Roberta Tipton and
Rebecca Pressman
May 15, 2009
Learning Tools: Class Guides: Dana Class Guides:
A Guide to Literary Theory

This guide is designed to help you find the most important sources about the major schools of Literary Theory.

Literary Theory: What Is It?

Students encountering recent literary criticism for the first time often find the concepts to be alien and the vocabulary, confusing. Articles in the venerable MLA International Bibliography often use terms like "discourse", "intertextuality", "dialectic", "ecocritical", "signifier", and "deconstruction". Where does all of this come from? As Mary Klages puts it,

'Literary Theory,' with the capital letters, points to sets of ideas that have greatly influenced the way we have thought about, taught, and produced scholarship on 'literature' within colleges and universities in the past 30 to 40 years. 'Literary Theory' is a big umbrella term that covers a variety of approaches to texts ('literary' or not); if these approaches have anything in common, it is that all of them examine factors that shape how a text is written and how we are able to read it. 'Literary Theory' comes from all kinds of disciplines, including linguistics, psychology, anthropology, philosophy, history, economics, gender studies, ethnic studies, and political science; much of what falls under the heading 'Literary Theory,' as you'll see, has little to do directly with what we think of as 'literature.' (pp. 3-4)

--Mary Klages, Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed.

Furthermore, as Peter Barry explains in Beginning Theory, so many different literary theories exist because each literary theory arises in "reaction against something which went before" (p. 2). Therefore, Literary Theory is constantly changing and developing, giving the reader a whole bag of tools for looking at texts and their meaning.

Starting Points

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.
ALEX,DANA PN 81.B367 2002
Excellent introduction to different theorists and schools of Literary Theory.
Felluga, Dino. Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Purdue University.
Visually arresting and filled to the brim with interesting ideas for understanding and teaching Critical Theory. For example, imagine theoretical approaches to the Borg [Star Trek].
Siegel, Kristi. Introduction to Modern Literary Theory. Mount Mary College.
Contains brief descriptions, definitions of important terms, additional references and useful websites and for major critical/theoretical approaches to Literary Theory.
Klages, Mary. Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. New York and London: Continuum, 2006.
DANA PN 81.K53 2006
Readable, brief guide to the sometimes difficult concepts of Literary Theory.
LitLinks: Critical Theory. Bedford/St.Martin's.
Section on Literary Theory arranged by critic.


The online library catalog of the Rutgers University Libraries gives students and faculty ready access to over 3 million print volumes in 22 Rutgers collections, plus multimedia and many full-text electronic journals. You may limit searches to DANA. Use the DELIVER/RECALL BOOK button to intralibrary loan books or use the REQUEST ARTICLE/OTHER to obtain articles and non-circulating books from other Rutgers libraries.

Here are some sample library catalog searches in Literary Theory:
Postcolonialism and American -- WORDS anywhere (This is a keyword search.)

Derrida, Jacques -- AUTHOR (last name first) (This finds books by the author.)

Reader-response criticism -- SUBJECT begins with (IRIS has specific subject headings for many critical/theoretical approaches.)

New Literary History -- PERIODICAL TITLE begins with

Selected Reference Books

Magill, F., ed. Critical Survey of Literary Theory: Authors: Volume 4. Pasadena, Salem Press, 1987.
Short essays with bibliographies on selected critical/theoretical approaches.
Hansom, Paul, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Volume 242: Twentieth Century European Cultural Theorists. First Series. Detroit, The Gale Group, 2001.
ALEX REF PS88.D57 v.242, DANA REF PN 74 .T84 2001
Lengthy overviews with bibliographies.
Groden, Michael, Martin Kreiswirth and Imre Szeman, eds. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory & Criticism. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2d ed. 2005.
ALEX, DANA REF PN 81.J554 2005
Short signed articles about theorists and overviews of critical/theoretical approaches.

Library Databases

Literature Online (LION)
This database's Criticism and Reference section includes the invaluable resource Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature 1920- (ABELL) as well as searchable electronic editions of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms and the New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics.
Humanities Full Text
This database indexes core scholarly periodicals and specialized magazines in literature, history, film studies, mass media, philosophy, archaeology, music, folklore, art and photography, and journalism. You can search for articles about specific critical/theoretical approaches by entering the name of the approach in the Find bar as a Subject.
MLA International Bibliography (EBSCOhost)
The premier literary database from the Modern Language Association with coverage from 1963 to the present. International in scope; offers the broadest and deepest treatment of world literature in one database. Can be overwhelming because of its depth and complexity of source material. You can search for articles about specific critical theoretical approaches by performing an advanced search and entering the name of the approach in the Find bar as a Subject (SU-Subjects-All).

Web Resources

Liu, Alan. Voice of the Shuttle. University of California at Santa Barbara.

Considered to be one of the best online resources for humanities research.
Lynch, Jack. On-line Literary Resources: Theory. Rutgers University at Newark.
Contains links to websites on literary theory, literary theorists and e-journals that specialize in literary theory.

Selected Classic Literary Criticism

Before Literary Theory, Western civilization had literary criticism going all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Here is a smattering of significant public domain texts about literary criticism on the Web.

Selected Literary Theory on the Web and in Books

Since Literary Theory is a relatively recent concept, most of the primary material is still under copyright. Therefore, the way to read most originals (or translations) in their entirety is to read them in book form. Excerpts and explanations can, of course, be found on the Web. See Alan Liu and Jack Lynch above for some online sources.

Related Rutgers Resources

Basic Sources for Literary Study
Literatures in English

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