Rhetorical criticism: A type of literary criticism emphasizing examination of the rhetorical strategies and devices authors use to get readers to interpret their works in certain ways. Practitioners of rhetorical criticism identify and analyze the devices of persuasion present in a work that are designed to elicit or even impose a particular interpretation or response. Rhetorical critics also study the interaction of author and reader and view the text as a means of communication between the two.
Rhetorical criticism is similar to pragmatic criticism in its emphasis on how — and how well — a work (or author) manages to guide or influence the reader’s or audience’s response. Like pragmatic criticism, rhetorical criticism was practiced from classical times up through the eighteenth century, when its popularity declined with the rise of expressive criticism, which views literary works in light of their authors’ thoughts and feelings. It lapsed into still deeper obscurity during the nineteenth century with the advent of objective criticism. More recently, however, rhetorical criticism has been resurrected and revamped, in the work of critics associated with reader-response and reader-oriented criticism.
For an introduction to rhetorical criticism, see Sonja Foss’s Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice (4th ed. 2009). For noted examples of rhetorical criticism, see Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961) and Thomas Benson’s Landmark Essays on Rhetorical Criticism (1993), including Herbert Wicheln’s influential essay “The Literary Criticism of Oratory” (1925).