How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster
001.’Language of Reading’ A grammar of literature, a set of conventions and patterns, codes and rules, that we learn to employ in dealing with a piece of writing.
002. [What Lit Profs think when reading] Where did that effect come from? Whom does this character resemble? Where have I seen this situation before? Didn’t Dante (or Chaucer, or Merle Haggard) say that? … Memory, Symbol, Pattern – the three chief things profs read for.
003. Professors also read, and think, symbolically. Everything is a symbol of something, it seems, until proven otherwise.
004. Pattern recognition – Most professional students of literature learn to take in the foreground detail while seeing the patterns that the detail reveals. [This is something I need to work on—I see it when someone points it out to me, but nearly never see it on my own.]
005. Chapter One: Every Trip is a Quest (Except When It’s Not)
Quests consist of: a quester, a place to go, a stated reason to go there, challenges and trials en route and a real reason to go there.
-The real reason for the quest NEVER involves the stated reason. Typically, the quester fails at the stated task. … They go because they mistakenly think the stated task is the real task, but their real mission is educational—it’s about themselves.
-The real reason for a quest is always self-knowledge.
-Greatest quest novel of the last century: Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49.
006. “Always” and “never” are not words that have much meaning in literary study.
007. Nice to Eat with You: Acts of Communion
whenever people eat or drink together it’s communion – communion can signify many things other than holy communion, just as the word ‘intercourse’ can mean a variety things other than ‘sexual’.
008. In the real world, breaking bread with others is an act of peace and sharing. The act of taking food into our bodies is so personal we don’t want to share it with people with whom we’re uncomfortable.
009. In literature there are other reasons—there have to be because writing a scene around a meal is so difficult and inherently uninteresting if something else isn’t going on beneath the surface then you risk boring or confusing your reader.
010. The only reason to give a character a serious hang up is to give him the chance to get over it. He may fail, but he gets the chance. [This is similar to the quester/stated goal thing mentioned in the previous post. It’s about the journey, not the destination.]
011. Sharing of any communal food, drink, even drugs is symbolic of communion.
012. Missed or failed meals are, likewise, indicative of the the bad/strained/difficult relationship between the characters.
013. Excellent examples of dinner scenes:
a. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler,
b. “The Dead” by James Joyce
c. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
d. “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver
014. Nice to Eat You: Acts of Vampires: Things vampires are about other than literal vampirism: selfishness, exploitation, refusal to respect the autonomy of other people… This also applies to other scary figures: ghosts and doppelgangers
015. Ghosts in lasting ghost stories (as opposed to naïve ghost stories, which ARE just about a ghost) are about something other than malevolent spirits
Examples: Hamlet’s father is there to point out something drastically wrong in the royal household; Marley’s ghost is an ethics lesson for Scrooge; Dr Jekyll’s other half is there to show that even a respectable man has a dark side.
Authors who use this a lot: Robert Louis Stevenson, Dickens, Stoker, J.S. Le Fanu, Henry James. Why the Victorians so much? Because they could write directly about sex and sexuality they found ways of transforming those taboo subjects into other forms. The Victorians were masters of sublimation.
016. The ghosts and vampires don’t always have to appear in visible forms—sometimes the scariest ones are human. The Turn of the Screw is one of the best examples. It could be about a governess trying to protect her two charges from the ghost that’s possessing them, or it could be about an insane governess who only -thinks- the children are being possessed, or… either way, the ‘ghost’ isn’t visible. It may be a real ghost or it may be a psychological delusion.
017. Henry James’ “Daisy Miller” is a classic vampire story—young, virginal Daisy Miller is consumed and destroyed by Mr Winterbourne. Daisy—Spring, fresh, new, alive and Winter—old, dying, cold.
018. Other 19th century writers big on vampires—E.A. Poe and Thomas Hardy. Tess in -Tess of the D’Urbervilles- is table fare for the men in her life.
019. Kafka uses social vampirism and cannibalism in “The Metamorphosis” and “A Hunger Artist” where, in a nifty reversal of the traditional vampire narrative, crowds of onlookers watch as the artist’s fasting consumes him.
020. Other examples: Innocent Erendira by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; D.H. Lawrences “The Fox” and -Women in Love-; Iris Murdoch: pick a novel, any novel.
021. The signature is the cannibal, the vampire, the succubus, the spook announces itself again and again where someone grows in strength by weakening someone else. – Using people to get what we want.
022. The signature is the cannibal, the vampire, the succubus, the spook announces itself again and again where someone grows in strength by weakening someone else. – Using people to get what we want.
023. Sonnets – fourteen lines long and roughly ten syllables wide = square.
024. Type 1: Petrarchan: Two parts to a sonnet—a section of eight lines and a section of six lines; each section has its own rhyme scheme
Type 2: Shakespearean: first four rhyme, next four rhyme, third four rhyme, last two rhyme.
025. One of the biggest keys to reading like a prof is pattern recognition and that is mostly down to practice: if you read enough and give what you read enough thought, you begin to see patterns, archetypes, recurrences. … it’s a matter of learning to look and knowing where and how to look.
026. Fiction writers don’t just borrow from other fiction—they borrow from history, as well.
027. Dialogue between old texts and new is always going on at one level or another. Critics speak of this dialogue as intertextuality; the ongoing interaction between poems or stories. … Newer works are having a dialogue with older ones, and they often indicate the presence of this conversation by invoking the older texts with anything from oblique references to extensive quotations.
028. What do we do if we don’t see all these correspondences?
Don’t worry: If a story is no good, being based on Hamlet won’t save it. The characters have to work as characters, as themselves. If the story is good but you don’t catch allusions and references and parallels, then you’ve done nothing worse than read a good story with memorable characters.
029. Writers find themselves engaged in a relationship with older writers; of course, that relationship plays itself out through the texts, the new one emerging in part through earlier texts that exert influence on the writer in one way or another.
030. The naming of a character is a serious piece of business in a novel or play. A name has to sound right for a character—but it also has to convey whatever message the writer want to convey about the character of the story.
031. Even people that aren’t Biblical scholars can sometimes recognize a biblical allusion. Forster uses something he calls the ‘resonance test’. If I hear something on in a text that seems to be beyond the scope of the story’s or poems immediate dimensions, if it resonates outside itself, I start looking for allusions to older and bigger texts.
032. The “literary canon”, by the way, is a master list of works that everyone pretends doesn’t exist (the list, not the works) but that we all know matters in some important way.
033. Fairy tales are useful because they’re the only sure fire stories that everyone knows. You can’t count on your audience knowing Shakespeare, Homer or Joyce.
034. We’re not trying to recreate the fairy tale here. Rather, we’re trying to make us of details and patterns, portions of some prior story (or, once you start really thinking like a professor, “prior text”, since everything is a text) to add depth and texture to your story, to bring out a theme, to lend irony to a statement, to play with readers’ deeply ingrained knowledge of fairy tales. So use as much or as little as you want.
035. Myths are the shaping and sustaining power of story and symbol. It’s a body of story that matters, of the ability of story to explain ourselves to ourselves in ways physics, philosophy, mathematics and chemistry can’t.
036. That explanation takes the shape of stories that are deeply ingrained in our group memory, that shape our culture and are in turn shaped by it, that constitute a way of seeing by which we read the world and, ultimately, ourselves.
037. In this activity of reading and understanding literature, we’re chiefly concerned with how that story functions as material for literary creators, the way in which it can inform a story or poem, and how it is perceived by the reader.
038. Homer gives us four great struggles of the human being: with nature, with the divine, with other humans, and with ourselves. What is there, after all, against which we need to prove ourselves but those four things?
055. Writers are men and women who are interested in the world around them. That world contains many things, and on the level of society, part of what it contains is the political reality of the time.
056. Knowing a little something about the social and political milieu out of which a writer creates can only help us understand her work.