for their favourite forgotten author.’ Naomi Ishiguro, For Books’ Sake

A full list of contributors and subjects covered in Slightly Foxed may be found in our searchable online index.

Literary criticism types and literary criticism theories

Allegedly there are many different types of literary criticism and literary criticism theories, from biographical to expressive, comparative to psychological, mimetic to theoretical. Our favourite take on literary criticism comes from Dr Samuel Johnson in this excerpt from a letter written to Fanny Burney:

‘There are three distinct kind of judges upon all new authors or productions; the first are those who know no rules, but pronounce entirely from their natural taste and feelings; the second are those who know and judge by rules; and the third are those who know, but are above the rules. These last are those you should wish to satisfy. Next to them rate the natural judges; but ever despise those opinions that are formed by the rules.’

Literary criticism as a book review

Now this one has left us baffled. Literary criticism as a book review? Just what does it mean? Is literary criticism the same as book reviewing? If not, why not? We think that yes, perhaps it is, but perhaps not . . . for what about book blogging as a book review or book reviewing as literary criticism or book YouTubing as book blogging? Just what does it all mean? Our minds have gone quite blank save for the thought of buttered muffins and good books, thanks to another favourite quote from ‘pathological bibliophile’, Anne Fadiman, who recalled in Ex Libris that ‘Charles Lamb once told Coleridge that he was especially fond of books containing traces of buttered muffins’.

Literary criticism journals and magazines

Now, this last one we do feel able to remark upon in a useful fashion as we can point you in the direction of several fine magazines and journals dedicated to the art of literary criticism. Herewith a selection of some of the best literary journals and book review magazines published in the UK today:

The London Review of Books

Published twice a month, the LRB is Europe’s leading magazine of culture and ideas . . . from art and politics to science and technology via history and philosophy, not to mention fiction and poetry’.

The Times Literary Supplement

The weekly literary magazine and accompanying podcast that offers expert reviews and insightful, sometimes provocative essays by the best writers from around the world’.

Literary Review

A monthly book review magazine for people who devour books ‘. . . ranging from history and biography to memoir and fiction. Each issue contains sixty-four pages of reviews from some of the leading authors, journalists, academics and thinkers in Britain in a variety of fields. It aims to reach a wide audience of readers who enjoy intelligent and accessible writing’.

For further suggestions why not head over to Stack – the magazine club that helps people to discover the best independent publishing’ for their list of the top ten literary magazines that everyone should read. (No offence taken.)

In addition to these points, we also ought to be asking ourselves and our esteemed readers whether literary criticism has to be negative and, most importantly . . .

Is literary criticism important?

We were supposed to publish a page containing our interesting and erudite thoughts on all of this here on the website some months ago but the idea of it has, in all honesty, made us feel too greatly in need of a good old literary swoon (thank you to Naomi Booth of the Guardian for this excellent round-up of literary swoons) to actually get on with it.

As we’re a small team here at Slightly Foxed towers, we simply don’t have time for swooning (how can we when there are boxes of books to unpack, gift cards to handwrite, new issues of the quarterly magazine to post, office dogs to walk, subscribers to meet for tea, slipcases to fill etc?) so please do excuse us while we put the kettle on and discuss which favourite comfort read we’ll each be curling up with this evening over a mug of something warming, and leave you in the excellent company of the novelist Sarah Harrison and her guide to Literary Criticism, introduced by Editor Hazel Wood in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly magazine Issue 27, Autumn 2010.


Sarah Harrison’s Guide to Literary Criticism.

Most trades and professions have their hidden code. We’re all familiar with estate-agent speak – the charming cottage with ‘potential for development’ that turns out to be a wreck, the flat on a ‘convenient bus route’ that is in fact a busy main road.

Book reviewing is no exception. As a regular reviewer, you tend to have to watch your back. It could be, for instance, that you’ve written a book that may well be sent out for review to the very person whose book you are longing to tear apart. Or perhaps it’s been published by the publisher who you hope is going to publish you. It may have been written by a friend of a friend – someone you’re likely to bump into at some social gathering. Or you may find yourself gazing in dismay at a whimsical novel entitled Birdsong in Brancaster that you happen to know has been written by the sister of the wife of the literary editor who has sent it to you for review.

Perhaps that’s why certain key words recur so often on the book pages, indicating the inner contortions the reviewer has been through in order not to offend. We thought you might enjoy this brief but helpful guide to reading between the lines.

Enchanting: there’s a dog in it
Heartwarming: a dog and a child
Heartrending: they die
Thoughtful: tedious
Thought-provoking: tedious and hectoring
Haunting: set in the past
Exotic: set abroad
Prize-winning: set in India
Perceptive: set in London NW3
Epic: editor cowed by writer’s reputation
From the pen of a master: same old same old
In the tradition of: shamelessly derivative
Provocative: irritating
Spare and taut: under-researched
Richly detailed: over-researched

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