West Chester University
~~ Fundamental Questions about Literature ~~
In the true spirit of philosophical skepticism and inquiry, you may be asking some fundamental questions like:
I think these are all fair questions, and I address some of them in my notes titled "Approaching Literature."
First, what is literature?
That may seem like
a simple question, and I guess we can make the answer simple if we try. But
simple answers are deceptive. And the only way to get a simple answer to this
question is to ignore an awful lot.
That kind of literature can be defined as verbal art. It's verbal, and it's an art. A "verbal art." The implications of that definition are twofold: first, we acknowledge that we're dealing with an art, which implies that an artist has constructed this thing, this end product, which is now available to its audience, and is meant to strike that audience as profoundly beautiful, or meaningful, or (ideally) both. Just think about some of the art you love best (your favorite painting, or sculpture, or film, or book)-whether its something visual or verbal, or both literature is aiming for that same kind of impact. That impact is not just intellectual; you don't just think something is profound; you feel it, too. It moves you. Even slightly, but it moves you.
It's important to recognize the verbal aspect of the art of literature, because words are the literary artist's only tool. How does the writer shape language? Bend language? Twist language? Outright manipulate language so that it has that impact? There are lots of tricks to learn about and observe, depending on the genre we're speaking of. The short story writer uses character, plot, and narrative point of view, description, and dialogue in interesting, provocative ways; poets use figures of speech, predetermined structures, and other devices to make words sound striking together; dramatists use dialogue and sets, and the talents of live actors and actresses to give their work its punch. And what makes a good poem might not make a good drama, or what makes a good drama might make a boring poem, etc. But what's common to fiction, poetry, and drama is that the writer has this unique, profound, beautiful vision to somehow embody in words. And if those words add up to something neither unique, nor profound, nor beautiful, nor in some way useful, then it's probably not good art.
People study literature because it enriches them; it's chock full of wisdom, it's entertaining, it's profound, it's beautiful and moving. The best of it can deepen our experience of being alive, taking us beneath the superficial surface of people, into their inner caverns. As a discipline, the study of literature is an excellent way to sharpen your close reading skills, assemble excellent critical thinking apparatus, and refine your general sense of art appreciation.
So what is literature?
Literature is a
verbal art, an art which explores what it means to be human from the inside.
It's the inside story. It's a million and one snapshots of the human heart in
all its mystery and perfection, and imperfection. It's philosophy, psychology,
sociology, ideology and history rolled together without any attempt to clear
up the unanswered questions. It's the questions, it's the questioner. It's you
and what you make of it.
Another interesting, fundamental question to ask: how do we study literature?
Recently I handed out "Critical Approaches to Literature" (it's now here on the web as well) that begins to answer this question. Even the quickest glance at this summary of a chapter in your textbook ("Critical Strategies for Reading" 1483-1509) reveals that there's more than one way to approach literature.
In fact, there are a number of useful and interesting ways to pursue a serious study of literature, but they are not all equally represented by the instructional apparatus in your introductory text. You might have noticed, if you tried to think about it, that your textbook takes a decidedly "formalist" approach; that is, it encourages students to see the literary text as the sum of its compositional elements; it is viewed as an "organic whole" whose "form" and "content" reflect one another and merge in meaningful ways.
The formalist approach is defined by Meyer in your textbook ("Formalist Strategies" 1487) -
But as you can see here, the formalist approach is just one among many that are possible, and I encourage you to keep that in mind as you study the works I assign. You are free to step beyond the kind of formalist approach our textbook prefers and explore the wide world of biographical, historical, textual, psychological, mythological, sociological, deconstructionist, feminist, or reader-response criticism. There are more that haven't made the list. Reading closely, reading strongly, opening yourself to insight, being creative and imaginative as you read - expressing, sharing your insights clearly - that's what's most important.
Meanwhile, in the conduct of the class, we'll be busy, most days, using the methods your textbook prefers - identifying those intrinsic formal elements that will extend our vocabulary for speaking about short stories as "autonomous texts."
Is there a distinction between literature that's worth studying and literature that isn't? How do we draw such a distinction?
The answer to this question is addressed in my notes on "Approaching Literature."
Do you have to memorize any of this?
A very practical
question - what do you think?
Questions? Contact me.
materials unless otherwise indicated are copyright © 2001-2004 by Stacy
The original contents of this site may not be reproduced, republished, reused, or retransmitted
without the express written consent of Stacy Tartar Esch.
These contents are for educational purposes only.