Aphorisms on Literature Reviews

What is a Literature Review?: A literature review summarizes the previous scholarship on a topic. It's where you show that you’ve done your homework, where you celebrate the good work that has come before you, and where you identify the shortcomings of earlier scholarship. 

Narrate the Conflict: We humans, base and creaturely things, love to watch conflict: this notion explains the popularity of professional wrestling and reality television, but also our interest in the great works of literature. In your papers, exploit your reader’s desire to see conflict by staging your argument as part of a heated debate.

But Don't Manufacture Conflict: You shouldn’t artificially manufacture an insufficiency in a scholarly conversation that isn’t really there. That’s obviously unethical. If you get to the end of a research project, and you decide, “Yep, Robin Stewart nailed it; he’s right; he said everything that I wanted to say, and he said it better than I would have said it,” then you shouldn’t try to drum up some imaginary insufficiency in the criticism. But you should also know that, if this ends up being the case, we don’t need your paper to tell us that someone has already gotten it right. In other words, a paper that doesn’t make an original contribution to an academic conversation but merely reports the excellence of someone else’s idea isn’t necessary.

Represent Ideas Accurately: Believe it or not, most scholars are quite happy to be disagreed with if their positions have been accurately represented. Imagine the people you're critiquing reading your critique of them: would they be happy with the way you've represented their ideas?

Question/Problem1 and 2: An essay, understood as a close reading of one or more texts, has a question or problem that grows out of the text(s): some discrepancy, difficulty, ambiguity, or gray area that demands interpretation. Let's call that Question/Problem1. A research paper, understood as a paper that includes scholarly research, must have two kinds of questions or problems: it has that initial discrepancy, difficulty, ambiguity, etc. in the text, but it also identifies some insufficiency in the scholarly conversation devoted to that text. Let's call that Question/Problem2. In sum, your question/problem1 must show why there is a problem that needs to be interpreted in a text, and your question/problem2 must show that there is a some insufficiency in the academic scholarship related to that text.

Identify the Insufficiency: That is the point of a literature review: to identify an insufficiency in a scholarly conversation.

A Critique of the Critics: When you write a literature review, don’t simply provide a list of who said what. Your literature review needs to tell a story. That is, your literature review is not just a catalog of ideas; it is an analysis of the analyses, a critique of the critics. In other words, there needs to be an argument to your literature review, that argument being your justification for your paper. Why, given the already existing scholarship related to an issue, does your paper need to be written.

Camps of Critics: Group the scholars who have written on the subject at hand into camps (maybe based on time period, maybe on theoretical approach, maybe on argument), and narrate the history of these warring camps in an effort to demonstrate how and why this critical conversation does not ultimately account for the text under discussion.

Structuring a Literature Review: Introduce your text, explain what the problem is (question/problem1), present your literature review, then explain what the insufficiency in the scholarly literature is (question/problem2), all in an attempt to justify the existence of my paper.

"All Wrong" and "All Right": When writing a literature review, there are two broad strategies you might use to justify the need for an additional interpretation: the “all wrong” way and the “all right” way.

"All Wrong": The “all wrong” way to justify the need for additional interpretation is to collect all the available interpretations of a text, present them, put them into camps, and then suggest that they’ve all gotten the interpretation of the text under consideration dead wrong (or, more softly, that these interpretations haven’t gotten the text quite right). In this model, the scholarly conversation is insufficient because it displays mistakes, misunderstandings, misconceptions, misrepresentations, etc. In you’re paper, you’re going to offer the right way of looking at the issue as a corrective to this deficient scholarly conversation.

"All Right": The “all right” way to justify the need for interpretation is to collect all the available interpretations of a text, present them and affirm their accuracy and value, but then claim that additional interpretation is needed on top of what is currently available because what is currently available doesn’t get to the real issue, which is what you’ll be addressing in your paper. In this model, the scholarly conversation is insufficient because it has gaps, blind spots, unaddressed phenomena, etc. In your paper, you’re going to fill in this gap in the scholarly conversation by giving attention to what has been overlooked by previous writers.

Combining Approaches: It is possible to combine these kinds of literature reviews, the “all wrong” way and the “all right” way. It may indeed be the case that your research project involves one handful of critics who address an issue related to yet not focused on your particular focus (you’re not going to dispute them; you’re just talking about something different than what they’re talking about) and another handful of critics who have addressed the issue you’re addressing, but they’ve gotten it wrong (so you’re going to provide a different, better reading). 

Strategies for Literature Reviews: Here are some more specific strategies that may be useful to have in your repertoire for literature reviews:

  • The Redirect: The field has focused on a certain line of thought—and that’s wonderful—but there exists an unadresssed question or problem that you’re going to take on. 

  • The Further Development: A certain scholar has suggested an idea that you’re going to develop more fully. 

  • The New Phenomenon: Something new has emerged into the world and, simply because it is so new, it hasn’t been addressed in the existing scholarship. 

  • The Mistaken Interpretation: A commonly accepted idea about a topic is simply wrong, and you’re here to correct the record. 

  • The Giant Killer: Rather than engaging with the totality of a field of scholarship, you’re going to engage deeply with a certain foundational scholar or argument that has been especially influential. 

  • The Methodological Intervention: A change of theoretical approach will enable a change of analytical argument. 

"Kick 'em when they're up, kick 'em when they're down": Don Henley's song “Dirty Laundry” says, “Kick ‘em when they’re up. Kick ‘em when they’re down.” When the critics are “down” because they’ve gotten the text wrong, obviously you should call them out on their errors and kick ‘em around. But even when the critics are “up” because they’ve done good work, you’ve still got to kick ‘em for not doing their work on the right area or for not doing their work well enough.

Latest and Greatest: Try to adopt a “latest and greatest” approach to literature reviews: try to include the most recent, cutting-edge scholarship, as well as the older, foundational works in the field. 

Affirmative Citation: Citation is the coin of the realm in academia. Jobs and promotions hinge on it. Use citations to support the work of scholars who face systematic bias in academia. 

Citations for Friends: Citations are for your friends, not your enemies (something I learned from my friend, Julia Reinhard Lupton). 

You’re Accountable to What’s Out There: Students usually know they need to acknowledge the scholarship that helped them develop their ideas. But scholars also know they need to acknowledge the relevant scholarship that’s out there, even if it wasn’t influential in the development of their own argument. The fact that you didn’t know a book or article was out there doesn’t mean you’re not accountable to it.