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Literary Studies

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English Literature

Literature is as diverse and varied as the world itself, which means we can study it from many different perspectives! The field of literary studies is all about studying literature from these different angles and using the written word to learn more about our world.

What Is American Literary Studies?

Literary studies is the field dedicated to the study of the written word, including fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry. American literary studies, therefore, generally focuses on the study of literature written in English by authors in the United States. University students of literary studies do close readings and analyze texts from various genres based on different kinds of literary theory and criticism. As literature functions as a mirror of human experience, literary studies often contains many different themes and topics.

Close reading: a careful reading of a text in which the reader develops a complex understanding of the passage’s meaning. The close reader discovers details and nuances upon which they can build an analysis of the text.

This means that literary studies is often highly interdisciplinary. To gain the required knowledge and context to understand certain works of literature, students might find themselves studying history, theories of culture and ethnicity, political science, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and more.

This is also true in American literary studies, where students encounter authors from many different backgrounds. To better analyze the diverse body of work that is American literature, many academics use theories from other disciplines, such as the fields of ethnic and cultural studies.

Interdisciplinary: an adjective used to describe a field of study that combines elements from many different disciplines.

What is the difference between literary theory and literary criticism?

Literary theory refers to the various lenses that scholars use to interpret literature. There are numerous literary theories, such as queer theory, gender studies, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, and so on. Literary criticism is the practice of analyzing a text, often using literary theories. A single text could be interpreted in several different ways using various literary theories.

A stack of books for a literary studies class. Literary Studies StudySmarterLiterary studies is the study of various texts, Pixabay.

Cultural Studies and Literary Theory

Theories of cultural studies are frequently used as a lens through which to study literature.

What Is Cultural Studies?

Cultural studies is a field that combines many different disciplines to study cultural phenomena around the world. Students of cultural studies are particularly interested in how systems of power, including class, race, gender, ethnicity, and national identity, relate to and influence social and cultural practices.


Cultural studies programs at colleges and universities are generally highly interdisciplinary and can include the study of political science, economics, history, philosophy, psychology, literature, communication, and more.

How Can We Combine Cultural Studies and Literary Theory?

Literature is a key part of culture and a reflection of culture. Therefore, we can study literature as a part of culture, and we can use theories of cultural studies to analyze the culture we find represented in literature. Combining literary and cultural studies can help you to understand the context in which literature is produced.

Cultural studies can help students to better understand the social and cultural practices that shaped an author’s life and how their literature is related to these broader cultural phenomena.

Ethnic Studies and Literary Theory

Theories of ethnic studies are often useful when it comes to analyzing literature.

What Is Ethnic Studies?

Ethnic studies is the study of race and ethnicity with a focus on historically underrepresented populations within the United States. It is generally a field of study that examines the experiences of marginalized populations and promotes scholarship from these same groups of people. Like cultural studies, many college ethnic studies programs are interested in systems of power, such as class, race, gender, ethnicity, and national identity, and how these systems relate to the lived experiences of various ethnic groups.

Like cultural studies, ethnic studies is also a highly interdisciplinary field that combines many different lines of study.

How Can We Combine Ethnic studies and Literary Theory?

As high schools, colleges, and universities across the United States make an effort to diversify their curricula, the literature of underrepresented ethnic and cultural groups is becoming more widely read in the classroom.

Combining ethnic and literary studies can help students to better analyze the texts of marginalized authors by giving an understanding of how and why the experiences of various ethnic groups differ from that of the dominant culture. Students will also benefit from the ability to critique any text using academic theories of race and ethnicity.

Resources for Literary Studies

Students of literary studies are often in need of resources to help them with their studies. Various books and academic journals discuss different literary theories and critique literature that students might find helpful when preparing their own analyses. The following are just a few examples of the vast array of books and journals available on the topic of literary studies.

A literary studies student works. Literary Studies StudySmarterThere are many resources available for students of literary studies, Pixabay.


There are an endless number of books on the topic of literary studies. Some are very general and give college and university students an overview of the field of literary studies. Others are very specific and focus on specific literary theories or topics of study.

An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory (2016)

This book by Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle provides students with an overview of literary studies. Starting with a chapter entitled “The Beginning” and ending with one called “The End,” this comprehensive book covers topics such as the uncanny, the postmodern, racial difference, the role of history in literature, and more.

Character: Three Inquiries in Literary Studies (2019)

This book by Amanda Anderson, Rita Felski, and Toril Moi explores more specific issues related to literary studies. The three authors take up the question of character-based criticism in literature. It’s generally believed that literary critics should remember that the characters on the page are not real and should not be treated as such. Resisting the urge to identify with literary characters helps critics make a more formal analysis.

Anderson, Felski, and Moi, however, suggest that critics reconsider their treatment of characters. Perhaps, in some literary situations, a more nuanced approach is called for. The three authors explore how the study of characters can enhance our understanding of literature. They look at the reasons why literary studies abandoned character criticism and question whether it is really a bad thing when literary critics write about their identification with characters in their works.

Do you treat characters as real people when you read? Do you become attached to them or feel as if they’re your friends? How do you think seeing characters as real people versus as literary inventions might affect your analysis of a text?


Academic journals can also be an excellent resource for students of literary studies. Like books, there are innumerable literary journals available. Some cover specific kinds of literature or subjects within literature. Others are more general.

Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies

This is a twice-yearly journal published by the Department of English at National Taiwan Normal University. It features articles on a variety of topics, including classic and contemporary literature. Journals such as Concentric, which is known for its innovative and transnational content that prioritizes Asian-based scholarship, highlight the interdisciplinary and global nature of literary studies.

Journal of Modern Literature

Another excellent example of a literary studies journal is the Indiana University Press’ Journal of Modern Literature. It publishes scholarly articles on literature in all languages, ranging from 1900 through to today, and receives contributions from academics all around the world.

Literary Studies - Key takeaways

  • Literary studies refers to the study of the written word, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama.
  • Literary studies is a highly interdisciplinary field that can combine the study of literature with theories from other academic disciplines.
  • Theories of cultural and ethnic studies are often applied to the study of literature.
  • Combing literature with cultural and/or ethnic studies can help students to understand the broader cultural context of literature.
  • There are a variety of books and academic journals available as resources to aid students in literary studies.

Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Studies

Literary studies is the study of the written word, including fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry.

English and literary studies is essentially about learning to think critically about a wide variety of texts. Students of literary studies will have the opportunity to learn about various literary theories, apply these theories to texts, and develop their own analyses.

In the literary studies classroom, you will learn to close read and critique an array of texts. You will learn various literary theories and learn how to apply them critically to texts that you read in class. You will also learn to research effectively and learn how to apply your research to your critiques and analyses.

Studying literature will give you an in-depth look into the human experience. You will encounter a variety of texts from different times and places that will help you to develop an understanding of how humanity relates to one another and how experiences and perspectives vary across history and between cultures.

There are many different ways to approach literary studies, and many colleges and universities have various areas of focus that students can choose. Oftentimes, these areas of focus might correspond with particular literary theories, such as queer theory and gender studies, postcolonial theory, or cultural studies.

Final Literary Studies Quiz


What do students of literary studies study?

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The written word, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama.

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What is ethnic studies?

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Ethnic studies is the study of race and ethnicity.

Show question


What is cultural studies?

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Cultural studies is the study of cultural phenomena and practices around the world.

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What is the difference between literary theory and literary criticism?

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Literary theory refers to specific theories that are then used as a lens to critique literature.

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What does interdisciplinary mean?

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Interdisciplinary refers to a field of study that combines elements from many different disciplines.

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What is NOT an example of a literary theory that might be used to critique literature?

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Quantum theory

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True or false? Literary critics are discouraged from identifying with characters or treating them as real people.

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Who are the authors of Character: Three Inquiries in Literary Studies?

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Amanda Anderson, Rita Felski, and Toril Moi

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What resources are available for students of literary studies?

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Books and academic journals

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Why are literary studies often combined with cultural or ethnic studies?

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The theories of cultural and ethnic studies can give important insight and context to literature.

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What is close reading?

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Close reading is reading a passage carefully to understand the details and nuance in preparation for creating an analysis.

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