Literary criticism, as distinguished from scholarly research, is usually itself considered a form of literature. Some people find great critics as entertaining and stimulating as great poets, and theoretical treatises of literary aesthetics can be as exciting as novels. Aristotle, Longinus, and the Roman rhetorician and critic Quintilian are still read, although Renaissance critics like the once all-powerful Josephus Scaliger are forgotten by all but specialized scholars. Later critics, such as Poe, Sainte-Beuve, Taine, Vissarion Belinsky, Matthew Arnold, Walter Bagehot, Walter Pater, and George Saintsbury, are probably read more for themselves than for their literary judgments and for their general theorizing rather than for their applications (in the case of the first three, for instance, time has confounded almost all the evaluations they made of their contemporaries). The English critics have survived because they largely confined themselves to acknowledged masterpieces and general ideas. Perhaps literary criticism can really be read as a form of autobiography. Aestheticians of literature like I.A. Richards, Sir C.M. Bowra, Paul Valéry, Suzanne Langer, and Ernst Cassirer have had an influence beyond the narrow confines of literary scholarship and have played in our time something approaching the role of general philosophers. This has been true on the popular level as well. The Dane Georg Brandes, the Americans James Gibbons Huneker, H.L. Mencken, and Edmund Wilson these men have been social forces in their day. Literary criticism can play its role in social change. In Japan, the overthrow of the shogunate, the restoration of the emperor, and the profound change in the Japanese social sensibility begins with the literary criticism of Moto-ori Norinaga (1730-1801). The nineteenth-century revolution in theology resulted from the convergence of Darwinian theories of evolution and the technical and historical criticism of the Bible that scholars had undertaken. For many modern intellectuals, the literary quarterlies and weeklies, with their tireless discussions of the spiritual significance and formal characteristics of everything from the greatest masterpiece to the most ephemeral current production, can be said to have filled the place of religion, both as rite and dogma.
The Western novel is a product of modern civilization, although in the Far East novels began a separate development as early as the tenth century. Extended prose works of complex interpersonal relations and motivations begin in seventeenth-century France with (1678) by Madame de Lafayette. Eighteenth-century France produced an immense number of novels dealing with love analysis but none to compare with Madame de Lafayettes until Pierre Choderlos de Laclos wrote (1782). This was, in form, an exchange of letters between two corrupters of youth; but, in intent, it was a savage satire of the ancient regime and a heart-rending psychological study. The English novel of the eighteenth century was less subtle, more robust vulgar in the best sense and is exemplified by Henry Fieldings (1749) and Laurence Sternes . The nineteenth century was the golden age of the novel. It became ever more profound, complex, and subtle (or, on the other hand, more popular, eventful, and sentimental). By the beginning of the twentieth century it had become the most common form of thoughtful reading matter and had replaced, for most educated people, religious, philosophical, and scientific works as a medium for the interpretation of life. By the late 1920s the novel had begun to show signs of decay as a form, and no works have since been produced to compare with the recent past. This may prove to be a temporarily barren period, or else the novel may be losing its energy as a narrative art form and in this sense giving way to the medium of film.
Certainly, William Blake or Thomas Campion, when they were writing their simple lyrics, were unaware of the ambiguities and multiple meanings that future critics would find in them. Nevertheless, language is complex. Words do have overtones; they do stir up complicated reverberations in the mind that are ignored in their dictionary definitions. Great stylists, and most especially great poets, work with at least a half-conscious, or subliminal, awareness of the infinite potentialities of language. This is one reason why the essence of most poetry and great prose is so resistant to translation (quite apart from the radically different sound patterns that are created in other-language versions). The translator must project himself into the mind of the original author; he must transport himself into an entirely different world of relationships between sounds and meanings, and at the same time he must establish an equivalence between one infinitely complex system and another. Since no two languages are truly equivalent in anything except the simplest terms, this is a most difficult accomplishment. Certain writers are exceptionally difficult to translate. There are no satisfactory English versions, for example, of the Latin of Catullus, the French of Baudelaire, the Russian of Pushkin, or of the majority of Persian and Arabic poetry. The splendor of Sophocless Greek, of Plato at his best, is barely suggested even in the finest English versions. On the other hand, the Germans insist that Shakespeare is better in German than he is in English, a humorous exaggeration perhaps. But again, Shakespeare is resistant to translation into French. His English seems to lack equivalents in that language.
As time goes on, literature tends to concern itself more and more with the interior meanings of its narrative, with problems of human personality and human relationships. Many novels are fictional, psychological biographies which tell of the slowly achieved integration of the heros personality or of his disintegration, of the conflict between self-realization and the flow of events and the demands of other people. This can be presented explicitly, where the characters talk about what is going on in their heads; either ambiguously and with reserve, as in the novels of Henry James, or overtly, as in those of Dostoyevsky. Alternatively, it can be presented by a careful arrangement of objective facts, where psychological development is described purely in terms of behavior, and where the readers subjective response is elicited by the minute descriptions of physical reality, as in the novels of Stendhal and the greatest Chinese novels like which convince the reader that through the novel he is seeing reality itself rather than an artfully contrived semblance of reality.
If the early Egyptians or Sumerians had critical theories about the writing of literature, these have not survived. From the time of classical Greece until the present day, however, Western criticism has been dominated by two opposing theories of the literary art, which might conveniently be called the expressive and constructive theories of composition.