"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Monday, December 6, 2021

Reading, thinking, and writing about literature

Reading notes: This Thing Called Literature: Reading, thinking, writing

By Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle (Routledge, 2015)

1 Studying literature

[....]How does literature illuminate these questions [Hamlet's soliloquy] and help us to think critically about self-destruction, not only in the context of the life of an individual (the self-destructiveness of drug addiction or self-harm, for example, or other damaging, obsessive behaviour), but also with regard to the behaviour of communities, societies or states more generally (the apparent blind determination to destroy the environment, for instance, to maintain the alleged purity of some ethnic, racial or nationalist identity, or to seek revenge even or perhaps especially to one's own detriment)....

Politics of literature, literature of politics

[....]Literature has to do with the experience of limits: it probes, delves, tests what is sayable and what it is not possible to say.

Life and death

[....]Most of the literary works that are worth reading are by dead people. Dead people have vast amounts to tell us. There is something ghostly about literary studies, then, and it is not surprising that so many novels, plays and poems have to do with the return of the dead, with haunting or being haunted. Reading involves what the novelist and poet Margaret Atwood calls 'negotiating with the dead' (see Atwood 2002). The literary critic Stephen Greenblatt calls it 'speaking' with them: Most of the literary works that are worth reading are by dead people. Dead people have vast amounts to tell us. There is something ghostly about literary studies, then, and it is not surprising that so many novels, plays and poems have to do with the return of the dead, with haunting or being haunted. Reading involves what the novelist and poet Margaret Atwood calls 'negotiating with the dead' (see Atwood 2002). The literary critic Stephen Greenblatt calls it 'speaking' with them: his book Shakespearean Negotiations opens, 'I began with the desire to speak with the dead' (Greenblatt 1988, 1). This is not a matter of the spiritualist or merely fantastical. Rather it has to do with recognizing literature as a great treasure-house of culture, memory and wisdom, not least concerning death, dying and mourning. book Shakespearean Negotiations opens, 'I began with the desire to speak with the dead' (Greenblatt 1988, 1). This is not a matter of the spiritualist or merely fantastical. Rather it has to do with recognizing literature as a great treasure-house of culture, memory and wisdom, not least concerning death, dying and mourning....

Literature and magical thinking

[....]The study of literature entails the learning and putting into practice of rigorous protocols and methods of reading, critical argumentation and demonstration. This is one of the ways in which, as we will suggest, literary studies is akin to legal studies, and the art of the literary critic closely corresponds with that of the lawyer....

Creative reading

[....]To do it well you need a pencil and you need to annotate, underline or make notes as you go. To read well is to develop a writing in response. To read critically and creatively is to acknowledge and reckon with what the text is saying, with what you (and other critics) think the text is doing or trying to do; and it is also to add something of your own, to bring your own critical and creative concerns to bear on the text that you are reading.

     If you fail to annotate a novel or short story or play as you read it, you will forget what it was you found interesting or funny or sad or perplexing, and you won't be able to find those particularly exciting, enticing, intriguing passages or moments again so easily. You may think you will, but you won't....

[....]you cannot expect to spot every key phrase or moment on a first reading. 

     But you might think to note, for example: 

• striking phrases, arresting metaphors, unusual wordings; 

• significant events or changes in the direction of the narrative; 

• the recurrence of a motif, topic or figure that intrigues you (flowers, say, or telephones, or moments of humour); 

• moments of self-reflexivity – moments where a text seems to be referring to itself, for example where a poem says something about the poem you are reading or about poetry or language more generally; 

• significant alterations in narrative perspective (you might, for example, mark places where you feel that the voice of a narrator falters or shifts, perhaps by feigning not to know something, or by moving suddenly into the point of view of one or other of the characters); 

• significant alterations in temporal perspective (you might mark a flashback or analepsis, a flashforward or prolepsis, the incursion of a scene of memory or the past in the midst of the present, and so on).

[....]Creative reading is not about inventing things that are not in the text but about inventing new ways of thinking about things that are in the text, in relation to things beyond the text.

[....]In creative reading you might find yourself doing all sorts of unexpected things, including:

• Getting absorbed, even mildly obsessed by the play and meaning of a certain word, phrase, image, figure or idea that would not necessarily occur to other readers: you start tracking it across the text and this focus on a detail can lead you to a fresh and exciting perspective on the work as a whole.

• Making links between the text you are reading and another text that is by the same author but that is not usually – or perhaps has never previously been – juxtaposed with the primary text (a short story by D.H. Lawrence, for example, might be linked to a letter he wrote years afterwards regarding something ostensibly quite different).

• Making links between the text you are reading and a text by a different author (for example, the way that, from its title onwards, Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust evokes T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and the way that the novel responds throughout to the collected works of Charles Dickens).

• Making links between the text you are reading and another, perhaps very different text or object (a poem by Sylvia Plath, for example, and a science book about the moon or a piece of modern sculpture): the principal challenge here is to ensure that, however perverse they may initially appear, these links are demonstrable, compelling and convincing....

Part I Reading

3 Reading a novel

[....]Ishiguro generates immense pathos [in Never Let Me Go] through this technique of narratorial blindness.

[....]Only in novels do we get this verbal richness that allows us, as the novelist David Foster Wallace puts it, to 'leap over the walls of self' (Wallace 1998, 51).

Questions for the novel

• What work is the title doing? Are there other paratextual features of the book that are of interest (a preface or notes or introduction or acknowledgements, and so on)? 

• In what ways does the novel examine, play with, subvert or in other ways explore the relationship between language and representation (or text and world)? 

• What other texts does the novel evoke, develop, ironize, challenge? What genres does it engage or identify with, mimic, satirize or deviate from? 

• How are characters represented and developed? What kinds of language and rhetorical effects are used to describe them? What is individual or idiomatic about the way in which a particular character speaks? 

• What kind of narrator is employed? Is it first-person or third-person? How much does the narrator seem to know? Is s/he omniscient, telepathic, unreliable? Ironic? Playful? Is s/he a character in his or her own right? Is there more than one? How does the narrator interact (if at all) with the characters? 

• How is the narrative focalized (through whose eyes are the events seen and understood)? Whose language and perspective does the narrator use to describe events, characters, objects, scenes? 

• What kinds of lacunae are involved in the narrator's perspective? What does s/he fail to understand or perceive? Does s/he withhold information? How (and how do you know)? Why? 

• And finally, how about some of the issues we have not had a chance to discuss here, such as the uncanny, humour, shock, dream, sadness, terror, love, eroticism, place, ghosts, God, the future, wordplay?

4 Reading a short story

[....]To be brief, then. That is the thing. As Adrian Hunter suggests, the short story involves 'the art of saying less but meaning more' (Hunter 2007, 2). In the Introduction to his Collected Stories, the short story writer V.S. Pritchett argues that the short story is concerned with 'concision, intensity, reducing possible novels to essentials'. He comments that the short story writer is 'a mixture of reporter, aphoristic wit, moralist and poet' relies on 'poetic tautness and clarity', according to Elizabeth Bowen, another great exponent of the form, and it 'stand[s] on the edge of prose'. It is, she says, 'nearer to drama than to the novel' (Bowen 1950, 38).

[....]short stories often turn on a single event, or, more particularly, on a moment of recognition or awakening. James Joyce famously referred to such moments as 'epiphanies', borrowing this term from the Christian idea of a 'manifestation' or 'showing forth' in which Jesus Christ is revealed to the Magi.

[....]that short story writers 'see by the light of the flash': their art is 'the art of the only thing one can be sure of – the present moment'.

[....]The 'flash' has been variously described, in fact. Pritchett observes that the short story is 'the glancing form of fiction' (Pritchett 1982, xi). Wallace talks in an interview about stories coming together with 'the click of a well-made box' (Wallace 2012, 35). He borrows this idea from a letter by W.B. Yeats on the idea of a poem coming 'right with a click like a closing box' (Yeats 1940, 24).

[....]points we have tried to emphasize in this chapter:

• Think small: the short story's brevity has particular consequences for its form. Often allusive and elliptical rather than discursive in manner, short stories tend to focus on a small number of characters and are often based on a single incident. They often involve a sense of epiphany or revelation even as they complicate any sense of resolution or closure.

• Begin with the title, or at least come back to it at the end: what does it tell us? How does it work? In what ways does the story elaborate on, depart from, resolve or even resist its own title?

• Be suggestible: if short fiction involves 'elliptical suggestiveness' then it is important to pay careful attention to nuances of phrasing and word choice. What kinds of denotations, implications, associations and connections are produced by and through individual words and phrases in the story? Attend to what Bowen calls the 'poetic' – effects of syntactical deformation, unusual metaphor, striking turns of phrase, arresting images.

• Look out for repetition: there are often key words or phrases that recur or seem to stand out in a short story. A single word (like 'good' in O'Connor's story ["A Good Man is Hard to Find") can often provide

a way into thinking and writing about the story. 

• Talk about the plot: when writing about a work of short fiction, it is often helpful to summarize the plot (as we have done in the case of the two stories we consider in this chapter). It is always instructive and often surprising. It is a way of finding out what you think, what matters to you in the story under consideration. The way that you retell the plot is never innocent or neutral: you are inevitably being selective and partial, and thus, in effect, already foregrounding a particular reading. 

• Be alert to effects of intertextuality: look for ways that the story seems to be alluding to, echoing or explicitly referring to stories, poems, songs or other kinds of text. How do these echoes, allusions, references function? How do they enrich or complicate the text? What are their


• Ask yourself: What is the most striking, memorable or significant aspect of this story? Your answer may have to do with its overall impact on you, its 'single effect' as Poe called it; or it may have to do with something much more peripheral or micrological (a particularly powerful image or situation or idea or word or phrase, for example). Either way, you should think about a way of incorporating this, when writing about the story. 

• What is the time? Or, in more precise terms, what is the temporal perspective of the story? Does it locate itself historically, for example? Is the narrator looking back on something that happened long before, or very recently? (It may even be that the story is being narrated in the present tense.) How much time is covered in the course of the narrative? In what ways does the story play with time – dealing, for example, with events over many months or years in a single paragraph, but elsewhere devoting an extended passage to what happens one afternoon or even at one moment? 

• Who's talking? Consider the importance of the figure of the narrator, narrative voice and narrative perspective. Is this a third-, first- or even second-person narrative? Is it omniscient, telepathic, unreliable, involved, detached, and so on? And what about dialogue in the story? In what ways do verbal exchanges between characters deepen our sense of them as characters, but also contribute to the action and atmosphere of the story?

5 Reading a play

[....]Perhaps no one matches Shakespeare when it comes to creating characters who seem alive and singular, pulsing with an interior life This is why the critic Harold Bloom identifies the plays of Shakespeare with 'the invention of the human'. Our sense of self, of having an inner world of thoughts and feelings that we can articulate to ourselves, is difficult to imagine without Shakespeare, for in important respects, Bloom suggests, he has 'invented us' (Bloom 1999, xviii). He has made us what we are by putting us, or putting people like us, on stage. Indeed, more disquietingly, Bloom contends that Shakespeare's plays 'read [us] better than [we] read them' (xx).    [....]As Bloom summarizes it: 'we are read by works we cannot resist. We need to exert ourselves and read Shakespeare as strenuously as we can, while knowing that his plays will read us more energetically still. They read us definitively' (xx). To read Shakespeare well is to realize that he has 'flooded [our] consciousness' (xx), endlessly prompting us to understand ourselves and others in new ways.

[....]1 Read the play itself.

[....]2 See the play. If you cannot see it on stage or on screen, stage it in your head. Stage it in your head anyway, constantly, as you are reading.

[....]4 Every play tells us about the world beyond the stage – in the case of Romeo and Juliet, about the nature of love, the deadly power of names and the strangulating hold of family ('O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? / Deny thy father and refuse thy name … '), the tragic potential for a message to be read by the wrong person, or not to arrive at all, and so on. But every play is also about playing. Every play has so-called metatheatrical or metadramatic dimensions, in other words it has things to tell us about the nature of theatre and acting. The most explicit example of this is no doubt the 'play within a play' (such as the performance of 'Pyramus and Thisbe' in A Midsummer Night's Dream, or 'The Mousetrap' in Hamlet), but a play always contains self-reflexive moments, moments in which the audience or reader is prompted (to use that stagey word again) to reflect on the nature of acting and 'playing'....

Part II Thinking

6 Thinking about literature

[....]4. Thinking about literature can also entail not thinking. The speaker in one of the most famous lyric poems in English, John Keats's 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' (1820), looks longingly, even enviously, at an ancient Greek urn. The urn is so quietly, implacably beautiful, and so mysterious, he thinks. And as he sighs, or complains, or enthuses, it 'tease[s] us out of thought' (l.44). It overwhelms him. We might understand Keats's speaker to be representing not only a person looking at an urn but also a person reading an artwork or poem.

[....]In which case, here is a thought: when we read a poem, or when we read a certain kind of poem, we are not so much thinking as not thinking, being teased out of thought, as well as into it. In a letter Keats calls this 'negative capability', the ability to remain in 'uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason' (Keats 2005, 60).

5. Thinking about literature teases us into thought.

[....]We might surmise that the urn is like eternity because it has lasted a very long time: it therefore seems 'eternal' by comparison with the relatively brief life-span of a human being. But how does it 'tease' us? One way to read the verb 'tease' is as a kind of mockery: we feel as if an ancient work of art 'mocks' us because it reminds us of our mortality, of the really very limited extent of our time on this earth – the several-thousand-year life-span of the urn makes a mockery of our But we might say that the urn 'teases' the speaker in another way. The OED notes that the original sense of 'tease' is 'To separate or pull asunder the fibres of; to comb or card (wool, flax, etc.) in preparation for spinning; to open out by pulling asunder; to shred' (OED 'tease', v1: 1.a.). Like infinity, the concept of eternity messes with your head, pulls it asunder.

7 Thinking critically

[....] thinking and writing critically should entail (so to speak) being attentive to some of the following: 

     • Connections, tensions and oppositions – some of which may be odd or surprising. 

• Historical context – in this case, the early twentieth century. 

• The strange nature of literary language – the power of rhetorical figures and tropes, such as storytelling, metaphorical language, and so on. 

• The dynamic possibilities of writing itself as an act or activity, an appreciation of 'how to do things with words' (Austin 1962).

Part III Writing....

8 Writing an essay....

[....]Rather than writing an essay on how to write an essay, which sounds like an oddly circular enterprise, we propose instead to offer a series of fuses that might help ignite your essay, or reignite your thoughts once you have written a draft of it.

[....]You need help.

[....]Take notes as you read.

[....]Write a letter.

[....]essay as a letter helps you to keep in mind the importance of the reader, and of writing in a lucid and appealing way.

[....]Set things up in your opening.

[....]Once you have a first draft of your essay, stop!

     Your concluding paragraph should worry you.

[....]A strong ending usually involves at least two ingredients: (1) it performs a sort of valedictory handshake with the essay question: recapping on how the question has indeed been the subject of the preceding pages; (2) it does not simply feel like box-ticking: think of putting an extra squeeze into that handshake, add a final clinching quotation and critical comment, and/or note some way in which, given the opportunity, the topic might be explored further or in slightly different ways.

9 Creative writing 

The impossible

1 Time-travel is possible....

2 The dead can return....

3 Inhabiting someone else's mind, sharing their thoughts and feelings, happens all the time in literature....

4 Finding oneself transformed into a gigantic insect is what happens in Kafka's story 'The Metamorphosis', but metamorphosis – whereby one person or creature changes into some other person or creature, into someone else, or into some thing else – is far more widely present in works of literature than you might think....

Literary works such as Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream or Dostoevsky's The Double, for example, are not just dreams or daydreams, but have a reflexive or analytic dimension of their own – they are about dreaming, they refer to themselves as fictions, they have in some ways as much to tell us about psychoanalysis, as psychoanalysis might have to tell us about them.

     Just as psychoanalysis began with Freud analysing himself, and just as his strange science came to be known as 'the talking cure', so creative writing might be conceived as a peculiar sort of auto-analysis. It is also a form of self-teaching that has to do with what is 'other' to the self.

     'My own words take me by surprise and teach me what to think' (Merleau-Ponty 1964, 88; our translation). this is one of the disarming things about creative writing: it is never entirely personal, fully calculated and completely foreseen. The writer is always dicing with the unforeseeable. You have to be ready. 

     Get ready now.

10 Writing short fiction

....What follows is a polemical A–Z for writing short fiction.

a. Think in advance about what kind of writing might be worth the effort....

b. Manuals of creative writing tend to harp on about 'writing from your own experience', but this often opens up a can of worms. Hardly anyone – your mother or father or lover, if you're lucky – is really interested in Your Own Experience....

c. What is important is often what is difficult or painful....

d. What spurs your writing need not be named as such....

e. Humour is something else. Not everyone expresses it in equal measure or has the same sense of it....

f. Death is the only real authority for a piece of creative writing. This is Walter Benjamin's point in his great essay 'The Storyteller'. He writes: 'Death is the sanction of everything that the storyteller can tell. He has borrowed his authority from death' (Benjamin 1969, 94)....

g. It is often said that you should show, not tell. This is not bad advice, as writing comes alive when an idea or a place or a scene or a person is not just described but put into play, set in action. You don't have to explain everything. Don't dillydally with your scene-setting: don't, whatever you do, try to be Henry James....

h. Remember Ernest Hemingway's 'iceberg theory' (seven-eighths of the story should be hidden) or what Bennett and Royle are tempted to call the holey text. Say more by saying less....

i. The traumatic always goes beyond speech, beyond writing, even if it is something seemingly tiny or banal (the cruelty of something a sibling says or does, a bunch of flowers smashed by the rain). That's one of the ways in which creative writing, writing a piece of fiction, engages with the impossible.

j. ....Deconstruction, then, has a special place when it comes to thinking about literature (or creative writing). Literature is slippery, ghostly, without essence: this is what deconstruction helps us understand. It is about how literary works open up, or open us up, to experiencing the impossible....

k. You should write on your nerve, as D.H. Lawrence would say, write as often and as much as you can....

l. It can be like dreaming – if you move on waking, you'll start to forget it....

m. Once you have a first draft you are in paradise....

n. For then comes the second draft, and the second draft is very often more a matter of cutting than of adding....

o. If you say something or have a character say something in ten words rather than twenty, or in five rather than ten, you are making progress....

p. ....Elizabeth Bowen's insight that 'speech is what characters do to each other' (Bowen 1962, 253). Dialogue needs to do as well as say. And you need to show how characters are doing things to each other by speaking....

q. ....You do not need to have selected and crafted an epiphany for your text, but a careful reader is likely to be alert to it in any case, even if only unconsciously. 'Epiphany' is not the only term for this. An alternative name might be the black box of the text, the point where everything is gathered together, analysis of which yields a crucial understanding of the structure, flight and fate of the writing.

r. ....Elizabeth Bowen claims that 'a story, to be a story, must have a turning-point'

s. ....whole beauty (and, as we might say, the hole beauty) of the thing is, as Edgar Allan Poe recognized, that you can read the piece 'at one sitting', and that it all comes down to the production of 'a certain unique or single effect' (Poe 1965, 106–8). Think small....

t. The title.... A good title is a ticket to pleasure, a kind of promise of what is to come....

u. Sometimes a title can actually function as a piece of wisdom for writing short stories, as in Grace Paley's witty and provoking 'Enormous Changes at the Last Minute'.

v. ....'Evan Connell said once that he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places' (Carver 1986, 24).... need to tell a story. And a story has to have an ending. Your readers will be looking for a narrative. Indeed they will seek to impose narrative coherence on your work even if you do not.

x. Rather than fret about having an ending that is sufficiently 'dramatic', 'revelatory', 'final', and so on, you might think about ending in a more low-key, unexpected way. Some of the most powerful endings to short stories are endings that do not really end – so-called 'open endings', or endings that turn away from the principal action and concerns of the story and invite the reader (perhaps in an annoying or disquieting way) to focus on something else....

z. ....'In poetry,' writes Wallace Stevens, 'you must love the words, the ideas and images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all' 


Intertextuality: a term coined by Julia Kristeva to refer to the fact that texts are constituted by what Roland Barthes calls a 'tissue of citations', that every word of every text refers to other texts and so on, limitlessly. Often used in an imprecise or weak sense to talk about echoes or allusions.....

Prolepsis: the rhetorical term to describe the way that a narrative or other text (including a critical essay) looks ahead, anticipates, tells you something or tells you about something that is going to happen later. Prolepsis is a rough equivalent of what film-goers call the 'flashforward'....


6 December 2021

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