What Is the Formalist Approach to Literature?

The Formalist approach to literature, or Formalism, is a broad branch of literary criticism that seeks to examine a text on its own terms, independent of the text’s societal or authorial context. Formalism accomplishes this examination by evaluating the formal aspects of a text. There are several subdivisions within the realm of Formalism, the most notable of which are New Criticism, Russian Formalism and New Formalism.

Russian Formalism was the first branch of Formalism. It began in Russia between 1910 and 1930. The movement was led by Viktor Shklovsky and Roman Jakobsen.

In the United States, Formalism began in the 1930s with New Criticism. New Criticism was spearheaded by a group of intellectuals at Vanderbilt University, called The Fugitives. At the head of The Fugitives was John Crowe Ransom, who published a book called “The New Criticism” in 1938. Both of these groups focused on the grammatical, syntactical, poetical and formal aspects of texts.

New Formalism began in 1985 with the article “The Yuppie Poet” in the Associated Writing Programs newsletter. As of 2014, New Formalism is the most contemporary wave of Formalism. New Formalism developed as a reaction to contemporary mainstream poetry that had abandoned notions of rhyme and meter.