Oscar Wilde and the Concept of Literary Criticism

Oscar Wilde Was a Strange and Brilliant Man.

Whenever someone mentions Oscar Wilde, people usually think of one thing. He was gay. He was actually arrested for homosexual acts back in 1895 (yeah, they could arrest you for that back then). He was imprisoned for two years, and after his release, he only ever produced one significant piece of work: his poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.


Wilde’s cell in Reading Gaol (as it appears today)


It’s hard to say whether the abrupt ruination of his career was what made him stop writing. Maybe it was depression, or maybe it was just the fact that he had no more public to create masterpieces for. He was always adamant about the fact that he didn’t write to “please” the public. It’s my opinion that he wrote in an attempt to show them what his idea of a masterpiece was, and to try and get them to agree. He believed that the modern critics of the time should be “educated” – that they didn’t do their work properly, and that they missed the whole point of literary criticism.

“The moment criticism exercises any influence,” Wilde said in an interview with Gilbert Burgess (a contributor to The Sketch, a British illustrated newspaper), “it ceases to be criticism.”


“What do you think, Herbert?” — “Well, Charles, I think people should just buy my damned book and recognize it for the masterpiece it truly is.”

Modern critics could take a few pointers from Wilde. Criticism nowadays is usually just a scathing crap-slinging fest, with no real intuitive observation involved.


It was Wilde’s belief that the aim of criticism shouldn’t be the attempt to get someone to change their work. It should simply be an evaluation of the work that already exists – the feelings it inspired, the smells it made you smell, the colors it made you see.


“Yeah, man — this is how reading that last book made me feel.”


What do you think? Do you think criticism (i.e., book, film and music reviews) should be made with the objective of making a work more perfect? Any time you point out a work’s shortcomings, you’re giving people the idea that you think something about the work should be changed. Is this constructive criticism – or is it subjective influence? Was Wilde’s idea of criticism too mild? Do you think he just didn’t like to be criticized?

It’s a topic with the potential for heated debate. Sort of like politics.


No caption required.


19 thoughts on “Oscar Wilde and the Concept of Literary Criticism

  1. With regard to literary criticism, one should realize the word critique is implied in the broad strokes of the word criticism. Never is a critique aimed towards changing the work ( for it is a done deal, and stands as is) rather, it is an inspection and evaluation. I believe this is what Wilde meant in the quote you used. Criticism that leads to change ( meaning change in the future way one expresses oneself with an aim to a point) it is no longer a critique of the work, but of its manner.

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  2. Interesting and informative post, C.M. You got me thinking…I agree with Oscar Wilde when it comes to literary criticism–leave readers of the critique with your impression of the book. Every reader brings his or her own meaning to any reading.

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  3. Oh I adore Oscar… my blog’s tag line is a quote from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Criticism is so subjective. Genre, style, purpose… I’m assuming by influential you mean in a writer’s subsequent work? How they would proceed with their next novel, play, poem, etc would have been affected by the criticism of the current work? Food for thought.

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  4. Maybe the term used needs changing. Let’s call it Literary Impressions. When i hear the term Literary Criticism I picture a young surgeon nervously gripping his scalpel on his first major operation…

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  5. I think it depends very much on the purpose of the critique/criticism/review. And I guess those three words, so often used interchangeably, actually have subtly different meanings.
    A critique, as I see it, can only apply to an evaluation of an unpublished work and should be aimed at providing the author with suggestions how it might, in the eyes of the person providing the critique, be improved. In modern parlance, this is the role of the beta reader.
    Criticism is what happens when the critic believes he or she understands the writer’s intentions and believes that those intentions have not been fully met.
    The sole purpose of a review is to provide potential readers with an honest guide as to what to expect from the book in terms of enjoyment, enlightenment and emotional engagement,

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  6. This is so weird. Last night I’m sitting with my thoughts on the very topic of what it means to be a critic. As someone who took criticism courses in school I’m really intrigued by what people expect from and get from a “Critic” – the horrid word itself implies a “scathing crap-slinging fest” is indeed forthcoming. “Reviewer” also implies a high-level knowledge of all and the ability to judge and grade for the benefit of those beneath. I’m in the camp who feel such activity should be observational and educational more so than “did this wrong,” “did this fair”, “should have done this,” etc. What did the critic feel? What life experiences were rekindled within by the work being reviewed? Those answers are more interesting to me. I do agree with Wilde but would take criticism of criticism even further than he.

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  7. C.M I don’t like this post, I love it. I am a huge admirer of old Oscar, his scathing wit, his indolence and his masterful self created persona. As for criticism I think it is vital to judge a work on its own merits, i.e. If a work of fantasy you cannot criticise it for lack of realism, if a gritty social realist piece deride it for its narrow scope etc. Too many critics have an axe to grind.

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  8. Enjoyed reading this!
    I’m a Alternative music blogger based in India, fairly new to WordPress. My latest blogpost is about Royal Blood, the new heavy rock duo who have been applauded by the legend Jimmy Page himself, they have opened for Foo Fighters and Arctic Monkeys are big supporters of this act. Rock riffs haven’t sounded this good since the 00s.
    Do check it out and my other related articles too and feel free to comment and share your views.

    Liked by 1 person

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