How do you write about literature, English

How do you write about literature?

You can write about literature in as many ways as you can write literature itself. For example, you could write a book review, telling the readers of your publication whether you think it's worth buying a new biography. You could write a screenplay based on a short story. You could write an essay narrating your personal responses to a poem. You could write a sequel to Gone With the Wind (oh, wait--that's been done). You could write philosophical essays based on concepts taken from early 19th-century American literature. You could...

Well, you get the picture. In fact, you could argue that all literature is, in fact, writing about other literature. Every author is influenced by other authors, and consciously--or unconsciously--makes use of that influence in his or her own work. Indeed, a good idea for a paper is considering how one author "reworks" a previous one.

Taking this concept even further, there are those who will tell you that literary criticism, even the lowly eleventh-grade English paper, is literature, since it's an act of imagination influenced by a previous author.

Great, but let's get back to that paper idea. I have one due in three days.

Writing about literature for class

Certainly the situation in which most people find themselves writing about literature is in English class. And while many teachers create a wide range of writing assignments, such as those we just talked about, the standard assignment for high school and college classes remains the analytical essay.

Let's say your class is reading Romeo and Juliet, and you are assigned to write a paper about it. Perhaps your teacher has given you a list of possible paper topics, or perhaps you are supposed to come up with your own. And now you are in a panic, because you don't understand Romeo and Juliet and you are expected to explain "what it means" to someone else--namely your teacher, who knows "what it means" already and is going to tell you you're wrong!

OK, take a deep breath. I believe that this panic, this lit-o-phobia, is almost always brought about by one cause:

You are asking the wrong questions.


Questions to avoid...and questions to ask
Let's begin by listing the questions you should never ask yourself when you're studying literature:

What is Shakespeare trying to say?

What does Romeo and Juliet (or the Friar Lawrence speech, or Mercutio's death scene) mean?

I'll bet this comes as a surprise to some of you. I'll bet some of you thought these were the only questions to ask...

So, why shouldn't you ask them?

The question "What is Shakespeare trying to say?" is asking us to do something impossible: figure out exactly what Shakespeare was thinking when he was writing Romeo and Juliet. Can you say what the person sitting next to you has in her mind right now? Can you even definitively explain what's going on in your own mind? I can't... How could a reader, then, be expected to know Shakespeare's mind four hundred years after he wrote? No wonder you are panicking.

Solution: Don't worry about Shakespeare's intentions. Look at Romeo and Juliet and ask yourself how specific scenes or techniques affect the play itself. Why does Mercutio have to die? NOT "What is Shakespeare trying to say with Mercutio's death?", but "What does Mercutio's death do for the play itself? What effects does it achieve within the play?"

The phrase "trying to say" suggests that Shakespeare has, in fact, not said what he really wanted to. It suggests he's writing in some kind of code (that is, literary language) that prevents him from saying "what he really means." So it's your job to decode that meaning, and you're irritated that he didn't just come out and say it!

Solution: Don't think of literature as a code. Authors aren't spies trying to smuggle top-secret information into the free world. Assume that what you read is exactly what Shakespeare wanted to say, in exactly the way he wanted to say it. The question then becomes, again, what are the effects of those choices for the play? How can examining the Nurse's language, for instance, help us understand something about Romeo and Juliet as a whole? (OK, maybe the "code" idea could work for Soviet authors, but that's another story.)

The question "What does it mean?" suggests that there is only one meaning. Your job is to find (decode) that meaning, and, as on a multiple-choice test, your answer is either right or wrong. This view of literature makes writing a paper very scary indeed, because Romeo and Juliet is complicated--so how on earth are you going to boil it down to a couple of sentences?

Solution: Remember that a work of literature has many possible meanings. Not all of these meanings have yet been discovered. In fact, you--yes you--can discover a new meaning in every work you read! What you have to do in your paper is prove that your interpretation is valid.

In other words, your Romeo and Juliet paper is part of an evolving conversation about the play that's already gone on for hundreds of years and will continue (hopefully) forever. You're not expected to end the conversation, but to fuel it.

Posted Date: 5/2/2013 2:34:37 AM | Location : United States







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