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    So I've heard that prospective English applicants should read all sorts of texts, like a good mix of poetry, plays, novels, etc. But I've also heard of literary criticism, and that's something new to me. Can anyone recommend any good books on that topic?

    Thanks in advance.

    As a very non-academic definition, literary criticism could be conveniently described as sophisticated book reviewing. It's a field in which literature (hence literary) is criticised (hence criticism). Criticism in this context does not always mean that the piece of literature is being attacked. Instead, it's being constructively assessed based on its themes, its characters, its relevance, its writing, and so on. Because literature is one of the oldest forms of culture, criticism of it goes back a very long way. Furthermore, because literary critics have been around for centuries, there have been many types of criticism from many different intellectual environments.

    So really, asking where to start with literary criticism is like asking where to start with ghost stories or moral fables or romantic fiction. It's a huge topic.

    The reason why literary criticism is so important to English degrees is because you won't be being assessed on how well you write poetry or novels or plays; rather, you'll be being assessed on your ability to form and express complicated thoughts about those writings. Literary criticism is, then, much closer to what you'll be writing than anything else that you read.

    Just to demonstrate how far back the cannon of criticism goes, some of the first major works were by Plato in Ancient Greece. Notably he wrote Ion and Gorgias.

    The formal beginning of English literary criticism might be said to be with Dryden, Pope, and Burke, whom you may know from your reading of poetry and philosophy. Respectively they wrote An Essay of Dramatic Poesy, An Essay on Criticism, and A Philosophical Inquiry into the Subline and the Beautiful. Because of their intellectual background, these critical pieces emphasise the importance of the Romantic and Gothic traditions and the significance of this movement can't be under-stated. It's quite possible that Shakespeare wouldn't be compulsory nowadays without the work of many of these early Enlightenment critics.

    New intellectual traditions persist right into the modern day. For example, feminism doesn't have a major critical tradition up until the second-wave feminists in the 1940s and 1950s; and you don't really see queer studies until the 1980s. In the past 5 or 10 years, there's been a growth in more novel interpretive directions like Darwinian criticism.

    Because criticism is both so important and so complicated, it might be best if you look into some of your favourite authors. If they are classics, then there will probably be many critical books and essays associated with them. This will let you ease into criticism because it will have a relevance to you and it may also offer you new approaches and ideas about books you already enjoyed.
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