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West Chester University

Fall 2001

Spring 2002

West Chester University

Fall 2002

 

 

 

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Course Information
  Lit 165 Syllabus
  About the Instructor

Notes for Introduction to Literature
  Approaching Literature
  Ambiguity
  Your Response and Mine
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  Fundamental Questions about Literature
  Four Short Stories (Considerations)
  Genesis of the Short Story
  Responding to 'The Birthmark'
  Notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne
  Bartleby - A Guided Reading
  Bartleby - Questions for Analysis
  A Few Notes on Herman Melville
  A Vocabulary for Fiction and Beyond
  Notes on Innovative Fiction
  Five Writers Define the Short Story
  A Study Guide for the Fiction Exam
  Ars Poetica
  Poets Define the Art of Poetry
  Reading Poetry
  Supplemental Poems
  The Craft of Poetry - Imagery
  The Craft of Poetry - Sound
  The Forms of Poetry
  Revisiting Theme, Ambiguity, Irony, Symbol, and Parodox in Poetry
  Study Guide for the Poetry Exam
  The Birth of Drama
  Aristotle's Tragic Hero
  Stepping Through Oedipus the King
  The Relevance of Oedipus Today
  Oedipus the King -- Study Questions
  Ibsen's Theater / A Doll House
  A Study Guide for the Drama Exam
  Study Guide for the Final Exam

General Announcements
  Announcements
  Assignments

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  A Weblog for LIT 165
  Writing Assistance on the Web

Join the Conversation
  LIT 165 Discussion List

 
~~ Fundamental Questions about Literature ~~

Last week we began to answer the question, "what makes a good short story?" - you shared your thoughts and opinions with each other and with me, and we took a look at the results on Friday, and now you have something to help shape your readings of the stories. Of course, we'll expand on this beginning as we go along. But we started. Also, by today, you've read several short stories-the one you chose and the two I assigned. My hope is that, as you read these most recent short stories, you were asking yourself whether they seemed to "make the grade" - whether they were good short stories, and why or why not. Maybe you even looked back at Friday's handout to see if those points were still valid, or you looked at others in a new light, or you decided which side you were on in some which contradicted one another. And that's all great.

But some of you might still be wondering what this kind of work is all about. In the true spirit of philosophical skepticism and inquiry, you may be asking more fundamental questions like:

  • What is literature, anyway? And why should we study it?
  • How do people study literature?
  • Is there a distinction between literature that's worth studying and literature that isn't? If there is, how do we draw that distinction?
  • Is this something I'm going to have to memorize?

I think these are all fair questions, and I address some of them in my notes titled "Approaching Literature" (available on the web. I'd like to share my answers with you now, before we proceed further…to help us proceed further.

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.

First, the kind of literature we're speaking of is more specific than that broad term implies. "Literature" can refer to anything written-it can refer to the menu at Iron Hill Brewery if you want it to. So the kind of literature we're speaking of is more specifically, "imaginative literature" or "creative writing." The kind of literature you know is not "real."

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.

And that's about as neat and tidy a definition as I have to offer. In defense of it, I offer you the first line on page one of your textbook: "Literature does not lend itself to a single tidy definition because the making of it over the centuries has been as complex, unwieldy, and natural as life itself" (Michael Meyer, The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, 5th ed.). But, because he's writing a textbook, Meyer does offer this definition a few paragraphs later: "[Literature is] a fiction consisting of carefully arranged words designed to stir the imagination" (Meyer 2). Carefully arranged words….stirs the imagination….in other words, "a verbal art." I can live with that definition, and I encourage you to, as well.

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) -

  • "Formalist critics focus on the formal elements of a work - its language, structure, and tone."
  • "Formalists offer intense examinations of the relationship between form and meaning within a work, emphasizing the subtle complexity of how a work is arranged. This kind of close reading pays special attention to what are often described as intrinsic matters in a literary work, such as diction, irony, paradox, metaphor, and symbol, as well as larger elements, such as plot, characterization, and narrative technique. Formalists examine how these elements work together to give a coherent shape to a work while contributing to its meaning."
  • "Other kinds of information that go beyond the text - biography, history, politics, economics, and so on - are typically regarded by formalists as extrinsic matters, which are considerably less important than what goes on within the autonomous text."

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 - will anyone ask it?

 

 

 

     

 


Questions? Contact me.

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