A short note on Practical Criticism by I A Richards

Practical criticism is a form of literary analysis which focuses exclusively on the text, ignoring such extraneous factors as authorial intention and historical context.

The term originates with an experiment performed on Cambridge literature students by I.A. Richards. The students were given a selection of poems to read and comment on, but they were not given the titles of the poems, nor were they told anything about who the authors of the poems were. The idea was that the students should judge the texts before them solely based on what they had in front of them. Richards was amazed at how poorly (in his view) the students performed and concluded that what was needed was more practical instruction in the art of reading texts. The results of his experiments (Richards’s background was in fact in psychology) are written up in the appropriately titled Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement (1929), which became a kind of handbook for the discipline of literary studies and had an enormous influence. It was, however, his former student, FR. Leavis, who popularised the method of ‘close reading’ through the journal, Scrutiny, which he founded. It became the default way of reading literary texts in most of the Anglophone world. Even after its influence waned in universities due to the impact of structuralism and poststructuralism in the 1960s, it remained very much in force in high schools and colleges well into the 1980s. The exception to this rule was the US, which was instead gripped by New Criticism, a home-grown mutation of Practical Criticism, that was similarly concerned to focus only on the text.

The strength of Practical Criticism was that it set aside the merely impressionistic responses found in what Terry Eagleton describes as the ‘belle-lettristic waffle’ of the then hegemonic Bloomsbury group of authors, and brought genuine rigour to the business of reading texts. Students were taught to better understand the effects of literary convention and technique (e.g. the role of metaphor) and were given free rein to pronounce judgement on the relative worth of specific texts.

Practical Criticism, mainly its leading avatar F.R. Leavis, was virtually obsessed with deciding what did and did not belong in the canon of ‘great texts’ worthy of further study. While this enabled literary studies to develop standardised texts and more importantly standardised tests in schools, thus explaining its incredible influence, it also led to standardised responses to texts and promoted the idea that only certain responses. Because Practical Criticism ignored both the author’s and the reader’s background and was only interested in so-called ‘universals’ like ‘truth, it consciously reduced the range of meanings any text might in fact yield. It was this factor more than anything that led to its eventual demise as other methods celebrating the diversity of meaning came into fashion. But it was also attacked from a political perspective for ignoring the significance of identity politics, particularly issues to do with gender, race, and sexuality. The plurality of possible readings that texts can give rise to is explored by reader-response critics.