In literary criticism, writing is divided into ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ texts in order to identify the distinction between an original piece of work and its criticism. This page briefly discusses the significance of these terms for your critical reading.
Primary and Secondary Text
Primary text is conventionally understood to be original. Examples of this type of writing include novels, plays, poetry, autobiographies, diaries and original statistics.
Secondary text is that which responds to a primary text, and includes critical essays, commentaries, analyses and reports.
Let’s take a quick look at how the convention exists in practice.
- Literary criticism customarily begins with a close reading of a primary text. For example, you may choose to read and respond to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).
- Once you’ve formed an initial response to the text, you need to look at what other writer’s have had to say about Frankenstein. You may for instance discover the critical essay written by Fred Botting, entitled ‘Reflections of Excess: Frankenstein, the French Revolution, and Monstrosity’ (Botting: 2000 435 – 449).
- Frankenstein is your primary text and ‘Reflections of Excess: Frankenstein, the French Revolution, and Monstrosity’ is your secondary text.
- Always read the primary text first and develop an initial response. (If you're not sure how to respond in the first instance, speak to your seminar teacher; she or he will be pleased to discuss ways of reading with you). Only once this primary response has been formed should you turn to the secondary text. Indeed, without your initial response, you won’t know in which direction to turn. The reason you need to find out what others have had to say about a text is because you want to develop your position in relation to what others have said.
- This is how literary criticism works. It never involves reading what others have had to say about a text before reading the text yourself. For example, you shouldn’t read Botting’s essay before reading Frankenstein. If you do, you will lose the opportunity to experience the text for yourself. Consequently, your writing will lose its uniqueness.
As you can see, the relationship between creative and critical writing corresponds with primary and secondary texts. Critical writing logically depends on creative writing.
However, in the sense that your writing is informed by your own unique voice, your critical writing is original. You might agree that the distinction is ambiguous and only has limited relevance. Nevertheless, the issue of logical dependency has significant implications for what we term 'literary criticism', and is therefore worth thinking about.
Another point worth bearing in mind is that any text, literary and non-literary, can potentially host the ‘secret treasures’ of language we speak about in Why is Critical Reading Important? Perhaps the presence or absence of such jewels is involved in determining what gets called literary and what doesn’t? What do you think? Might this have an effect on the way we define ‘literature’?