ENGL 126 Research Writing: Humanities

This research guide is to help students enrolled in English 126 - writing in the humanities.

What Is Literary Criticism & Student vs Scholarly Literary Criticism

What is Literary Criticism?

Literary criticism is analysis, interpretation and evaluation of authors and their works of literature, which can include novels, short stories, essays, plays and poetry.

  • Literary "criticism" is not necessarily negative; "criticism" means a thoughtful critique of an author's work or an author's style in order to better understand the meaning, symbolism or influences of a particular piece or a body of literature.

  • Literary critical analysis may be written for the general public, students, or a scholarly audience.

    • Popular literary criticism is written for the general public. Local newspapers, such as the Seattle Times, and magazines, such as Entertainment Weekly or O, contain book reviews that generally provide brief summaries and recommendations. Some reviews for the general public, such as those found in The New Yorker or The New York Times Book Review may offer insightful analysis and discussion.

    • Introductory analysis for students introduce literary works, authors, and critical perspectives, without presenting original criticism. Look for Topic & Overviews in the database Gale Literature or historical, cultural, and biographical overviews. 

    • Scholarly literary criticism is generally found in scholarly literary journals, such as Critique or The Journal of Ethnic Fiction, as well as in some books. Scholarly literary criticism presents original and sophisticated analysis for an academic audience.

Features of Scholarly Literary Criticism
  • Most, though not all, scholarly analysis goes through a rigorous peer review process by other experts in the field before publication. 

  • Scholarly literary criticism engages with a written work in a thoughtful, sophisticated, and sustained manner. While literary criticism from a reference book provides you with introductory terminology, context, an overview of interpretation, and more, scholarly criticism presents an original interpretation of a text.

  • Scholarly literary criticism analyzes specific passages, characters, themes, and/ or language, from a written work.

  • Scholarly literary criticism brings the critic's particular theoretical framework, biases, and questions, to bear upon the text.

  • Articles are written by scholars in a subject area for an academic or professional audience. Check for author affiliations or credentials in the database record or at the beginning or end of an article.

  • Scholarly literary criticism may be extensively cited, if the author references the work of other thinkers. Some scholarly literary criticism engages primarily and closely with the text itself, rather than with other the ideas of other scholars. (Scholarly articles in the sciences and social sciences are, as a rule, extensively and thoroughly cited.)

There is no one correct scholarly reading of a text. That said, be sure to build your own analysis with examples and support from the written work you're analyzing, as well as the other scholarly sources with which you are "conversing."

Comparing Texts

Below you will find two article excerpts from analyses of "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker. 

"Everyday Use"

(Topic and Work Overview from Gale Literary Sources. This article provides an introduction to themes and literary criticism of the book, and does not present its own original insight. )

When “Everyday Use” appeared in a 1973 collection of short stories, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women, reviewers of the book recognized the uniqueness of Alice Walker’s portrayals of African-American women’s experiences. Jerry H. Bryant, for instance, described Walker in The Nation as a writer “probing for the hitherto undisclosed alpha and beta rays of black existence.” Critics also enthused over Walker’s artistic abilities, most agreeing with Barbara Smith, who wrote in Ms. magazine that “Walker’s perceptions, style, and artistry . . . consistently . . . make her work a treasure, particularly for those of us whom her work describes.” While “Everyday Use” was singled out for praise by several critics, it has since achieved great prominence within the opus of Walker’s work. Several admiring articles have been written about it, and in 1994, Barbara Christian published Everyday Use, an entire book of essays built around this one story. As Christian wrote in the book’s introduction, the story has come to be recognized as an exemplary, foundational piece for several of Walker’s primary interests as a writer. She noted, for instance, that like many other works by Walker, it “placed African American women’s voices at the center of the narrative, an unusual position at the time.”

Telling African-American women’s stories with honesty, and placing such previously unrecognized women on center stage to tell and act out their own stories, was a method Walker used to great success and acclaim in her 1982 novel, The Color Purple. Thanks in large part to Walker (who in turn gives much of the credit to Zora Neale Hurston), this narrative method, exemplified in “Everyday Use,” has since become a standard technique for many black women writers, including Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Terry McMillan, and Toni Cade Bambara. The story’s central symbol of quilting also resonates beyond the story itself. Gathering loose bits of material into beautiful, meaningful quilts has long been a form of African-American art, but as Walker realized, this and other forms of women’s art have often been overlooked by the establishment. This short, rich story also announces Walker’s response to her contemporaries’ wish to speak for all blacks in African-nationalist terms: a viewpoint extremely popular in the early 1970s. As a writer with black feminist insight, Walker gives voice in this story “to an entire maternal ancestry often silenced by the political rhetoric of the period,” quoted Christian. Finally, this story also stands out as an example of Walker’s answer to many black intellectuals who have stressed the need to leave old, rural ways behind in order to improve their economic and political standing. Walker’s depiction of the quiet dignity of Maggie and Mrs. Johnson has been recognized as an appreciation for what rural Southern black folk are, not what they should become. Much of Walker’s critical acclaim focuses on the integrity she imparts to her characters, no matter what their circumstances.

"Fight vs. Flight: A Re-Evaluation of Dee in Alice Walker's 'Everyday Use'"

(Scholarly Source - This article steps into the academic "conversation" on the story, reviewing how other critics have interpreted the story, before stating its original approach. )  

Most readers of Alice Walker's short story, "Everyday Use," published in her 1973 collection, In Love and Trouble, agree that the point of the story is to show, as Nancy Tuten argues, a mother's "awakening to one daughter's superficiality and to the other's deep-seated understanding of heritage" (Tuten 125).1 These readers praise the "simplicity" of Maggie and her mother, along with their allegiance to their specific family identity and folk heritage as well as their refusal to change at the whim of an outside world that doesn't really have much to do with them. Such a reading condemns the older, more worldly sister, Dee, as "shallow," "condescending," and "manipulative," as overly concerned with style, fashion, and aesthetics, and thus as lacking a "true" understanding of her heritage. In this essay, conversely, I will argue that this popular view is far too simple a reading of the story. While Dee is certainly insensitive and selfish to a certain degree, she nevertheless offers a view of heritage and a strategy for contemporary African Americans to cope with an oppressive society that is, in some ways, more valid than that offered by Mama and Maggie.

We must remember from the beginning that the story is told by Mama; the perceptions are filtered through her mind and her views of her two daughters are not to be accepted uncritically. Several readers have pointed out that Mama's view of Maggie is not quite accurate--that Maggie is not as passive or as "hangdog" as she appears.2 Might Mama's view of her older daughter, Dee, not be especially accurate as well? Dee obviously holds a central place in Mama's world. The story opens with the line: "I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon" (47). As Houston Baker points out, "The mood at the story's beginning is one of ritualistic waiting," of preparation "for the arrival of a goddess" (715). Thus, Dee seems to attain almost mythic stature in Mama's imagination as she and Maggie wait for the as-yet unnamed "her" to appear. Such an opening may lead readers to suspect that Mama has a rather troubled relationship with her older daughter. Dee inspires in Mama a type of awe and fear more suitable to the advent of a goddess than the love one might expect a mother to feel for a returning daughter.

Mama, in fact, displaces what seem to be her own fears onto Maggie when she speculates that Maggie will be cowed by Dee's arrival. Mama conjectures that

Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in corners homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eyeing her sister with a mixture of envy and awe. She thinks her sister has held life always in the palm of one hand, that "no" is a word the world never learned to say to her.(47)

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