The reasoned discussion of literary works, an activity which may include some or all of the following procedures, in varying proportions: the defence of literature against moralists and censors, classification of a work according to its genre, interpretation of its meaning, analysis of its structure and style, judgement of its worth by comparison with other works, estimation of its likely effect on readers, and the establishment of general principles by which literary works (individually, in categories, or as a whole) can be evaluated and understood. Contrary to the everyday sense of criticism as ‘fault-finding’, much modern criticism (particularly of the academic kind) assumes that the works it discusses are valuable; the functions of judgement and analysis having to some extent become divided between the market (where reviewers ask ‘Is this worth buying?’) and the educational world (where academics ask ‘Why is this so good?’).
The various kinds of criticism fall into several overlapping categories: theoretical, practical, impressionistic, affective, prescriptive, or descriptive. Criticism concerned with revealing the author's true motive or intention (sometimes called ‘expressive’ criticism) emerged from Romanticism to dominate much 19th- and 20th-century critical writing, but has tended to give way to ‘objective’ criticism, focusing on the work itself (as in New Criticism and structuralism), and to a shift of attention to the reader in reader-response criticism. Particular schools of criticism also seek to understand literature in terms of its relations to history, politics, gender, social class, mythology, linguistic theory, or psychology, as with psychoanalytic criticism, Marxist criticism, feminist criticism, myth criticism, ecocriticism, and others. See also exegesis, hermeneutics, higher criticism, metacriticism, poetics, textual criticism.