WRT 120 Syllabus
Lit 165 Syllabus
About the Instructor
Notes for Effective Writing I
Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
What Makes a Good Story?
Building a Thesis
Notes on 'Purpose'
Strategies for Writing Introductions
Strategies for Writing Conclusions
Assignment #5: Argument
Understanding Rational Argument
Notes for Introduction to Literature
Fundamental Questions About Literature
Critical Approaches to Literature
Critical Thinking and Reading Literature
Notes on Four Short Stories
The Genesis of the Short Story
Defining the Short Story
The Art of the Short Story
A Vocabulary for Fiction and Beyond
Notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne
Responding to 'The Birthmark'
A Guided Reading of 'Bartleby the Scrivener'
Bartleby--Questions for Analysis
A Cultural Context for 'Bartleby the Scrivener'
Notes on Innovative Fiction
Study Guide for Fiction Exam
Billy Collins - 'Introduction to Poetry'
A Catalogue of Poems for Study
Approaching a Definition of Poetry?
The Craft of Poetry: Imagery
Readings from 'The United States of Poetry'
The Craft of Poetry: Sound
The Craft of Poetry: Structure
Lines of Continuity
Study Guide for Poetry Exam
The Birth of Drama
On Tragic Character
Stepping Through 'Oedipus the King'
Analyzing 'Oedipus the King'
The Relevance 'Oedipus'Today
Study Guide for the Drama Exam
Announcements and Assignments
WRT 120 Announcements
WRT 120 Assignments
LIT 165 Announcements
Lit 165 Assignments
Weblog for WRT 120
Weblog for LIT 165
Writing Assistance on the Web
Join an Online Forum
WRT 120 Composition Forum
LIT 165 Introduction to Literature Forum
~ Approaching Literature ~ ~
that you've studied the syllabus, I'd like to make some less formal introductory
comments about the course.
First and foremost,
I'd like to stress that this is an introductory course. As much as I may want
to, I can't expect to expose you to even a respectable fraction of all the great
literature that's available, waiting, lurking in the libraries and the bookstores--maybe
even on your own bookshelf
so my goal, and I hope it's a realistic one,
is to inspire you to keep reading beyond this course. In this age of the "death
of the book," it would be a victory, for example, if at the end of the
semester you decided you wanted to keep this textbook rather than sell it back.
Aside from wanting
you to enjoy literature enough to read it on your own, I also want to help you
acquire the critical thinking tools you'll need to get the most out of literature
when you do take the time to read it. And I want you to stop thinking about
being critical as being something nasty and evil and start thinking about being
critical as being something intelligent and worthwhile. I want to share with
you some criteria you can use to help you choose literature you'll find personally
rewarding, whatever your individual taste.
~ Towards a
Definition of Worthwhile Literature ~
So here's my first
question, and I hope you notice that the nature of this question invites your
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE
BETWEEN WORTHWHILE AND WORTHLESS LITERATURE? Or, to put the question in a more
long-winded way: What's the difference between literature that's artistically
accomplished and "worth" looking at, studying, closely, and literature
that's far less artistically accomplished and unworthy of looking at, or studying,
closely? (What do I mean by "worth" here? I think I mean something
like "worth our time because it'll enrich us somehow, someway.")
Make no mistake,
this is not a simple question, but a semester-long question; we can only begin
to answer it tonight. I can provide a few starters, but ultimately this is a
problem every reader solves individually: what's worth reading?
between commercial art and serious art is like the difference between a Snickers
bar and a full course meal. One is quickly consumed; it attracts us with its
glossy wrapper, entices us with its sugar and fat, but ultimately it just weighs
us down needlessly. (Unless you're young and you have one of those envious supermetabolisms!)
The other feeds you, it sustains you, it's meaty, nutritious, building muscle
and helping each and every cell work just right.
1. Worthwhile literature
creates a lasting impression. It may be (1) provocative, (2) beautiful, (3)
uncanny, (4) richly ambiguous, and (5) brightly, shatteringly meaningful, causing
ideas and feelings to reverberate long after the reading ends.
Less artistically accomplished literature leaves your head the moment you
finish it. Once you finish reading, you immediately commence thinking about
more important things, like where to do your food shopping next week. Think
of the difference between watching a throwaway sitcom on TV as opposed to
some powerful film you saw in the theaters recently, and you'll catch my drift
2. Worthwhile literature
stretches the reader's imagination. It's a fact about people--we like to use
our imaginations! We've been developing literature practically forever. The
earliest records of our civilizations contain literature in the form of mythical
stories, epic poetry, tragedies, comedies, poetic odes in celebration of cultural
heroes; poster boys like Gilgamesh, Moses, Achilles and Odysseus
. We love
the literary stuff from way back. I'd venture to bet (and I think I could get
people like Joseph Campbell, the late great scholar who studied myth across
cultures) that as long as we've had language, we've had literature. And inspired
imaginings are still the key to great literature. They engage us. We use our
imagination to build pictures in our minds, discover meanings. We enjoy the
fact that meanings and pictures are ambiguous,
awaiting our indivdidual interpretations.
accomplished literature is predictable, stale, easily anticipated, nothing
new. It's a formula. The characters are types, maybe even offensive stereotypes.
We are obviously not enlightened by the presence of any new vision, and we
quickly skip to the end to confirm what we already predicted; we've read/heard/seen
this before. There's no reason to get involved; there's nothing for us to
imaginatively add. If we stick with these works at all, we do so passively,
as a way of turning off our minds and escaping. We get the feeling when we're
done that we just wasted a lot of time.
3. Worthwhile literature
presents an aesthetically pleasing experience. We may be stunned by the work's
"beauty," its strikingly handsome language or structure, the way in
which the structure and the meaning housed within blend naturally and totally,
complementing and reflecting each other. Great literature is verbal art in all
its heady abstraction and vivid living color.
accomplished literature does not strike the reader as beautiful in any way.
There are no expertly turned sentences to dazzle us, no pith, no poignancy,
no imagery to awe us. Language, the vehicle for thought itself, is at best
ordinary, at worst, hackneyed; nothing expressed transcends into that airy,
weightless, colorless, ageless realm of abstract thought, feeling, or spirit.
~ ~ Sorry!
A DIGRESSION: The problem with aesthetics....
of a work of literature is at least partly measured by its aesthetic power,
a power measured by its power to evoke an aesthetic appreciation in its
reader. This may sound circular, but it's a fancy way of asserting that
beauty is, like the saying goes, in the eye of the beholder. Put another
way by eminent literary critic Harold Bloom: "Pragmatically, aesthetic
value can be recognized or experienced, but it cannot be conveyed to those
who are incapable of grasping its sensations and perceptions. To quarrel
on its behalf is always a blunder" (Western Canon 17).
If you want
to get acquainted with aesthetics , you can read what some of the great
philosophers have had to say about aesthetics, or you can read a passage
about beauty from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, or you can consider
what a few influential English Romantic writers and critics have said about
beauty and the work of art. [sorry, those links are now gone]
true that aesthetic appreciation is highly subjective and personal. Although
we attempt to establish objective criteria that reward certain works of
literature for their surpassing aesthetic qualities, ultimately the individual,
standing before the cut, decides whether the depths are awesome or not.
And while many, including Harold Bloom (a distinguished, prolific Yale literary
critic) believe that great works of literature are an acquired taste, an
"elitist phenomenon" (Western Canon 16), I don't believe it. I
believe that anyone with an open mind, a strong, working imagination, and
an appreciation of the solitary pleasures of reading will respond to great
works. The problem is that today many have lost that last essential ingredient--an
appreciation for the solitary pleasures of reading. We've substituted TV,
and lost much. But that's another digression.
~ ~ ANOTHER
DIGRESSION: The pleasures of reading....
is one other place of sanctuary. Not a physical place-not church or
a [therapist's] office-but a metaphysical one. Depth survives, condensed
and enfolded, in authentic works of art. In anything that can grant
us true aesthetic experience. For this experience is vertical; it
transpires in deep time and, in a sense, secures that time for us.
Immersed in a ballet performance, planted in front of a painting,
we shatter the horizontal plane. Not without some expense of energy,
however. The more we live according to the lateral orientation, the
greater a blow is required, and the more disorienting is the effect.
A rather unfortunate vicious cycle can result, for the harder it is
to do the work, the less inclined we are to do it. Paradoxically,
the harder the work, the more we need to do it. We cannot be put off
by the prospect of fatigue or any incentive-withering sense of obligation.
What is true of art is true of serious reading as well
do read perseveringly we make available to ourselves, in a most portable
form, an ulterior existence. We hold in our hands a way to cut against
the momentum of the times. We can resist the skimming tendency and
delve; we can restore, if only for a time, the vanishing assumption
of coherence. The beauty of the vertical engagement is that it does
not have to argue for itself. It is self-contained, a fulfillment."
Have you ever
read a book that you feel influenced your SELF? Was there a book back there
in your young person past that you feel defined the old(er) person you are
today? If I think about the defining books in my own reading past, I can
come up with quite a few, and they're not highbrow
I think I've
always loved books. Before I could even read I memorized a book called Fortunately,
Unfortunately, impressing my kindergarten teacher with my "reading
skills" by reciting the entire book. Then I fell in love with a story
from the Bible--Joseph and the Coat of Many Colors. I read it over
and over once I learned to read (I had a nifty child's edition). The Bible
has some of the greatest literature in our heritage
and even at the
age of six I was moved and fascinated by that story--the love of father
for son/son for father, but the troublesome favoritism (and didn't the Old
Testament God play favorites with his Hebrew children?), the horrible image
of the pit, the fascination of dreaming and dream interpretation, the cruelty
of the brothers, the luck, the intelligence, the amazing bigness of Joseph
and his ability to forgive
my attraction to this story probably shaped
me as a reader for the rest of my life. But I also remember a book called
Caddie Woodlawn (a girl's adventures out on the rugged frontier)
and several books written for youngsters about the lives of great Native
American warriors (Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and especially Geronimo)--those
books were always bittersweet. On the one hand, they fired my imagination,
mesmerized me--made me schizophrenic! Simultaneously I wanted to be Caddie--the
white daughter of frontiersmen who never seemed to question their divine
right to invade a frontier already populated by those pesky Indians who
kept attacking them--and I wanted to be a member of Geronimo's tribe,
or Geronimo himself (a little gender flexibility was necessary there)--all
in the absolute worst way. On the other hand, these narratives filled me
with sadness, because the native culture I was so enthralled by didn't exist
in my Philadelphia rowhouse neighborhood, or anywhere anymore. In fact,
my government had tricked or killed or cheated practically all of the Indians
I loved so much, slaughtering in the most horrific way most of the buffalo
which lay at the center of their culture. This, along with Watergate and
Vietnam, didn't make me particularly fond of my government, but that's another
digression! Walking the endless concrete rows back and forth to school,
to the playground, to the shopping mall, I quickly discovered that the only
way I could enter this beloved realm of adventure was to read the books,
more and more books. And then in my rebellious preteen years I came across
two immensely influential books--The Outsiders and That Was Then,
This Is Now. The love affair that was kindled early was now fully stoked
and the sparks went flying. And the fire still burns. Brightly.
in that book quoted above, The Gutenberg Elegies, describes working
at Borders bookstore and seeing people wandering up and down the isles in
search, it seemed, not of a book, but of an experience
a book that would transport them. These people were not simply looking for
escape, although escape became a byproduct of the experience; more than
escaping, they were transforming, transporting their consciousness inward.
The flame they hoped fan, the experience they were seeking, was an inward
one. Here's Birkerts describing his own experience with books:
read. I moved into the space of reading as into a dazzling counterworld.
I loved just thinking about books, their wonderful ciphering of thought
and sensation. I was pleased by the fact that from a distance, even
from a nearby but disinterested vantage, every page looked more or
less the same. A piano roll waiting for its sprockets. But for the
devoted user of the code that same page was experience itself. I understood
that this was something almost completely beyond legislation. No one,
not even another reader reading the same words, could know what those
signs created once they traveled up the eyebeam.
well, is above all a means of turning on an inward light, and it creates
such a powerful impact that it transforms a person's consciousness.
It's an interesting
question, I think. If it wasn't a book that changed you, was it a movie,
a TV show? A video game? From what avenue of culture did the defining influence
come? A song? A band? Did you listen to a certain song and come away transformed
forever? Were there one or several influences you can point to--a book,
a story, a TV show, a movie, a song, a painting--that helped turn you into
the person you are today?
In the generation
before mine, a defining book was On the Road by Jack Kerouac. The
number of people who were influenced by this book is probably inestimable.
Ironically, though, many of the boomers who were deeply influenced by this
book testify that they can't even read the thing today, they think it's
but it captivated them at the time. They stood before it in
absolute awe; and it changed them. They morphed. They were standing up straight
and suddenly they slouched. They were living in Flowerberg and suddenly
they were on the blue highway, hitching toward California. It's a powerful
transformation literature can create. It's a pleasure that can be shared
or experienced solo.
End of digression.
with the differences between worthwhile (artistically accomplished) and less
worthwhile/worthless (less artistically accomplished) literature
4. Worthwhile literature
communicates across cultural boundaries--because its message is universal--and
across centuries--because the truth it expresses is timeless. Shakespeare's
drama can play across the globe in cultures remote from Elizabethan Britain.
Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, despite its pointed, relentless
indictment of certain tendencies in American culture, provokes tears in Japan
(admittedly, the cultures are somewhat similar, though the differences are striking).
Americans fell in love with Zenmaster Luke Skywalker and the whole notion of
the Taoist-inspired "force," enjoying his very Oriental, very Japanese,
accomplished literature is embedded/cemented permanently in the time and place
in which it was created. Although it may capture the zeitgeist, it never transcends
it; never reaching beyond its immediate milieu, its meanings will fade with
time, and when enough time goes by, its relevance will completely vanish.
You'll have to consult special historical reference works to make much sense
of it at all. It'll seem either amusingly antiquated or deadly dull.
5. Worthwhile literature
will be accepted into the "canon," the always controversial, never-agreed-upon
body of great literature--the "A LIST." Who gets to be in the canon?
Who will we require our children and our college students to read? Who will
we suggest represents the best our culture has to offer? Only the "best"
literature is included in the canon
accomplished literature will be dropped from nearly everyone's reading list.
~ Oh no!!
Another DIGRESSION (not as long): The canon controversy
"canon" comes from the Greek "kanon," which means
"rod, rule." It also recalls the books of the Bible that have
been officially recognized. Keeping these definitions in mind, we can
perhaps see that, as used in reference to literature, the "canon"
refers those works which have met or exceeded the established standards
for literary greatness and have therefore been "officially recognized"
by the academy as worthwhile objects of study.
arises when we consider that those "established standards" are
extremely difficult to agree upon. Many have argued that traditionally
these standards have been unfairly biased, privileging white males--that
the Western tradition has excluded females and minorities.
Formulaic, clichéd, non-complex: that somewhat sums up the throwaway
variety of literature.
complex, ambiguous: that somewhat sums up the built-to-last variety of literature.