Four major approaches to reading prose (fiction & nonfiction books)










People since the beginning of time have been telling or writing stories and sharing responses to stories. By reading and discussing prose of either fiction (written stories about people and events that are not real) or nonfiction (writing that is about facts or real events), we expand our creativity, our sense of what is possible, and our ability to empathize with others. By reading to the end of this article you will Improve your ability to read literary text critically and interpret prose using the four major approaches to literature while gaining appreciation for different literary genres and theories of interpretation.


“Literary texts” include works of prose, drama and poetry. In school, English teachers ask students to critique literary texts, or works. Literary criticism refers to a genre of writing whereby an author critiques a literary text, either a work of fiction/nonfiction, a play, or poem. Also, some works of literary criticism address how a particular theory of interpretation instructs a reading of a work or debates some other critics’ reading of a work.


We may discuss our reactions to literary works informally (at home, book clubs, or the gym) but the giant’s share of literary criticism takes place more formally: in college classrooms, professional journals, academic magazines, and Web sites.


Over the years, literary critics have argued about the best ways to interpret literature. Accordingly, many “schools” or “theories of criticism” have emerged. As you can imagine–given that they were developed by sophisticated specialists–some of these theoretical approaches are quite sophisticated and abstract.


One practicable way to view the different approaches or schools of literary criticism is to regard them as different methodologies. As defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary ‘methodology is a set of methods, rules, or ideas that are important in a science or art.’ That’s a good guide to understanding the nature of the different literary critical theories/methodologies. There’s a whole multitude of different interpretive methodologies for approaching works of literature. Collectively, these individual methodologies or theories add up, more or less, to the larger field of literary theory as a whole. This field of literary thoery can further be grouped into four categories—author-focused, text-focused, reader-focused, and context-focused—each with its own central approach and central question about literary works and effective ways to understand them. To cut to the chase, here are brief descriptions of some of the major prominent schools of literary criticism used for approaching prose and other works of literature:


Author-focused: How can we understand literary works by understanding their authors?
a. Biographical criticism focuses on the author’s life. It tries to gain a better understanding of the literary work by understanding the person who wrote it. Typical questions involved in this approach include the following:
• What aspects of the author’s life are relevant to understanding the work?
• How are the author’s personal beliefs encoded into the work?
• Does the work reflect the writer’s personal experiences and concerns? How or how not?

Text-Focused: How can we understand literary works in terms of themselves?


a. Formalism, along with one of its more conspicuous modern reduplications, New Criticism, focuses on a literary text itself, aside from questions about its author or the historical and cultural contexts of its creation. Formalism takes a story, poem, or play “on its own terms,” so to speak, viewing it as a self-contained unit of meaning. The formalist critic therefore tries to understand that meaning by paying attention to the specific form of the text. New Criticism was a particular kind of Formalism that arose in the mid-twentieth century and enjoyed great influence for a time. Typical questions involved in this approach include the following:


• How does the structure of the work reveal its meaning?
• How do the form and content of the work illuminate each other? What recurring patterns are there in the form, and what is their effect?
• How does use of imagery, language, and various literary devices establish the work’s meaning?
• How do the characters (if any) evolve over the course of the narrative, and how does this interact with the other literary elements?

Reader-Focused: How can we understand literary works by understanding the subjective experience of reading them?




a. Reader-response criticism emphasizes the reader as much as the text. It seeks to understand how a given reader comes together with a given literary work to produce a unique reading. This school of criticism rests on the assumption that literary works don’t contain or embody a stable, fixed meaning but can have many meanings—in fact, as many meanings as there are readers, since each reader will engage with the text differently. Typical questions involved in this approach include the following:

• Who is the reader? Also, who is the implied reader (the one “posited” by the text)?
• What kinds of memories, knowledge, and thoughts does the text evoke from the reader?
• How exactly does the interaction between the reader and the text create meaning on both the text side and the reader side? How does this meaning change from person to person, or if the same person rereads it?

Context-Focused: How can we understand literary works by understanding the contextual circumstances (historical, societal, cultural, political, economic) out of which they emerged?
a. Historical criticism focuses on the historical and social circumstances that surrounded the writing of a text. It may examine biographical facts about the author’s life (which can therefore connect this approach with biographical criticism) as well as the influence of social, political, national, and international events. It may also consider the influence of other literary works. New Historicism, a particular type of historical criticism, focuses not so much on the role of historical facts and events as on the ways these things are remembered and interpreted, and the way this interpreted historical memory contributes to the interpretation of literature. Typical questions involved in historical criticism include the following:


• How (and how accurately) does the work reflect the historical period in which it was written?
• What specific historical events influenced the author?
• How important is the work’s historical context to understanding it?
• How does the work represent an interpretation of its time and culture? (New Historicism)
b. Feminist criticism focuses on prevailing societal beliefs about women in an attempt to expose the oppression of women on various levels by patriarchal systems both contemporary and historical. It also explores the marginalization of women in the realm of literature itself. Typical questions involved in this approach include the following:


• How does the work portray the lives of women?
• How does the specific language of a literary work reflect gender or sexual stereotypes?
• How are female characters portrayed? How are the relationships between men and women portrayed? Does this reinforce sexual and gender stereotypes or challenge them?


c. Post-colonial criticism focuses on the impact of European colonial powers on literature. It seeks to understand how European hegemonic political, economic, religious, and other types of power have shaped the portrayals of the relationship and status differentials between Europeans and colonized peoples in literature written both by the colonizers and the colonized. Typical questions involved in this approach include the following:


• How does the text’s worldview, as evinced in plot, language, characterization, and so on, grow out of assumptions based on colonial oppression?
• How does the work portray the psychology and interiority of both colonizers and colonized?
• Which groups of people are portrayed as strangers, outsiders, foreign, exotic, “others”? How are they treated in the narrative?
• How does the text affirm (either actively or by silence) or challenge colonialist ideology?

“Prose is words in their best order” Prose is meant for learning a language. Reading and discussing prose enables us to understand a text, to read fluently, to enrich our vocabulary and to enjoy reading and writing. It enables us to become more proficient with critical analysis.
Reading a text for interpretation and writing about it is called literary criticism. It is done using the four major approaches or schools of literary criticism. It guides the readers to pay more attention to the text. It involves the profound and detailed understanding of the text. It Also, address how a particular theory of interpretation instructs a reading of a work or debates some other critics’ reading of a work.


To have a firm understanding of the approaches/schools or theories of literary criticism as a writer, reader or critic is essential. Whether you are a writer, a reader, or critic, knowing the author-focused, text-focused, reader-focused, and context-focused interpretive approaches to literature will help you develop a ctitical ear. Over time you will begin to read and appreciate prose and other literary works in a whole specialized way.

©Sultan_A. G.

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