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Reading and Writing About Literature

Winter English

Reading Critically

  • Look beyond what the text says on a surface level to discover what it means.
    • “look behind the story”
    • Find the meaning; metaphor, symbol, reading between the lines
  • A story is being told on the plot-sentence-level; yet literature is also a form of art.
    • Literary artists choose plots, words, characterizations, etc. in order to signal towards something further and deeper than what is simply on the page.
    • Identify and decipher “clues” the author leaves behind.
  • Basic ways to look for these clues; look at the context in which the words are presented.
    • Language and tone (diction, dialect, word choice, author’s stance towards what is happening)
    • Figures of speech
    • Humor
    • Rhythm (pacing, meter, rhyme)
    • Figurative language
  • Focusing on the method and the scale rather than simply story.

Reading Creatively

  • Attempting to fully occupy the world that the text imagines to better understand abstract ideas nad broader themes.
    • We need to inhabit the world the writer creates to truly experience what’s going on.
    • We are suspending our sense of reality and engaging with the reality (or ‘unreality’) set up by the author of the text.
  • Literary critics move one step beyond imagination (i.e. ‘here I am in this story’), looking at how the author manipulates the reality (i.e. setting, characterization, tone, the five senses, etc.).
    • How is it so that readers suspend their place to engage in the world the writer paints?
    • Techniques, artistic choices, devices, etc.

Uniquely American Literature

  • This class will focus mostly on American literature.
    • Can apply to literature from other national contexts.
  • Analyzing the world the author sets up but also as a literature that came out of our world.
    • Hence, it comes from a specific context; social and other factors influencing authors.

Writing About Literature


  • Think about it in terms of professional literary criticism: think of yourself as a beginner literary critic, in which [reading, thinking, writing] are the actions of this world.
  • There are conventions and etiquette that shape this scholarly world.
  • Literary criticism is a conversation about how texts become markers of ideological and societal forces that shape a person’s perspective.
  • When we talk about literature, we engage with it often first from our own position.
    • These judgement calls come from where we find ourselves in this culturally diverse landscape.
    • Immediate reactions may be offended/positive/negative/confused.
    • This is simply reading, not scholarship.
  • After immediate reactions, recognize that we will read and think as individuals, but that we will read and think with the goal of entering a conversation that has ground rules, etiquette, precedent, and conventions.
    • Not enonugh to say “I don’t like this story”; this is your response - valid as a reader, but not as someone entering a conversation.
    • Find a scholarly dispute; perhaps the artistic choices that lead you to a certain argumentative stance.
  • Normal, natural, and expected to have gut reactions. However, they are not what scholarship is about; this course may introduce texts that may elicit negative immediate reactions.
    • Thinking outside of our own immediate reactions.
    • Sometimes, these reactions may be more about us than they are about the text.
    • Enter a text with an openness and humility.
      • Are you focusing more on your own reaction than the text?
  • Entertain different perspectives and opinions, be open-minded when reading texts.

Consider What You Know and Think

  • What do you know after you read literature?
  • Scholarship pushes past summary to consider what we think.
  • Our initial thoughts and opinions are starting points to develop into a scholarly action.
    • Does the author make choices to elicit those reactions? (e.g. dislike of a character)
    • Hence entering the realm of literary criticsm.

Observe, Question, Interpret, Reflect

  • The Hermeneutical Circle: in every act of learning, we understand, explain, appropriate, and repeat.
    • Pushes one back into a reconfiguration after reflection and appropriation.
    • The understanding changes because of reconfiguration of ideas.
  • Rereading something, responding to something: just a first step of literary criticism or learning anything.
    • Push past initial facts and continue to question, interpret, and to reflect.

Question Your Opinions and Responses

  1. Summarize. Clarify what you know.
    • Ensure that the basics of reading comprehension have taken place.
    • Plot, character.
  2. Evaluate. FInd and articulate the reasons for your initial response.
    • What in the text leads you to respond in a certain way?
    • Characters’ actions? Speech? Tone? - Influences outside of the text conditioning your response? - Can this text be brought in comparison with others? - Comparisons between texts; incorporating broader themes and ideas.
  3. Analyze.
    • How do parts and questions relate to a whole?
    • What are components of the text and how do they contribute to the work as a whole?
    • Themes, structure, roles, contexts.
  4. Synthesize.
    • If analyzing breaks the work into parts, synthesizing helps build connections betweent he parts.
    • Making an argument about how a text is situating itself in the literary, generic, real worlds. - Create an umbrella argument - a larger argument under which several observations and perspectives can stand.