Feminist criticism focuses on how literature has represented women and relationships between women and men, drawing attention to how women have been marginalized and denied a voice of their own in much of canonical literature, and to how literature reflects society's prevailing ideological assumptions with regard to gender and power.
Reading as a Literary Critic
The most important pre-requisite to literary criticism is the ability to read like a literary critic. You must read not only for content and understanding of the subject, but you must also be careful to read for any and all literary devices, as well as trying to understand the reason and motivation behind every line. This is a difficult habit to get into, but it is helpful to take notes while you read.
In other words, a careful reader does not just read a text for the 'story'. Rather than just being interested in what happens or what is being described by a literary work, a critical reader is interested in how the writer has used language, form and style in order to convey meaning and affect the reader's response to the subject matter. A critical reader pays attention to patterns in texts and to how these establish tone, register, atmosphere and mood.
Develop a sensitivity to the 'voice' telling the story. From whose perspective is the story being told? Is there a first person narrator? How does the way in which he or she describes events reflect his or her perspective and attitudes, and is his or her narration 'reliable'? If the story is told in the third person, does it focus on describing the thoughts and feelings of one character, does it only describe external actions, or does the author allow us to 'see inside' the thoughts of many different characters?
You must be able to visualize the 'flow' of a story, understanding where the character(s) go, where events happen, how the characters and the plot develop, and the themes within the story.
It is helpful to construct a flow chart after reading showing prominent characters, where they go, what happens to them, how they change (for this you must look very carefully at their actions and dialogue and ask yourself 'Is that what they would have done/said at a previous point in the story?), and what events caused that change.
The most important thing to read for is character development, where you analyze characters to see how they have changed over the course of the story.
Reading Plays The most important thing to remember when studying a play is that most plays were not written to be read but to be performed in front of an audience. It is important to pay attention not just to what is said by characters, but to whom, to who else on stage can overhear this and to how other characters would react. Also pay attention to stage directions and to implicit directions in what characters say so that you can form a mental picture of what characters are doing. Consider how characters' lines might be spoken differently by different actors and how this would affect the meaning.
A good exercise is to look at a play from the perspective of a director, a casting director, a props and scenery manager, a costume-team leader or a lighting engineer. Think about the decisions that all these different people would make in order to bring the script to life on the stage. It is very difficult to understand how plays work as theatre without having first-hand experiences of performances, so if it is at all possible, you should see a live performance of the play that you are studying. Failing this, watching film versions of the play is also helpful. Seeing more than one production is a good way to understand how different directors can interpret the same script in very different ways and will help you to start thinking about what you would do in their position.
Formal Literary Criticism
Formal literary criticism focuses mainly on the clarity, quality and complexity of the writing of the subject. A formal critic looks primarily at syntax, literary devices, and the flow of the writing. Formalist literary criticism can be divided into two categories: descriptive and prescriptive.
Descriptive formalism focuses on the technical analysis of the literary and linguistic devices in texts, with especial regard for how these make a text 'literary' i.e. how the text uses language in a special way which sets it apart from everyday discourse. Prescriptive formalists advocate a style of literary writing which is as distinct as possible from everyday discourse, as they believe that it is the responsibility of literary writers to make readers see things in a new way.
Prescriptive formalism is often associated with Marxism; the early Soviet critic Shlovsky argued that the function of literature was to "make the stone stonier" i.e. to use the alienating effect of challenging devices in order to avoid offering up an immediate, transparent meaning to readers so that they would have to engage actively with texts and discover new meanings from them, in a way analogous to the development of political consciousness. Bertold Brecht argued that such literary forms as satire operate through a 'Verfremdungseffekt' - i.e. they present the familiar in unfamiliar ways and therefore arouse readers' and audiences' awareness of the ideological nature of their assumptions.
Descriptive formalism was at the heart of the New Criticism school which emerged at Cambridge in the 1930s under F.R. Leavis, William Empson and Cleanth Brooks, and which encouraged students to engage in 'practical criticism', looking at literary texts as self-contained artefacts which should be explained on their own terms rather than by reference to external information such as biographical and historical details. This approach, encouraging close analytical reading, was very similar to that of the structuralist school which emerged after the Second World War and was advocated by figures such as Roland Barthes, Lacan, Bhaktin and Levi-Strauss.
Post-structuralism and deconstructionism emerged from the structuralist school but criticised structuralism's analytical approach as being reductive and simplistic. Post-structuralists drew attention to the relationships between texts and their referents and to the limitless possibilities of reading as a creative process, seeing texts not just as self-contained structures but as structures sitting within the larger meta-structures of society and ideology, with readers equally forming their readings from within these structures. Deconstructionists similarly see textual interpretation as a process which can never arrive at a final, fixed 'authoritative' reading of any text because it takes place within the constraints of readers' ideological assumptions, and also draw attention to the contradictions within texts and to the flawed ideological assumptions of their authors. Derrida, Foucault and Culler are some well-known critics in this field.