Literary criticism is in a sorry state these days. Discussion of books and writing has been superseded by gossip about writers (Elias Canetti/Iris Murdoch) and even about critics (Naomi Wolf/Harold Bloom), the most talked-about critic has become so because he indulges in hysterical and ad hominem attacks on writers who don't write books like his own (Dale Peck), not a single book nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in the category of "criticism" is actually a work of literary criticism. Literary webloggers have so far focused their attention on what passes for literary "news" (a useful enough service nevertheless), book reviews of fiction are gradually being abandoned, academic critics concern themselves with literature at all only to the extent of instructing their students to despise it.
There was a time when well-read and skilled critics wrote books intended to enlighten interested readers--all interested readers--about the nature and possibilities of literature, in effect to show them how to read fiction, poetry, and serious drama more profitably. Very little of this is done anymore. Most literary journalists don't seem to know how to read profitably themselves (there are exceptions, always exceptions), most academic critics simply aren't interested in it. I am thus providing here a list of the kinds of books I have in mind, books that are still eminently readable and that would educate anyone who picked them up about literary forms, style, history, predominant themes, etc.
Richard Poirier, A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American
Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism
Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction
Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel
Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition
Eric Auerbach, Mimesis
Cleanth Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn
William Empson, 7 Types of Ambiguity
Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden
Tony Tanner, City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970
These are not the "top ten," certainly not the only ten, merely ten. Many others could be added. I have not included books on individual authors, of which there are scores of good ones. Again, I would have included books of equal merit of more recent vintage, but there really aren't any, at least not books that are designed to demonstrate to readers and potential readers the rewards of serious literature.
Actually such books would greatly benefit all would-be writers as well. They would learn how to build on the accomplishments of the past, how to think clearly about the requirements of literary form, as well as when to alter and rebel against the practices of the past. Many writers who went through college, possibly graduate school, when these books were routinely assigned would undoubtedly testify to this. It is a great failing of the literary academy, and the literary culture more generally, that so few people now seem to recognize the value of this critical heritage.