What are the latest literary analysis theories

Analyze literature? - 5 scientific methods

A short excursion into literature analysis

How can you analyze literature? How do you approach literature? How do you understand literature?

I've always found these questions interesting.

Even back when reading left me cold. For the annual book presentation in German class, I simply scraped together everything I found on the Internet about the work to be discussed. Without ever having read it.

And it would never have occurred to me to just pick up a book like that ...

Nevertheless, in the German class I followed my teacher's monologues with interest when she enthusiastically explained why this or that book was something special. And writing has always been a pleasure for me from the start.

Literary criticism vs. literary studies

Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the greatest critic of German literature of the last half century, who died in 2013, once made the claim that many writers - contrary to public opinion - are not very well read at all. They would be too fixated on their own work and not particularly interested in donations from other scribes.

At this point, at the latest, it will probably put the hair on real literary scholars.
The name Reich-Ranicki in an article that is supposed to be about the analysis and evaluation of literature?
- Quoting Reich-Ranicki in a scientific paper is considered a capital crime on many literary science faculties.

Reich-Ranicki was THE voice in German literature for decades. (You can find more about his autobiography here, by the way.) It was not for nothing that he was nicknamed "Pope of Literature" and was able to destroy a promising book with criticism before it came onto the market.
However, he was ignored or even criticized by academic literature.

What at first glance sounded like arrogance or jealousy on the part of the university becomes understandable on closer inspection.

One should not equate “literary criticism” (= Reich-Ranicki) with “literary studies” (= university).

While literary criticism is at home in the feature sections of newspapers and relies on the clear, polarizing opinion of the critic-subject, literary studies strive for strict objectivity. Two approaches that both have their justification, but also have the potential to come into conflict with each other again and again.

"Basic course in literary studies"

Although Reich-Ranicki also offers a lot of material for a blog article, the following should be about literary studies and not about literary criticism.

In an effort to prepare for future book analyzes for this blog, I crammed a standard work that I needed for my studies years ago. It is about the booklet Basic Course in Literary Studies (Reclam's Universal Library) (*) from Becker / Hummel / Sander.

It is probably only suitable for hardcore fans of literature if you want to read it through from beginning to end, i.e. chapter by chapter. Because it contains a lot of technical terms on each individual page, so it is a complete and compact book that comprehensively presents the many sub-areas of literary studies. That's why I see it more as a reference work overall.

However, the last chapter by Sabine Becker, which is called “Methods and Theories of Literature”, is particularly interesting.

It deals with 15 (!!!) different methods and theories of literary research. Yes, at first I was also quite surprised by this number.

But what is a literary method / theory anyway?

Literary methods and theories

A literary text or literature itself can be encountered in different ways. The different approaches are reflected in the different literary methods and theories.

One can concentrate more on the producer of literature, i.e. the author, or focus on the text itself. It is also possible to focus on the reception of the text, i.e. to place the reader as the most important authority in the literature (this is what happens in the "reception aesthetics").

The methods and theories also differ in how they understand the literature system and place it in the overall social context.

It all sounds very theoretical and not very tangible. In order to breathe a little life into the matter, I would like to present in the following - with the help of Sabine Becker - a few of the most important methods and theories in literary studies.

18 tips to become a reader, thinker and writer

Analyze literature? - 5 scientific methods

1. Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is arguably closest to the way we learned to interpret literary texts in school. Because she tries to understand the meaning of the text, namely the meaning that the author intended.

That sounds understandable, but at the same time it is a first disadvantage of this method. Because in hermeneutics it is always assumed that there is such a “meaning” intended by the author of a text. And the scientific work on the text focuses on this - possibly wrong - setting (cf. Becker 2006: 222).

Above all, the hermeneutics according to Friedrich Schleiermacher is important. Its hermeneutics is twofold. On the one hand, the life of the text of its own is analyzed and, on the other hand, what the author meant should be understood and relived. For literary studies, this hermeneutical approach has been the most fruitful in the first place (cf. Becker 2006: 222 f.).

Another problem with focusing on the meaning intended by the author is that it can be interpreted differently from reader to reader. In addition, the interpretation also changes in the historical process.

You can see that hermeneutics - like any other theory or method in literary studies - is not a panacea for working out what is special about literature or a literary text.

2. Positivism

Positivism was a consequence of the triumphant advance of the natural sciences. The precise, objective, verifiable and logical approach of physics or biology should also be applied to German studies.

Thus the positivist method of literary studies turns away from the “less concrete interpretation and interpretation of texts” (Becker 2006: 228), as pursued by hermeneutics. A literary work is primarily interpreted as being dependent on the life of its author. And that is why this method trains itself in the accumulation of factual knowledge about the author, the process of creating his works and the development of his style. Only that which is empirically observable is included in the analysis (cf. Becker 2006: 227 f.).

Positivism is therefore certainly strong in the verifiability and traceability of its results. On the other hand, he is understandably accused of one-sidedness and lack of perspective, since his main interest concerns the life of the author and the genesis of his works (cf. Becker 2006: 228).

With the strict fixation on the empirically verifiable, the analysis of the (in my opinion) really exciting categories is lost. To ask what the author “may have thought” about this or that chapter would be a taboo in positivism. He can't answer it.

Unless there is a letter somewhere in which the author himself clearly states what the intention of that chapter would have been.

3. The work-immanent interpretation (= work immanence)

The interpretation inherent in the work leaves the focus on the author behind and focuses on the text itself as an independent structure.

It is primarily about the aesthetic category, about the feelings that a text can trigger in the reader, about being touched, about the interpreter's “empathy with the text” (Becker 2006: 235).

It follows logically from this that the content and motifs in the text are of less interest than the form and shape of the text. Likewise, the life story of the author, sociocultural circumstances at the time the text was written or the political intentions of the work are hardly or not at all significant. Formal literary categories such as structure or rhetorical tricks are analyzed (cf. Becker 2006: 235 f.).

The advantage of being able to concentrate fully on the text as a work of art is of course added to the disadvantage that important literary questions such as those about the political effects of a text cannot be asked at all.

With the political unrest at the end of the 1960s, the importance of permanent work also ended. A politicization of literature began and the immanence of work was forgotten. Since the early 1990s, it has completely lost its significance and legitimation in literary studies (cf. Becker 2006: 237 f.).

4. Post-structuralism and deconstruction

Post-structuralism and deconstruction (there is no space here to work out the exact difference between the two) are a departure from hermeneutics. They are seen as a rejection of the search for meaning in literary works.

In these two theories, too, the focus is on the text. Here, however, openness and incoherence in the text are allowed and worked out.

Post-structuralism and deconstruction turn to areas that cannot be grasped with scientific reason (cf. Becker 2006: 261). In their literary applications, they make clear how a text itself can thwart and question its intention.

The red thread in a text is not looked for, but its contradictions are worked out.

It is not about showing the one meaning of a text, but about showing possible interpretations.

In addition, post-structuralism and deconstruction draw attention to the fact that every text bears traces of other texts, which has been called "intertextuality".

Overall, the point is not to look for what the text says, but rather what it does NOT say.

5. Psychology of literature and psychoanalytic literary studies

At the center of this method is Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. And so the element of the subconscious comes into play here.

"The literary characters as well as the psychological constellations that arise in the text in connection with the characters are subjected to a psychoanalysis." (Becker 2006: 247)

In this way the interpreter asks about the hidden, subconscious “feelings, longings and drives of the characters and thus also of the author” (Becker 2006: 247).

What I find particularly interesting in this branch of literary theory is that the production of literary texts is ultimately seen as a “substitute act”. The drive for writing lies in the fact that the writing itself is intended to express or satisfy the unconscious wishes of the author (cf. Becker 2006: 247).

Although I can imagine that this applies to some authors, there is also the disadvantage of this method: It restricts the complexity of literary work in that every literary text is "read as a medical history" (Becker 2006, 248).

These five examples should suffice to get a more precise idea of ​​the different ways in which one can approach literary texts and the literature system itself.

Of course, these five theories or methods are just any one of my choices. There are many other nice literary theories such as “structuralism”, “gender studies”, “systems theory” or “discourse analysis approaches”.
In addition, I only touched the five selected models very superficially and compactly (even more compact than Sabine Becker). In order to be able to really imagine something under it, one would have to read an application example for each of them. The curious reader could try to come up with a hermeneutic, a positivistic and a poststructuralist interpretation of a text.

These “strict” literary methods are just ONE way of approaching literary texts. The LiteraturKRITIK - as already mentioned above - proceeds differently in comparison to this. And expressing one's own perception of a text without any scholarly superstructure is always valuable, justified and important. (This is also how I proceed here on the blog, for example, when I want to bring you closer to novels, non-fiction books or autobiographies. By the way, to get into the world of reading, I recommend my "reading, thinking, writing" freebie, which you can get for free here .)

Which of the five literary theories discussed in more detail do you like the most or make the most sense? Or do you see in all these methods only unnecessary theorizing that destroys the pure enjoyment of a literary work? Leave your thoughts on the topic in the comments. I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it.

Did I arouse your curiosity about the book "Grundkurs Literaturwissenschaft" with the article? - If this is the case and you would like to purchase it, I would be very grateful if you could do so via the marked (*) Amazon affiliate link at the end of this post. The price stays the same for you and I get a small commission (in the cent range) for my work on the thought nomand.

Many Thanks!

Photo: Joao Silas

Blog article published on: 23.1.2017

Source: Becker, Sabine / Hummel, Christine / Sander, Gabriele (2006): Grundkurs Literaturwissenschaft, Stuttgart: Reclam.

Basic course in literary studies (Reclam's Universal Library) (*)

    dear Philipp, I got a lot of knowledge summarized, thank you. that would also explain why some bestseller lists cannot be compared.
    see you soon


    Dear Johanna,

    That pleases me. I hope the reading wasn't too dry.
    If this scientific treatment of the literature has made you curious, I recommend the Reclam booklet cited in the article.

    Best seller lists belong neither to literary criticism nor to literary studies but are based purely on sales figures (of course, both criticism and science can deal with them). But perhaps you meant that one can also see from the literary theories and methods in how many different ways a book can be viewed and that each reader subconsciously sets his or her own personal criteria that are important for him in the assessment.

    See you soon,


    Dear Philipp, I don't want to know any more about the other species 😉 Is this part of studying philosophy? There are as many different ways of looking at things as there are readers ... Whereby I would be back to Socrates.
    "I know that I know nothing".
    Thanks for the effort, because I haven't read everything.
    I liked M. Reich-Ranicki, he always made me curious about books and was really an entertaining guy! R.i.p.


    Dear Irene,

    What other types? What do you mean by that?

    No, that is not part of the philosophy course, but my bachelor's degree at the Fernuni Hagen was in “cultural studies” and I primarily chose philosophy but as a second subject literature.

    Yes, I too have seen and read a lot from Reich-Ranicki. I found his quirky manner kind of funny, even if I certainly don't always agree with him. His autobiography “My Life” is one of my favorite books. A hymn of praise to German literature, an insight into the personalities of many great German writers, paired with the dark and light moments from Reich-Ranicki's own life, which was very exciting and varied.

    See you soon,


    Hello Phillip,
    I meant the 15 different types or methods ... (It deals with a total of 15 (!!!) different methods and theories ...).
    Thank you and see you soon,


    Ah, now I know my way around ...

    So the other types are:
    Structuralism, social history of literature, systems theory / sociology of literature, feminist literary theory, gender studies, intertextuality, reception aesthetics, discourse-analytical approaches, new historicism as well as cultural-sociological and mentality-historical approaches.

    So now you know it 😉


    Thank you for the good information! I find the hermeneutics appealing, but wonder whether certain methods can also be mixed? In my opinion, one approach is not enough to carry out a good and extensive analysis of a text, right?


    Dear Julia,
    I'm glad you like my article. Don't know exactly what you mean by “allowed” !? In a literary work for the university? Or for your own private analyzes.With the latter you can of course mix as much as you want if you want to penetrate a work from the most varied of perspectives. In the case of scientific work, the given scope is usually not sufficient to view it from more than one perspective.
    Best regards,