Form Over Fiction

This summer I will be teaching a literature class.  Well, not exactly; it’s really a composition class that focuses on literature. What distinguishes this course from a literature survey class is the emphasis.  Survey courses, whether focused on a particular genre, period or culture, require a great deal of reading and a moderate amount of writing, whereas this class I will be teaching requires somewhat less reading and a great deal more writing. 

It’s not a class that a lot of students look forward to.  Having at most a moderate interest in reading, they see the class, with some justification, as one in which they will be expected to “love” literature, to listen to a professor read some incomprehensible poem to them and then breathlessly say, “Doesn’t that just touch your soul!” in response to which they’re thinking, “No.”

But of course, you can’t teach students to like something, nor should you try.  Rather, you teach them to appreciate it, but it should not be expected that such appreciation will lead to liking, although, again, some professors do seem to have that mindset: if you don’t like it, it must be because you haven’t studied it closely enough.  That may well be a big part of why the students don’t like it.

That’s why my focus is on the critical process.  I tell the students outright I don’t expect them to like the stuff they read.  To that end, the first work they read is a short story I expect many of them to hate, thus giving them permission to do so, something they may well never have gotten before in an English class.  They are then freed to simply examine what the story is doing.  Those who like it learn how to articulate why they do, while those who do not can articulate that dislike, but also understand why others have a different perspective.  And that’s the objective of the course.

I focus less on the literature itself than on the tools for analysis.  In other words, I introduce my students to the principles of Literary Criticism.  Now there’s something that strikes fear into many a student’s heart. Even my colleagues express trepidation about my emphasis on Critical Theory.  But, properly understood, criticism is simply the application of one or more different ways of examining how a work of literature does what it does.

I don’t teach the course all that often, but this time it will be an especially new experience for me: this will be the first time I have taught the course since I began my own writing in earnest.  I’m wondering how that will change my perspective.  I know it has already clarified something that has long puzzled me, the continued emphasis in the classroom on one particular critical approach: Formalism.

Formal criticism came into prominence about the middle of the last century and was also referred to as the “New Criticism.”  The emphasis is on the form of the work.  In poetry this meant things like meter, rhyme and stanzas; in fiction it refers to such familiar concepts as plot, setting, point of view, and so forth  This was revolutionary at the time, when previously the study of literature focused on understanding the author and period, and finding the author’s intended meaning.  

But Formalism flourished decades ago, and today is anything but “New.”  Criticism has moved on to other approaches and few established critics use it any more.  Sure, they make mention of things like plot and character, but you don’t find formal analysis in literary journals.  It exists today only in the classroom.  Why?  Well, for one thing, it does give us a baseline of concepts to help us name the things we examine.  But that doesn’t explain why the teaching of literature to non-majors tends to stop there.   I’d always assumed it was just old habits.  Then I started writing.

I have found that virtually every resource for writers I encounter focuses on Formal characteristics.  A recent conference I attended included an editing workshop that discussed plot and setting and point of view and could easily have been one of my lectures.  We were even shown the classic graph of rising action-climax-falling action.  It dawned on me that, while I already knew a lot about all those things, many of my fellow attendees perhaps did not, as they aren’t English teachers.  I realized how vital it is to understand those concepts when one writes.  And I understood one more reason why we emphasize them in English classes.

For many English majors, it’s all about literature; for many English teachers it’s all about creativity.  This is especially true at the pre-collegiate level.  In high school English classes the line between studying literature and creating it is often blurred, even eradicated.  Students learn about poetry by writing poems, about fiction by writing stories.  I’m not saying this is a bad approach, but it does indicate where many English teachers are coming from, and why Formalism lives on in the classroom.

What I am saying is that it is incomplete, that the objective of English education should be more than self-expression through creative writing.   And indeed it is, and I know I’m not giving my profession enough credit.  But there is a place for criticism, and it’s not something that should be feared or hated, but rather embraced.  Because in fact we use it all the time, we just don’t realize it.  My goal is for my students to understand what it is that they already do, and thus understand the real importance of literature.  It’s not just a good (or bad) story, it’s a way of seeing and comprehending the world.   They know that.  They just don’t know that they know.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Form Over Fiction

  1. Anonymous

    If I said that I was ultimately not concerned with the point of a particular literary work would my criticism be of any value? I doubt many people would deny the fact that we, as individuals, constitute our individuality on the fact that we perceive the world differently. As we experience the world around us, literature works being a part of that experience, we adjust our measure of the world in accordance to the impact of that experience. Our expectations–derived from our experience–provide an archimedean point from which a spectrum to determine something satisfactory or unsatisfactory. I think it is obvious that from this point, appreciation never has to enter the room of effective criticism. That is, to be objective, one does not have to enjoy something, though it would not be nonobjective to do so. A story is a way to look at life, but to be critical of it is to express satisfaction or dissatisfaction on some term or set of terms, and not necessarily through appreciation of the work itself.
    Admittedly I feel as though I missing something important from this article. By the end of the read, I was not sure if the subject was the dynamic of appreciation, criticism, and stories in literature; criticism and literature; criticism and stories; or criticism. Therefore my response was somewhat of a free write with those factors in mind with an emphasis on appreciation. I hope this was productive and helpful to your intentions here.

    • Perhaps I’m not using the word “appreciate” as clearly as I could. By it I don’t necessarily mean specifically liking or enjoying a work. Rather, I see it more as measuring the aesthetic value of a work, which you can do without necessarily having a positive assessment. But maybe this is just semantics. As for missing something important, I’m not sure you did miss anything. It was largely a meditation on the new perspective I have gained on the teaching of literature now that I am actively creating it. Ironically, that’s the approach used in high schools that I suggested is insufficient. Around and around we go. Thanks for your response.

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