I am an English professor because I like talking and writing about literature. Not so for many of my students. They may enjoy reading a literary work, find it inspiring, entertaining, and instructive. But they have nothing to say about it. “Why can’t reading be enough?” they ask. “Give us a multiple choice test to see if we’ve done the reading, and leave it at that.”
I am not unsympathetic to these students. I know that a literature class may sometimes veer into overanalysis. Left to myself, I’d happily talk about a great text ad nauseam. Give me Richard III’s opening speech or the first line of Pride and Prejudice or the last line of Paradise Lost, and I could go on for hours. Sometimes, I will look at my students and ask, “Am I spending too much time on this?” and see them nod, relieved that I am now going to stop. In such cases, I “murder to dissect,” as Wordsworth put it.
But talking and writing about literature are activities of great value, central to what I believe is a good undergraduate education. I want my students to appreciate this and come to enjoy engaging in them. First, consider the value of talk. What makes great literature “great” is that cannot be reduced to a formula or a simple answer; it cannot be used up. This is a lesson that students need to learn in our sound-byte culture. When they talk freely about great literature, their ideas take new and exciting form, and they begin to discover who they are. The buzzword in education circles is that literary analysis teaches critical thinking. But this always struck me as a limited and rather condescending way of thinking about literary talk. Yes, literary analysis teaches critical thinking, but it also allows students to grapple with important topics that they might not normally discuss, and to apply the complex themes and structures that literature raises to their own lives. I have been told that my classroom sometimes resembles a group therapy session. I take this as a compliment. When students talk seriously about a great literary text this leads, inevitably, to their talking about themselves. Sometimes they can get very deep into the latter, though they always have the former near at hand to ground them.
Writing about literature adds a degree of discipline and rigor to the process I am discussing. Writing harnesses talk, though it also can give rise to more talk. Lately, I have begun assigning short papers for almost every class, with the result that students come to class with something codified to say. With these formed ideas, they then launch into further speculation. The result is often a subtle and original composite, taking everyone to a new level of thought.
In addition to assigning many more short papers, I have stopped prescribing topics for papers. Instead, I tell students that, as they read, they should be alert to how they feel. What they need to watch for is a dissonance or disturbance or, contrarily, a charm or seductiveness in the text that makes them stop in their tracks. Whatever it may be, it will serve as the “germ” for their paper. I’ve borrowed the term from Henry James. In his preface to The Spoils of Poynton, he spoke of the “germ” encountered in the course of daily life that served him as the basis for a fictional work. This germ was, as he put it, “the stray suggestion, the wandering word, the vague echo, at touch of which the novelist’s imagination winces as at the prick of some sharp point: its virtue is all in its needle-like quality, the power to penetrate as finely as possible.” As a writer of fiction, James said that it was necessary to immediately remove the suggestion from the chaos and clutter of life, to let it develop within his imagination without further reference to the real situation in which it originally resided.
But for a literary paper, the opposite is required. The germ must be developed by reference to the text, by rummaging around for suggestive tidbits that support and elaborate it. To write fiction, James had to remove the germ of reality and place it in the world of imagination. To write interesting and original papers about literature, a writer must take the germ of self-reference that the text generates and return it to its native habitat. Only then can we trace the outline of our psyche as it lurks in the work of another’s imagination.
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