The 10 Best Literary Theory and Criticism Books

Improve your critical reading skills with these selections.

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Literary theory and criticism are steadily evolving disciplines devoted to the interpretation of literary works. They offer unique ways to analyze texts through specific perspectives or sets of principles. There are many literary theories, or frameworks, available to address and analyze a given text. These approaches range from Marxist to psychoanalytic to feminist and beyond. Queer theory, a recent addition to the field, looks at literature through the prism of sex, gender, and identity.

The books listed below are some of the leading overviews of this fascinating branch of critical theory.

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Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism

Book cover of the Norton Anthology of Theory & Criticism


This hefty tome is a comprehensive anthology of literary theory and criticism, representing the various schools and movements from antiquity to the present. The 30-page introduction offers a concise overview for newcomers and experts alike.

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Literary Theory: An Anthology

Editors Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan have divided this collection into 12 sections, each of which covers an important school of literary criticism, from Russian formalism to critical race theory.

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A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature

This book, aimed at students, offers a simple overview of more traditional approaches to literary criticism, beginning with definitions of common literary elements like setting, plot, and character. The rest of the book is devoted to the most influential schools of literary criticism, including psychological and feminist approaches.

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Beginning Theory by Peter Barry

Peter Barry's introduction to literary and cultural theory is a concise overview of analytical approaches, including relatively newer ones such as ecocriticism and cognitive poetics. The book also includes a reading list for further study.

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Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton

This overview of the major movements in literary criticism comes from Terry Eagleton, a well-known Marxist critic who has also written books about religion, ethics, and Shakespeare.

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Critical Theory Today by Lois Tyson

Lois Tyson's book is an introduction to feminism, psychoanalysis, Marxism, reader-response theory, and much more. It includes analyses of The Great Gatsby from historical, feminist, and many other perspectives.

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Literary Theory: A Practical Introduction by Michael Ryan

This short book is designed for students who are just beginning to learn about literary theory and criticism. Using a range of critical approaches, Michael Ryan provides readings of famous texts such as Shakespeare's King Lear and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. The book shows how the same texts can be studied using different approaches.

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Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler

Busy students will appreciate this book from Jonathan Culler, which covers the history of literary theory in fewer than 150 pages. Literary critic Frank Kermode says that "it is impossible to imagine a clearer treatment of the subject or one that is, within the given limits of length, more comprehensive."

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Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory by Deborah Appleman

Deborah Appleman's book is a guide to teaching literary theory in the high school classroom. It includes essays on various approaches, including reader-response and postmodern theory, along with an appendix of classroom activities for teachers.

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Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism

This volume, edited by Robyn Warhol and Diane Price Herndl, is a comprehensive collection of feminist literary criticism. Included are 58 essays on topics such as lesbian fiction, women and madness, the politics of domesticity, and much more.

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Lombardi, Esther. "The 10 Best Literary Theory and Criticism Books." ThoughtCo, Aug. 30, 2022, Lombardi, Esther. (2022, August 30). The 10 Best Literary Theory and Criticism Books. Retrieved from Lombardi, Esther. "The 10 Best Literary Theory and Criticism Books." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).