This article is to show that studying literature can be made easy by following some useful guidelines. The first principle is to familiarise ourselves with the four different styles of reading and to use them to suit the diverse objectives of reading a literary work. The second is concerned with some practical guides to reading and writing literary essays, i.e. to deal with more than one work for comparison and contrast, and to handle the discussion thereof by focusing on one single topic to be argued clearly. Finally, studying literature is indeed reading the literary ABC - aims, basics, and context of the work under investigation.
Key words: reading types and tasks, reading-writing nexus, triad of
Armed with some practical skills, “learning to read [literature] like a professor is really as simple as, well, ABC,” concludes one reviewer of a recent popular guide to studying literature entitled How to Read Literature Like a Professor (2003).1 Written by a professor of English at the University of Michigan, Thomas C. Foster, the book gives readers handy and amusing tips and hints on how to approach literary works as varied as blockbuster movies to Shakespeare’s plays and Greek classics. Indeed, a book shaped out of its author’s twenty-five-year experience of teaching literature, How to Read Literature Like a Professor is not unlike a “book for dummies” in showing how pain-free studying literature is once we comprehend the basic techniques of dealing with a text. Using as a test case “The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield, Foster tells nonprofessional readers to read like professors by seeking to answer two basic questions “What does the story signify?” and “How does it signify?” when reading a literary work of any kinds.2 And with these two questions in mind, the author asserts, “professorial” readers should read between the lines the recurring pattern of metaphors, symbols, and character-as-author’s-image that all make up the world of literature.
Partly enlightened by the remarkable guide book in question, this paper attempts to show the mathematics of studying literature. It will discuss first, the need to examine the different forms and functions of reading in literary studies and second, the use of two simple rules in reading and writing literary essays. The ‘ABC’ reading of literature is presented in the third part of the paper.
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Four-Ways of Reading
The four ways of reading literary texts discussed here have respective types and tasks, and one is neither more nor less important than the others: 1) informative reading, 2) interpretative reading, 3) critical reading and 4) creative reading. By definition, Informative Reading is reading to obtain such information as evidence, facts, examples; Interpretative Reading involves the act of interpreting; Critical Reading entails evaluation for it looks into how a text is argued; and Creative Reading is used interchangeably with creative writing since the target herein is rewriting. What follows is the detailing of each type.
Informative Reading. This first type of reading is considered the most objective way of accessing a literary work because this technique requires no theoretical/literary approach, socio-biographical information of its author or knowledge of other various circumstances surrounding the text. The genesis of this close reading goes back to one experiment done by the Cambridge professor I. A. Richards in the 1920s and later popularly known as Practical Criticism which was quite well-liked as an approach throughout the early twentieth century.3 While the reader should also look into the form and style of the text, s/he should avoid asking about its social or historical relevance given the timelessness of the text. At best, the reader is to analyze the effectiveness of the novel’s complex structural elements as in plots, major events, problems, conflicts, resolutions, etc. Informative Reading fails to operate once the reader tries to bring in her/his predetermined assumptions or set beliefs about a piece of work, for instance, all Lawrencian novels are about love and sex, the works of Pramoedya always destabilize authority, or Poe’s tales more often than not terrorize. Instead, as its name bears, the aim of Informative Reading is mainly to look for information through the so-called “words on the page”, hence it asks “What does a text say?”.
Interpretative Reading. If Informative Reading asks “What happened?”, Interpretative Reading pursues further with “What if it had happened to me?”. The keyword in this second type of reading is “life application”, i.e., literature for day-to-day life. Interpretative Reading invites the reader to enter the imaginative realm of the text: by imagining her/himself as one subject in a novel, for instance, and being immersed in the novel and conversing with the characters therein. The result is a communication between the reader and the text. Abstract connections between the fictional character’s life, history, motives, conflicts, redemption, etc. and that of the reader are to be made. As such, a reading of this kind is similar to that postulated by F. R. Leavis, the successor of Richards, i.e. asking the readers to look for moral values in literary works.4
If subjective in its trajectory, Interpretative Reading is useful as it places the reader on a respectable footing enabling her/him to become responsive, skilled, and appreciative toward good reading of miscellaneous literary and artistic writings.5 Interpretative Reading trains the reader to get into the habit of making comparisons and contrasts when handling texts as different as newspapers, poems, comics, plays, advertisements, etc. Intercultural appreciation will likely be formed out of this intellectual exercise. This reading
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model nonetheless has its own drawback when incorrectly undertaken, that is, when a reader becomes excessively subjective and emotional. In Interpretative Reading, conversely, one should maintain detachment in one’s endeavour, the failure to do so means the inability to grasp the message that literature is a part of the big world of culture.
Critical Reading. While the previous reading types serve to examine first, what a text says to the reader, and second, what a text does to the reader, the third type aims at finding out what a text means. The reader is to judge how the text works, and how arguments are made. This is to say that the reader is to find the central claims and purposes of the work. Next, some judgments are to be made about its context. Here, the reader is to know what the author attempts to achieve with the writing; whom s/he wants to entertain, persuade, challenge or even ridicule; and in what particular time and place the work is recognised or conversely ignored. Who are involved in the dialogue? More importantly is to ask what particular ideology becomes the ‘soul’ of the writing.
One practical strategy in Critical Reading is to avail ourselves of becoming the author’s target audience by knowing more about the background and (other) works of the author. As a matter of fact, many fictional characters are but the skewed and disguised image of the author.6 To mention one example, it is revealing to know that Salinger, like the main character in Catcher in the Rye, was himself a loner and had to move from one school to another. The ability to see coherence and logic is important in this exercise as to avoid falling into fixed assumptions while ignoring the author’s views.
Unlike the previous reading stages, evaluation is central in Critical Reading. How strong is The Great Gatsby in arguing that the members of society in the novel are victimized by their own conspicuous consumerism? Is Holden’s narrative of phony society a success?
Creative Reading. Rewriting of the text is the finale in Creative Reading – reminiscent of the Barthesian concept of “readerly” and “writerly” texts. Here, the reader is to provide alternative endings upon deciding to what degree the text is ‘open’ or ‘closed’, and to use alternatives to fill in the gaps.7 In so doing, the reader explores the interplay of meanings – how, for example, apprehensions that plague people and, likewise, aspirations that sustain them can be read into a novel like Grapes of Wrath. The characteristic of Creative Reading is thus self-fulfillment not pleasure. Having been enlightened by reading a certain literary text, the transformed reader will likely attend to the call and urgency to contribute something to society at large, of which one of the ways is through writing. As a reminder, literary works have the power to inform, reform, transform, and even deform. It is worth mentioning that this type of reading is unexpectedly suitable for the novice. Yet, this is The Reading that any literature enthusiast should seek to perform.
Given the immediacy of reading and writing as part and parcel of studying literature, some practical tips in reading and writing literary essays are as follows.
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The Reading-Writing Connection
Two Rules of Thumb. It is not until one embarks on the task of writing that one can begin to see what to read (further); and this is even more true in studying literature. To quote Fabb and Durrant, “success in reading is invisible to others unless you also know how to write”.8 Thus, it is somewhat misguided to claim that reading comes before writing, although we indisputably need to read sufficiently well to know what to write. The following paired rules of thumb, i.e. 1) many is more and 2) less is more, may be helpful in explaining the connection between reading and writing.
Why many is more? A literature reader, says Foster, has to possess the power of memory for making correlations, keen eyes for symbolism, and the knack of making out patterns.9 But, out of Foster’s three simple tricks -Memory, Symbol, Pattern- I am more persuaded by the last. Here, my understanding of pattern recognition is the contrasting analysis of a number of works. We first examine details in a novel and then decide to focus on one particular detail with which we look at other novels having similarities with the first one studied. Through the comparison and contrast of works with several things in common, a pattern will emerge. Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn, for example, can be read together to see that while ‘boy stories’, they do challenge adult psyche. The use of non-standard English in both novels also creates a pattern – the language of resistance, to use postcolonial vocabulary. Doesn’t every author have but one story to tell when we read The Great Gatsby, “The Rich Boy”, and Tender is the Night? Observing a couple of novels by the same author can thus substantiate the view that literature is indeed full of patterns.
By reading more than one work, the task of writing can be made less taxing, for we only need to direct our attention to one particular issue that intrigues us most. At this stage, it is important that we narrow down our interest. Rule Number Two will explain.
What less is more? While sounding contradictory to the previous rule, the idea is to pay attention to one specific problem only and handle it thoroughly, as opposed to venturing many issues but lacking a clear focus. Fabb and Durrant show that a literature essay has a focus for its subject matter and uses a particular mode of argument to approach it. The combination of different foci and modes of argument will make interesting topics for literary essays. Although an essay may have more than focus and may adopt a variety of modes with which to argue, organisation is important in order not to suffer lack of clarity.
Fabb and Durrant then recommend the following to use as a focus: authors (e.g. the life and works of Edgar Allen Poe), texts (e.g. poems by Sylvia Plath), generic groupings of texts (eighteenth-century pastoral poetry), relevant literary historical issues (representations of industrial life in early 20th century novels), and theoretical issues in literary study (comparison of post-structuralist approaches to the lyric poems). As for modes of argument, some examples are given such as: revaluing a reputation, analysing style, relating a text to the historical circumstances, placing a text in an aesthetic context, reinterpreting a text, taking sides within ongoing critical viewpoints, and exemplifying theories.10
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Believing that a good essay is a clear essay, I shall suggest that beginners take up less topics, perhaps one at a time, to produce a more compelling discussion. The three examples here can be used as topics for discussion:
1. Focus: Author
Mode of Argument: Relating a Text to Historical Circumstances
A paper looking at River as a metaphor for a journey through life in novels by Mark Twain to see if they all serve as criticism toward post-Civil War America.
2. Focus: Text
Mode of Argument: Revaluing a Reputation
Unlike Arthur Miller with his social plays, Tennessee Williams is known more for his psychological plays. This view is challenged in an essay comparing parents-children relations in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, The Rose Tattoo, Summer and Smoke, Sweet Bird of Youth with that of the author’s, to show that these plays are equally sound in addressing the socio-economic impact of industrialised society in the 1930s.
3. Focus: Generic Groupings of Texts
Mode of Argument: Taking Sides in an Ongoing Critical Argument between Differing Viewpoints
A thesis which examines if the representation of the Indonesians in 4 Australian novels set in Indonesia is a continuation or discontinuation of Orientalism.
Intimacy of Two Skills. I shall now mention as a postscript to this section, The Pleasure of Reading (1992), a book I found in a secondhand bookshop in Glebe, Sydney,10 years ago. Edited by the renowned American novelist Antonia Fraser, this book is a collection of narratives told by writers of literary fame. The likes of Doris Lessing, John Fowles, Germaine Greer, Buchi Emecheta, Rana Kabbani write about their love affair with literature and their favourite books.11 This book tells us about these authors’ childhood in which they were mostly showered with books and that those books –from comics to classics- continue to inspire their writings. Margaret Atwood whose father is an entomologist was keen on reading books about animals. When reading Moby Dick, for example, Atwood skipped anything not related with the whale and felt unperturbed whatsoever by the death of the whale hunters. It could have been for the same reason that this admirer of George Orwell read Animal Farm, although her view of the totalitarian regime in The Handmaid’s Tale was, by her own acknowledgement, influenced by 1984 and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. A. S. Byatt, whose Possession won the 1990 Booker Prize, admits that Morte d’Arthur and Jane Eyre taught this woman novelist love and burning passion; while she first learned about sex from The House in Paris, a book by Elizabeth Bowen that her father bought for her by mistake thinking that it was a children’s book by Marjorie Bowen. The Queen of Detection Ruth Rendell was scared of the fearsome fairies in Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books she read at the age of 7, but it was by reading more of Lang’s books that Rendell later scared the readers of her books.
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It is worth noting that not all the 40 writers in The Pleasure of Reading come from literary households, yet they all make reading a passion. For example, Robert Burchfield the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary was raised in a family of petty labourers from New Zealand who knew no books; and the father of the Irish poet Roger McGough was afraid to enter libraries. These writers have been reading books, some even banned books, since the young age, at which they became addicted and, in turn, found writing an outlet. Here we see that Creative Reading can be exemplified from the writings of these incurable bookworms, hence the intimacy of reading and writing in literature.
The Aim-Basic-Context Triad
I shall now examine the ABC of studying literature. The ABC formula can be paralleled, invariably, with our four-reading typology discussed much earlier and the closeness of reading and writing in literature studies. I hasten to add, however, that the ABC here is so chosen for reason of expediency namely attention-grabbing. Just as learning ABC is easy, so is reading a work of literature, for this activity, likewise, reads ABC, with A for aims, B for basics and C for context. Here “triad” rather than “phases” is used since the three aspects are to be operated concurrently. First of all, by understanding the aims, we are in fact questioning what a text says about something. Next, we examine such literary basics as plot, character, setting, and narrative devices (irony, metaphor, symbol, etc.), as well as genre or model of writing (detective story, African myth, Australian fairy tales, Japanese haiku, among others), in order to see how the text says it. Then, revealing the context means that we ask why the text says what it says.
Aim. To begin with, it is important that we grasp the aim(s) of the work. What is the book about? What does it say to us? Although it may sound rather moralistic, knowing the message intended in a literary work is a good start. Why does Catcher in the Rye downplay the inner-conflict experienced by a well-meaning but often misunderstood adolescent like Holden Caulfield? Modeled on the Bildungsroman of the nineteenth century, what is the aim of this story of growth set in 1950s America? Does it simply tell us about period of transitions between childhood and adulthood? Similar questions can be asked to see what the conflict of fantasy and reality in The Great Gatsby aims at. Is it about the recurrent fear of the collapse of the capitalist society in the same decade? Finding the aims of the novel is thus one analytical strategy to use before delving further into the work.
Pointing out the aims of a work, however, is not an easy task for a lay reader. It is not rare for such a reader to rush into thinking that a novel is about so and so and henceforth steadfastly uphold the idea. Fixation prevents this reader from giving an opportunity to the author to reveal her/his views through the work. This reading failure is no different from the trap into which a reader often falls in Interpretative Reading as discussed earlier. In fact, examination of aims in literary works can likely be achieved through Critical Reading.
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Basic. The next facet in this reading triad is examination of the basics, that is, the ‘inside’ of the novel. Parallels can be made with Practical Criticism characteristic to Informative Reading. This exercise can also be likened to buying a house – we map the location, see how it looks like from the outside before entering the house to do some necessary inspection. At this point of inspection, we examine the basic construction of the house – the rooms, the sanitary system, the electricity installation, and, not the least importance, the design and the quality of the building. Similarly, we do the same survey when looking at the structure of a novel.
Here, examining how the novel is constructed is crucial. Foster argues that most novels are about journey, very often a journey of self-discovery. While in J. D. Salinger’s novel, the journey is that of a conventional young rebel, F. Scott Fitzgerald introduces to us via Nick the narrator, characters as different as Jay Gatsby, Tom, Daisy in their respective search for identity. The two novels however differ structurally in that Catcher in the Rye relies on the rebellious syntax of conversation as in repetition, colloquialism, broken construction, etc, while The Great Gatsby operates on several binary oppositions such as three women and three men, the opposite location of the characters’ residences, the oscillation between dream and desire, and so forth. We may also discuss the effects of such complex literary devices on the overall quality of the novel.
Context. Lastly, we arrive at the last hub in the nexus of ABC – the context. The “No literary works appear in a vacuum” dictum remains useful here because no known writer would write without her/his own philosophy in mind. All great works are born out of the authors’ labours in promoting certain views, ideologies, principles contingent to some specific cultures and times. And one way to reveal the hidden truths in a work of art is to situate the work within the production period, keeping in mind the reason and passion of the author as well as the consumption of the work in question. One cannot simply ignore these external factors; although to accept blindly the author’s viewpoint, Foster reminds us, may lead to difficulties. Foster shows us an example of the disturbing anti-Semitic suggestion in Ezra Pound’s the Cantos to be understood as a product of a writer inescapably imprisoned by his political preference.12
But to return to our two sample novels, the anxiety, hope and fear underpinning the Jazz Age of The Great Gatsby and echoed in other cultural products like movies then proliferated owing to the rapid progress in media and technology that helped the growth of the entertainment industry at that time. Commodification of images of beautiful women in works like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925),13 the release of Columbia pictures by 1924, Mickey Mouse made in colour in 1928 are just a few examples. Similarly, Catcher in the Rye can be more likely understood if we spend time looking at the conspicuous consumption of 1950s American society, at the grip of McCarthyism during this era, leadfing to spying on one another, and at the rebel ideology popularised by James Dean movies. It is always important to examine what effect specific ideas and beliefs had on a period of history when the work was written. Here, understanding the milieu of a novel gives necessary clues to what the work is meant to say. We may equate this contextual reading with the combination of Interpretative and Critical
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Readings alongside its practical application in rewriting a.k.a. Creative Reading.
Mapping the aims, basics and context of a literary work can thus help us to access the work with ease. Not only do we need to ask what the intention of the author is, but it is also as important to see how s/he has this accomplished intention, and why such an intention and the implication thereof is so desired. To finish, notes must be taken here especially with regard to writing so that a reader whose critical mind is continually sharpened by reading will eventually perceive the need to write and, accordingly, to read more. Good reading begets good writing and vice-versa.
It would seem that the two handy books often cited in this discussion, i.e. Foster’s on reading and Fabb’s and Durrant’s on writing, try to convince us that studying literature need not be daunting; And the third book mentioned, The Pleasure of Reading, is a testimony to the intimacy between reading and writing from the real “professors” of literature. Built, in part, on the views culled from these books, the present discussion has outlined the main directions on how to study literature with enjoyment: choosing the correct method of reading, and adopting easy hints for reading and writing. Taken together, the two strategies call for the importance of seeing the harmony of aim-basic-context in studying literature. These sets of approaches do not need to be employed all at once. Selection, Fit and Proper Test, Trial and Error and the likes might be the keywords. But the most important vocabulary of all is Practice, Practice, and Practice.
The discussion has also revealed that the more difficult the task, the more worthwhile is the outcome. I contend, however, that the transformational task of studying literature is not to overtake the recreational reward so as not to discourage the yet untrained eye. To the old proverb “All roads lead to Rome”, I shall therefore add, “Take the most enjoyable to travel.” Because when I learn, I hope to learn with joy, as simple as learning ABC…
1 Ong Sor Fern, “No-brainer guide to literary works”, The Straits Times, February 14, 2004, p. 12.
2 Thomas C. Foster, How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003), pp. 245-81.
3 Richards conducted this experiment by asking his students to read and give comments on a number of poems with the names of the authors and publication data omitted. Through the varied interpretations that resulted from this exercise, he sensed ambiguity on the part of a reader adamantly holding onto her/his preconceived ideas about the poems given. This argument is made clear in his works like The Principles of Literary Criticism (London: Kegan Paul, 1924) and Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement (London: Kegan Paul, 1929).
4 See, for more explanation, F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, , 1962). Analyses of the novels sampled herein remain compelling, if moralising in tone.
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5 Compare this reading method with communicative technique of reading proposed by Elbert R. Bowen, Otis J. Aggert and William E. Rickert in their Communicative Reading (London: Sheffield Publication, 1998).
6 Narrative theory takes on this combination of the author’s personal story and the character(s) in her/his fiction as intertextuality or influence theory. See, for example, Jay Clayton and Eric Rothstein, “Figure in the Corpus: Theories of Influence and Intertextuality” in Influence and Intertextuality in Literary History, eds. Clayton and Rothstein (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), pp. 3-36.
7 See Roland Barthes’ “From Work to Text” in Image-Music-Text, ed. and trans. S. Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), pp. 142-216.
8 Nigel Fabb and Alan Durant, How to Write Essays, Dissertations and Theses in Literary Studies (London: Longman, 1995), p. 1.
9 T. C. Foster, How to Read Literature, pp. xv-xviii.
10 Fabb and Durrant, How to Write Essays, pp. 10-13.
11 A. Fraser (ed), The Pleasure of Reading, London: Bloomsbury, 1992.
12 For us in Indonesia, the works of the recently deceased Pramoedya Ananta Toer may have an important bearing on this issue. His nationalistic stand was seen as otherwise subversive by the power-holders.
13 This novel by Anita Loose was made into film of the same title starring Marilyn Monroe (1953).
Barthes, Roland. “From Work to Text”. In Image-Music-Text, Ed. Trans. S. Heath. London: Fontana, 1977.
Bowen, Elbert R., Otis J. Aggert and William E. Rickert. Communicative Reading. London: Sheffield Publication, 1998.
Clayton, Jay and Eric Rothstein. “Figure in the Corpus: Theories of Influence and Intertextuality”. In Influence and Intertextuality in Literary History. Ed. Clayton and Rothstein. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
Fabb, Nigel and Alan Durant. How to Write Essays, Dissertations and Theses in Literary Studies. London: Longman, 1995.
Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2003.
Fraser, Antonia. Ed. The Pleasure of Reading. London: Bloomsbury, 1992.
Leavis, F. R. The Great Tradition . Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962.
Ong Sor Fern, “No-brainer guide to literary works”, The Straits Times, February 14, 2004.
Richards, I. A. The Principles of Literary Criticism. London: Kegan Paul, 1924.
____________. Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement. London: Kegan Paul, 1929.
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