category = AG Lit Review
A. Definition

A “literature review” is a review of the existing scholarship and criticism on your topic. Literature reviews are required in scholarship in every field. Scientific papers always begin with review of related previous research. The literature review is essential to the production of knowledge, because it insures that new research responds to and builds on existing expertise.

B. Examples

In literary criticism, literature reviews take many forms. Scholarly journal have a review section of recent books, which often includes a “review essay” that discuses several related books in detail, showing how they form a critical conversation. An excellent example of the review essay is David Chinitz’s “The New Harlem Renaissance Studies,” Modernism/Modernity vol. 12, no. 2: 374-382, which you can access through Project Muse via the library website.

Almost every book or article begins with a literature review. It can take the form of a paragraph, as in my article, “Outing T. S. Eliot” [Criticism 47:1 (Winter 2005): 7-30]:

The argument that Eliot might have been gay was first put forth by John Peter in a 1952 reading of “The Waste Land,” which, without mentioning homosexuality, interpreted the poem as an elegy for a dead male lover.[i] Eliot had his solicitors suppress the article, which was reprinted in 1969 after Eliot’s death, with an additional postscript by Peter.[ii] It is in this postscript that Peter associates the speaker with Eliot, identifying his beloved as Jean Verdenal, a young Frenchman whom Eliot befriended while living in Paris in 1910. In a 1978 book, T. S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land: Exorcism of the Demons, James E. Miller, Jr. pursues Peter’s argument further, arguing that the poem (and just about everything else Eliot wrote) is a grief-stricken response to Verdenal’s death on the shores of Gallipoli in WWI.[iii] Seymour-Jones’ biography incorporates both Peter’s and Miller’s arguments, attempting to bolster their theory using newly available material from the Letters of T. S. Eliot (1988) and The Inventions of the March Hare (1996).

A literature review may be distilled to a few sentences, as in this article on racial silencing in Contempo magazine, co-authored by Davidson students:

No one asks or explains why Contempo dropped the subject of Scottsboro. Instead the tendency… has been to turn attention to the next “controversy,” “big scoop,” or “publishing coup.”1 Contempo has been commemorated as “a small but brilliant literary gold mine,” as a “somewhat daring southern literary magazine . . . determined to involve black writers” and “become a southern outlet for literature of the Harlem Renaissance,” and most recently as a publication “not explicitly edited by African Americans” that explored race issues.2 But while the magazine’s literary coups and political courage have attracted scholarly interest, the subsequent silencing of racial protest in the magazine has gone unnoticed.

A literature review may also take the form of a “purposeful summary” of a single work of criticism, “balancing what the original author is saying with [your] own focus” (see They Say/I Say, 3). Preparing a secondary source report will help you write an accurate, purposeful summary.

C. Instructions

Your literature review must include:

  1. 5-10 works of criticism or scholarship on your topic (found via library)
  2. Secondary source reports (SSRs) on the 4 most important, relevant, or influential sources

After you complete the SSRs, write a literature review (750-1250 words) summarizing the works and showing how they form a critical conversation. It may help you to try Mark Gaipa’s technique of drawing a diagram of a ballroom, and positioning each of your critics in relation to each. Refer to his article on “Breaking into the Conversation” for explanation and examples of this and other strategies for mapping and entering a critical conversation (scroll down to PDFs section in Readings). Here’s a sample ballroom illustration from his article:

As in your annotated bibliographies, do not just describe your sources in the literature review (e.g., “Vogel makes an argument about queer poetics in Langston Hughes’s poetry”); instead, summarize the argument (e.g. “Vogel argues that Langston Hughes’s blues poems depict the after hours club in ways that animate forms of queer subjectivity made possible through this unregulated time-space complex.” Copy and paste your literature review & SSRs into the same post.