Does examining literature wreck literature?

In this excerpt from the introduction to our newly published anthology, The Broadview Introduction to Literature, general editor Neta Gordon addresses the age-old question: Does delving deeper into the structure, meaning, and purpose of a literary work only serve to destroy the value of that work?

three BIL

Is it somehow problematic to inquire too tenaciously into the working parts of a literary text? Does one risk undermining the emotional force of a poem, the sharp wit of a play, or the exciting plot of an adventure tale if one pays too much attention to seemingly mundane issues of plot structure or metre? To paraphrase a common grievance of the distressed student: by examining the way literature works, are we, somehow, just wrecking it? These questions might, paradoxically, recall Dirac’s complaint that literature makes simple things incomprehensible: while we know that literature can manage to communicate difficult notions, making what is mysterious more comprehensible, it is often difficult to articulate or make a viable argument about how it does so. By paying attention to the way a text is built and to the way an author constructs his or her end of the contract, the reader can begin to understand and respond explicitly to the question of how literature produces its particular effects.

Consider the following two textual excerpts:

Come live with me and be my love,
And we shall all the pleasures prove.
(Christopher Marlowe, 1590)

Boom, boom, boom, let’s go back to my room,
And we can do it all night, and I can make you feel right.
(Paul Lekakis, 1987)

Based on a quick reading: which excerpt is more appropriate for inclusion in a Valentine’s Day card? A poll of employees at Hallmark, not to mention the millions of folks invested in the idea that Valentine’s Day is a celebration of romance, would likely make an overwhelming case for the Marlowe excerpt. But why? Answering that question might involve a methodological inquiry into how each excerpt produces a particular response, one which might be broken down into stages:

Level One: Evaluation—Do I like this text? What is my gut reaction to it?

No doubt, most students of literature have heard an instructor proclaim, with more or less vitriol, “It doesn’t matter if you like the poem/story/play! This is a literature class, not a book club!” And, while it is true that the evaluative response does not constitute an adequate final critical response to a text, it’s important to acknowledge one’s first reaction. After all, the point of literature is to produce an effect, sometimes an extreme response. When a text seems confusing, or hilarious, or provocative, or thrilling, it prompts questions: How are such effects produced using mere words in particular combinations? Why would an author want to generate feelings of confusion, hilarity, provocation, etc.? How am I—the reader—being positioned on the other end of such effects?

Level Two: Interpretation—What is the text about?

This is a trickier level of reading than it might seem. Students sometimes think, mistakenly, that all literature—and especially poetry—is “open to interpretation,” and that all interpretations are therefore correct. This line of thinking leads to snap, top-down interpretations, in which the general “mood” of the text is felt at a gut level (see above), and the ensuing reading of the poem is wrangled into shape to match that feeling. It is sometimes helpful to think about interpretation as a kind of translation, as in the way those who work at the United Nations translating talking points from Arabic to Russian are called “interpreters.” Though no translation is flawless, the goal of simultaneous translation is to get as close as possible to the meaning of the original. Thus, an interpretation should be thought of as a carefully paraphrased summary or, for particularly dense works, a line by line explication of the literary text, both of which may require several rereadings and some meticulous use of a dictionary. As with reading for evaluation, reading for interpretation can help generate useful critical questions, such as: How does the way this text is written affect my attitude toward the subject matter? What is the point of all the fancy language, which makes this text more or less difficult to interpret? Now that I’ve figured out what this text is about—at least in terms of its subject matter—can I begin to determine what sorts of themes are being tackled?…

For more information on the Broadview Introduction to Literature, please click here.

About the Editors:

Lisa Chalykoff is Senior Instructor in English at the University of Victoria. Neta Gordon is Associate Professor and Chair of English at Brock University. Paul Lumsden is Assistant Professor of English at Grant MacEwan University.


Posted on August 28, 2013