26 Reading #1: What We Write About When We Write About Literature

What We Write About When We Write About Literature: An instructor’s letter to students

Dear Students:

Do you remember, like me, writing book reports back in the third grade? As kids, we all knew that the purpose of the book report was to prove to the teacher that we really had read the book. So, our book reports were, basically, summaries. If we wanted to add our own flair, we ended the report with a sentence like, “This really, really was the very best book I ever read” or maybe, “I hated reading this, but I read it anyway. If you’re smart, you won’t read it.”

No More Plot Summaries

Here’s some good news: We don’t need to prove that we’ve read the book anymore! When literary scholars and college students write about literature, it is assumed that they have read the work. Not only that, it also assumed that the people (usually professors, students, and other scholars) who will read what we write have also read the darned book. Straight summaries, therefore, are out.

Share Your Insights

If we don’t write a summary, though, what do we write? Whether we thought it was a good book or not? Not exactly — interpreting or analyzing literature is not the same as reviewing it. In interpreting or analyzing literature, what’s more important than whether you liked or disliked the work is your consideration of the meaning of the work. What does it mean to you? What can you share from your interpretation that will show this work of literature in a new or expanded way to the readers of your paper?

As college students and scholars, when we write about literature we are sharing our interpretation. We’re sharing the meaning (or meanings) that we derived from it. If you assume that your readers have read the piece you’re analyzing, then they’re not reading your paper to find out what the work was about and they’re not reading it to find out whether it would be worth their time to read it. Why, then, would they want to read what you have to say? To share in your ideas.

A Rewarding Discussion

As someone who loves literature — and loves reading about literature — I often wonder if students realize what gifts they present when they turn in papers which honestly share their ideas about a work of fiction or poetry. My hours spent before the computer, cup of tea in hand, scores of email messages with Writing 102 papers, are a delight. What can be more stimulating and rewarding for someone who enjoys literature than to read what others have to say about it? It’s like participating in a good book discussion — only better, for in writing, honest and careful scholars often probe and develop thoughts more fully than they would orally.

Let Your Questions Lead You

What ideas, responses, or reactions should you share? Generally, it seems safe to start with a question: what is there in my reading of this piece that will add something to someone else’s experience of it? There are many different schools of criticism, and you’re welcome to consider any of these approaches while you read and write about literature in this class. (See Literary Criticism for examples and descriptions.)

Focus on the Significant

Rather than deciding ahead of time which approach to use, you may find it more helpful when you write about literature to reflect on what seemed significant to you. Sometimes it might be the form — a rhyme scheme or the plot structure. Maybe you respond strongly to a repeated symbol or to the way the piece addresses a specific theme. Sometimes the piece will resonate with your own personal experiences. Other times, considering the historical or biographical contexts of a piece will reveal it more clearly.

What Stands Out to You?

Before, or while you write, ask yourself: what stands out to you in reading this work of literature? What did you respond to most persistently, most deeply? If your answer is nothing, then either look again, or — better yet — write about a different piece, something which does affect you or stay with you in some way. Sometimes, look for the ideas in a piece that you can’t shake off. Or for images which you keep seeing when you close your eyes. Or for characters that you wish you could get to know and talk with. Then, ask yourself, what is it about these ideas, images, characters that has grabbed ahold of you? What is it about them that is significant to your understanding of this piece?

In your paper, develop and present that something about the work that seems significant to you. As you do so, use examples from the work of literature. You can refer to what others have said or written about it. You can refer to your own personal experiences that relate to the meaning you’re trying to express. You can refer to other sources, such as biographical, historical, sociological, or psychological works, which help you expand and present your ideas. As you do this, you’ll be leaving your happy reader with an expanded view of the piece of literature you’re writing about.

Thank you for sharing your insights!


Cathy G. Thwing


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