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A Word to Literary Learners

For every sojourner through the labyrinth of literature (and its obligatory written response):
Dear Learner,
First, I highly doubt that “everything [you] know about literature is wrong.” You’ve likely learned plenty in the years leading up to this moment. Further, if you’d already learned everything that can be learned about literature and about writing about it, what would be the point of any further literary investigation? Trust me: good learning (and the literature that produces it) never ends. As JRR Tolkien said of CS Lewis, and I tweak every so slightly here to make a point, “You’ll never to get to the bottom of [it]”. Even when the learning seems all uphill and the point of it all escapes you and frankly, you feel a bit of a fool for even trying (and for failing now and then), remember, feeling like an idiot once in awhile, though dreadful, sometimes helps us out in the long run. I’ve been there more times than I can count. I’m sure I’ll be there again in a moment.
I take it you’re confused, not sure what to write about, not sure about anything at all really. (That’s probably a bit of overstatement, if you’re honest.)
Your task: Read. Sometimes more than once. I know you don’t always like it. I know you simply want to get on with it so that you can get on to something infinitely more satisfying. But I ask you, what can be more satisfying than discovering more about the endlessly fascinating and inevitably frustrating lot of us, the human race? What, pray tell, do we use more frequently than we use language? Trust me, the story of us, and the words used to endlessly tell it, is worth your precious time.
Your task: While you’re busy reading, look up words you don’t know. Scribble notes in the margins and underline what seems significant. See with your eyes, hear with your ears, touch with your fingertips, smell and taste what the writer creates with words. Delight in irony. Meet kings, kingpins, traitors, beggars and thieves. Consider contexts (cultural, historical, political, religious, economic). Allow yourself the pleasurable risk of wonder.
Your task: Write. Start with something easy. Write a response — your reaction to the text. What does the writer make you think about, understand, feel, know, believe? What befuddles you, irritates you, makes you cry?
Your task: Write. Try something academic. Yes, the fearsome Literary Analysis. What is that? It’s writing about literary texts. Such writing can take an Interpretive stance (what does the text mean? what understandings (beyond plot events) can be uncovered through the writer’s employment of literary elements/devices?). What insights about life as it unfolds and the world, spinning on its axis, does the poem, the novel, the story, the drama reveal?
Such writing can also take an Evaluative stance (providing a considered (and supported!) comment on the writer’s successful employment of elements/devices).
What literary analysis DOESN’T do is recount/summarize the lines of the text, however those lines are rendered. There’s no point in stating the obvious: “In line 2 of poem X, the poet uses the image of a sunset.” SO WHAT? !?! Instead, what does the sunset look like? What is it linked to and what does that help you understand, feel, believe?
You see?
So, first, select something (or a couple of somethings) from the readings you encounter that you particularly like (for Heaven’s sake, if you’re going to write about something, at least find the texts enjoyable on some level, right? “I said, ‘Am I right?'”).
Then, consider what you want to say about them. NOT WHAT they say merely — but what YOU want to SAY ABOUT them. And not something mundane and frankly useless such as “I really liked this short story because the characters are so real.” REALLY??????? What does that actually mean? Instead, consider what the piece helps you understand about life, about death, about hardship or loss or hope, or difficulty or whatever the piece is actually about. How does the writer accomplish this knowing/understanding that you gain? Do characters act in ways you’d expect? Do characters behave in ways that they ought not? What is the writer offering for your consideration? Is the imagery particularly effective? How so and to what end? Does the writer employ any metaphoric language? Why is it significant to understanding? Does the writer leave you hanging? Why would he do that?
Why, why, why? How, how, how? Seek. You’ll find. And I’m betting you’ll want to talk, er, maybe even write about it. Happens all the time.
The story of us, endlessly unfolding. Literature. Learning. You can do it.
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