8 Active Reading and Fiction
One of the goals of this course is to develop complex reasoning skills by learning how to actively read literary texts. Firstly, what are complex reasoning skills? Complex reasoning can be understood as the ability to analyze and interpret many different kinds of information, and then to draw conclusions based on the inferences you develop about the meaning of that information. To infer means to find a non-obvious answer to a complex problem or question. Inferences are developed by making use of the knowledge that you already have, by combining that with insights you gain from reading and research, and finally by applying that knowledge to offer a unique conclusion to a problem or question that is often open-ended — a problem or question for which there might be numerous possible solutions.
Studying literature and writing about it are particularly effective ways of developing complex reasoning skills because the best literary texts always pose readers with certain kinds of intellectual or interpretive challenges . An interpretive challenge can be any aspect of a work of literature that motivates us to ask the very basic question, “What does this mean?” By seeking to answer this question, we are motivated to dig deeper into questions about language, human life, and our responses to the conflicts and challenges we encounter each day.
To take an active approach to reading means to read with a purpose. Rather than treating texts as a set of instructions with a clearly specified purpose or meaning, when we read actively, we look for patterns, contradictions, and challenges within in a text. Studying literature is an effective way of developing active reading skills because the language of literary texts is uniquely designed to stimulate and challenge our imaginations. What distinguishes literary texts from other kinds of texts is the way that creative writers use language in very unique, often confusing ways. This is also the thing that can frustrate students most about reading literature. Because authors often make it a point not to tell us explicitly what their texts me, many people find their ambiguity to be troubling, even unsettling.
In this module, you will learn about the basic history of short fiction and the literary movements that have contributed to the development of fiction in English literature. Most importantly, you will be introduced to some basic approaches to reading actively which will help you to identify and respond to the interpretive challenges posed in works of short fiction. You will learn to apply your complex reasoning skills by developing a written analysis of a work of fiction. Analytical writing is grounded in strong critical thinking and attention to specifics in supporting ideas. The word analysis literally means to break something down into parts. A scientist may analyze a chemical compound to determine the elements from which it is made. Similarly, analyzing literature — and learning to write analytically about literature — consists of reading for specific elements and noticing how those elements are assembled to form a whole work. An effective literary analysis involves active reading and complex reasoning skills.(1)
The genre of fiction consists of written works of any length that narrate events that are mainly imaginary. Of course, many works of fiction are inspired by and often incorporate “real world” events. Nevertheless, a work of fiction is the product of the author’s imagination. As discussed in Module 1, the important thing to remember about works of fiction is that they are fundamentally metaphorical in nature. Works of fiction offer their readers the opportunity to follow them as they complete the proposition, “Imagine the world as if…” By portraying or representing unique characters, conflicts, and imaginary worlds to readers, fiction writers provide us with the opportunity to reflect back on the ways that we view our own “real-world” conflicts and perhaps offer us opportunities to imagine new ways of thinking, acting, and living in our own world.
Many works of fiction aim to be realistic in that the stories attempt to represent people and society as the author perceives them to be. However, other fictional works may aim to create more fantasticalrealities. Such works may take the form of myths and legends or more contemporary fantasy literature. Fiction may take the form of a novel, a novella, or a short story. Some of the earliest novels were even published as serials , stories which were printed as short chapters in newspapers and magazines before being released as a whole book.
The origins of the short story may be traced to the oral traditions of many cultures, whether in the origin stories (sometimes called myths) of indigenous cultures, Greek drama, or European epics (long, narrative poems). A few early examples of short stories printed separately between 1790 and 1810 exist, but the first collections of short stories appeared between 1810 and 1830 in several countries around the same time. One of the earliest short stories was by the American writer Charles Brockden Brown. Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist , a fragment of what was intended to be a larger work, was published from 1803–1805. Other U.S. authors such as Washington Irving (author of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”), Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allen Poe, further popularized the short story in America. In Europe, Thomas Hardy (England), Guy de Maupassant (France), and Anton Chekhov (Russia) were, and are, considered to be masters of the short story.
The short story cemented its status as a commercial success with the rise of printed journals and magazines in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, writers such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf, and James Joyce, to name but a few modern writers, refined and stretched the formal structures and literary styles of fiction, elevating the genre from popular status to be considered high art as well. In contemporary times, while novels remain popular, the short story seems to have an increasing readership with subgenres such as micro-fiction, flash fiction or nanofiction (super short stories), and graphic fiction (illustrated stories) continuing to broaden the appeal of the genre. (1)