Reading Literature "Like a Prof."; or, Are the Curtains Just Blue?
English teachers and professors are often accused of overanalyzing or "mining" for symbols that the author may or may not have intentionally placed in a text, as illustrated by the meme above. This accusation, however, not only demeans the agency of the reader in relationship to a text, but it also belittles the beauty and complexity of language to communicate on multiple levels. In fact, language is symbolic at its very core. After all, there is no direct relationship between that which we call a dog and a physical dog itself; the word dog is merely a combination of sounds that we collectively agree represents the animal in question, but more on that later. Since language is so heavily dependent upon symbols, it should come as no surprise that many stories are loaded (intentionally or not) with symbols that can be read on multiple levels. But, of course, learning to read symbolically is a skill that must be honed, like any talent. And, like any talent, the "haters" are usually those who don't possess the skill and are jealous of your wicked symbolism skills.
Oh, and by the way, if you think something is symbolic, then it IS symbolic! To reinforce this point, I defer to John Green:
Well, there you have it: authorial intent is not that important! As Mr. Green states, "The book doesn't exist for the benefit of the author; the book exists for the benefit of you, the reader!"
Phew, now that we have that out of the way (we do, right?), let's move on to the meat of Foster's book and discuss the hero's journey, with the help of this TED-Ed video (we'll get to the "bad vampire fiction" later):
Sounds familiar, right? Isn't that, like, every blockbuster ever made?
That's because all these stories share the same original model, or archetype.
What is an archetype, you ask? (What do you mean you didn't?) Well, an archetype is an original model from which copies are made, or a prototype: the "original" story or character.
Isn't it Ironic? (Dontcha think?)
We all know the Alanis Morrissette song, "Ironic." Okay, well, if you were a child of the 1990s, you probably know the Alanis Morissette song, "Ironic." And, if you're a Millennial, you may have heard it on a classic rock station or Lilith Fair playlist on Pandora. In any event, this song has helped perpetuate an entire generation of people who are confused about the meaning of irony. The song is called "Ironic" and it presents a series of situations which are supposedly also ironic, but most of them are merely, in fact, unfortunate. But, perhaps, that is the ultimate irony of the song - that none of the examples are ironic... which is ironic. Mind=blown!
Well, in case you weren't around in 1995 (which I guess you weren't), here is Alanis Morissette's "classic" (Man, I feel old!), "Ironic":
Now, I'm going to date myself here. I think I was in seventh grade when this song was popular, and it was probably the first inkling I had toward the English teaching profession because I recognized that Alanis' examples exhibited a flawed conception of irony, and I even discussed it with my teacher who agreed with me. However, it took some eighteen years for someone to take the initiative to correct Alanis' misconceptions and make the song actually "ironic." Ah, sweet vindication!
So, do you see some of the differences? The examples in the parody actually fit the definition of irony, which according to the Literary Bible, the Bedford Glossary of Literary Terms, means "aliterary device that uses contradictory statements or situations to reveal a reality different from what appears to be true." So is "rain on your wedding day" ironic? Only if you select a place where it is known not to rain. How about a traffic jam when you're already late? Only if you designed the road to bypass traffic or selected an alternate route to avoid the potential of having one on your regular course. Get it? Got it? Good.
Okay, we're done picking on Alanis. What? We're not? Okay, maybe we can keep going, but I am betraying a fellow Canadian here! Oh, you don't care? Well, here's an Irish comedian who helps solidify my point. He also uses the difference between a metaphor and a simile to help win an argument. Awesome!
So, what am I getting at here? Foster claims that "irony trumps everything." Now, he's not saying that irony gives everything an amazing hairdo, like Donald Trump, but rather that it outranks anything else, such as a trump card or suit in many card games. Therefore, since irony is defined by an occurrence that is opposite to what is expected (i.e. boarding a plane to escape a life-threatening situation, but the plane crashes immediately after takeoff), and since irony outranks virtually everything else, when symbols are used ironically, you can throw everything else Foster has so didactically told you out the window (of the airplane, causing the crash). Irony wins.
The Other "R's": Writing and Revising
Writing IS Revising: Trust the Process
Ernest Hemingway is famously credited with asserting that "the first draft of anything is shit." While not overly academic language, I am not one to argue with the man who wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls. We will explore Hemingway's sentiment on writing by reading a selection from Anne Lamott's famous tome on writing, Bird by Bird.
As Lamott says, don't get depressed if you think your first draft is terrible; many are. Rather, trust the process. Leave it for a while, come back to it, and take a scalpel to it. Trim the fat, and keep the heart.
Of course, trusting the process is only effective if you have enough time for it to be a process (instead of writing your "first draft" the night before the deadline), which brings me to some of the common pitfalls of writing, illustrated here by Charlie Brown, Lucy, Schroeder, and Linus in the song "Book Report" from the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown:
Alright, which common writing fault does each character represent?
Well, Charlie Brown probably suffers from the most common problem: procrastination. We are naturally gifted at finding justifications for doing (or not doing) what we want, so it takes a lot of self-discipline to do what we have to do before doing what we want to do. It is much easier to see the faults of our writing, though, after leaving it for a spell and coming back to it.
Lucy commits another frequent error, one that drives teachers and professors crazy: adding filler to reach the length requirement. Length requirements are problematic for this reason, but they are necessary in order to push students to dig deeper and elaborate on their thoughts and opinions. However, this doesn't work if students are simply adding filler, so, when revising, ensure that you cut the filler.
Now, Schroeder likes to go on "rabbit trails" (tee hee). Rather than following the prompt at hand, he decides to write about something he is more passionate about: Robin Hood. Although rather exaggerated, this is a common mistake, as well, and another that results from lack of revision. These "rabbit trails" generally result from brainstorming during our first draft and can help us find our way to interesting and insightful ideas, but we need to go back and excise the "stream of consciousness," organizing our ideas so our readers can follow them and be persuaded to our ideas.
And Linus? He puts forth ample thought, research, and effort in order to form a strong, well argued essay. Be like Linus.
How to Write a "Lit" Lit. Essay
You have all written many different types of papers during your scholastic career, from personal narratives to book reports to lab reports. There are many different types of literary essays, which we'll cover, but they all have one thing in common: THEY ARE ALWAYS PERSUASIVE. Rather than summarizing data, or what happens in the story, you are creating an argument about the significance of what happens. And we all know that an argument is opinion, rather than fact, based; I mean, it's not an argument unless there's a counterargument. For instance, one cannot argue that the Gatsby's light across the harbor is green. We know it's green; Fitzgerald tells us so. However, one might argue that the green light across the harbor is a constant reminder for Gatsby of Daisy, and for us of the American Dream, a dream that is within view but just out of reach, and no matter how hard we try to cross the harbor and reach the green light, we will always "beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
I began this unit with reading because, naturally, active close reading is where you garner your ideas and create opinions and arguments about a text, and this type of reading is a skill that must be practiced and developed. So, now that you are all master readers, how do you take your arguments about what you've read and persuade others that you're right and you didn't just make this stuff up? By writing a kick-butt literary essay, of course! What makes a kick-butt literary essay, you ask? Well, it just so happens that I anticipated your question. Here are the "building blocks" of a kick-butt literary essay:
You've all heard teachers harp incessantly about the importance of the thesis, but what exactly constitutes a strong thesis. Here is a video I compiled a few years back to help explain the thesis (with some help from Monty Python, of course).
What? You mean just merely contradicting one's opponent is not an argument? That is correct. As the video argues (tee hee), an argument is "a collective series of statements to establish a definite proposition," whereas contradiction is "just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says." Unfortunately, however, it seems we have far more contradicting than arguing in politics these days.
2. Topic Sentences
If your thesis is the cornerstone that supports your entire paper, the topic sentences are the mortar that holds it together. Remember Schroeder's book report on Peter Rabbit, in which he goes off on a tangent about Robin Hood? Well, that wouldn't have happened if he had a strong thesis and topic sentences. Ideally, your topic sentences should be built into your detailed thesis, and then you begin each supporting paragraph with a subtopic of your thesis. For instance, if your thesis is that school lunch programs should be improved because they encourage poor nutritional habits, contribute to obesity, and support giant multinational corporations instead of local producers, your first supporting paragraph's topic sentence will be something to the effect that current school lunch programs encourage poor nutritional habits. It's a fairly straightforward concept, right? However, omitting topic sentences is one of the leading reasons essays lose their purpose and writers end up sounding like this.
3. Supporting Evidence
So you have your argument and it is structured and well-organized. You're done now, right? Well, not quite. Imagine walking into a courtroom as a lawyer and saying, "She's not guilty because she was at the movies the night of the murder, doesn't own a stapler like the one used as a murder weapon, and she is a pacifist. Case closed." What's the problem with that? It sounds like a pretty solid case. You guessed it: you presented no evidence. Evidence is the backbone of your argument, and without ample textual support the vultures of the literary world will pick at the bones of your frail and starving argument. So, how do you find textual support? By careful close reading and annotating, of course. In addition to keeping a reading journal, annotating the text is the best way to engage with the author and read actively. Here are a couple photos of the annotations in the opening chapter of my copy of The Handmaid's Tale.
Of course, as with a court case, you want to build your argument around the evidence presented, rather than try to fit the evidence to your argument. Sherlock Holmes warns Watson against this sort of logical fallacy in A Study in Scarlett: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts" (163).
Picture yourself driving down the interstate, guided by your GPS, but the GPS lady no longer gives you warning for your turns. Rather, she tells you to turn at the exact moment you reach the intersection. You have one of two options: you can either crank the wheel and try to figure out why she is taking you this direction, or you can go further, stop, turn around, and try to figure you why she is taking you this direction. If you write without transitions, you are this GPS lady. Your leading your reader along comfortably in one direction and then out of nowhere yank them down a completely different road without any warning. Before long, your reader will do what you would to the GPS lady and stop following. Use signposts: remind your readers where they've been and where they're headed, and they will be much more comfortable and eager to follow you on their journey. In fact, without transitions, your paper will likely go something like this:
5. Title, Introduction, and Conclusion
Of course, the title and introduction precede anything else I've talked about, and they are crucially important, but I put them down here at the bottom because it is possible that you could not have a title or introduction and still have a strong argument. It just wouldn't be presented in the most appealing way, and odds are that nobody would read it. What is the importance of a title and introduction, then? You need to catch your readers' attention and make them want to read what you have to say. If they are not intrigued after a sentence or two, they won't keep reading, regardless of how strong your argument is. Find an entertaining, creative way to hook your readers. Some effective tactics include anecdotes, statistics, questions, and current events. You introduction should also provide some context for your thesis.
A conclusion is equally important, if not more so. Your conclusion is your "closing argument" in your court case; you want to remind the jury how you've proven your case and leave them with something to think about. Atticus Finch's closing arguments in To Kill A Mockingbird accomplish this with expert precision.
And the title? Well, when was the last time you read something (not on the internet) that didn't have a title? Case closed.
You are all comma masters, no doubt, but since there are so many misunderstandings about comma usage, we're going to do a quick review.
For our first activity, I found this pun-tastic meme (I'm looking at you, here, Saxson and Kaylaa). I'm not sure if they were intentionally being ironic (for more on irony, see above), but see if you can spot the irony here:
For the record, the misapplied comma above is ineffective (but thankfully she didn't miss her period). Now, punctuate the meme correctly so that it is, indeed, "safe text."
Also for the record, when publishing a pedantic meme regarding commas on the interwebs, make sure said punctuation is used correctly. Noted?
Perhaps this video from Shmoop will help:
Now, for the most controversial comma (yes, grammar can be controversial): the Oxford Comma. There are legitimate arguments for its usage, or lack thereof, on both sides, but here's an example where its absence could cause confusion:
While recasting the sentence can often alleviate such confusion, MLA is currently in favor of utilizing the Oxford comma, so we will employ them in this class.
Okay, commas, colons, and semi (pronounced sem-E, with proper Canadian dialect) - colons down? Let's proceed!