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Reflection on Foster - EL 150

January 26, 2005

EL 150 - Reading Assignment
"How to Read Literature Like a Professor" by Thomas Foster

I enjoyed the chapter discussing eating in literature as an act of communion. It makes a lot of sense: the idea that when a writer is writing about food in a short story or novel, s/he is actually speaking of something much more than just the acting of shoveling food inside one's face.

I don't know that this is always a conscious act on the part of the writer, but perhaps it is a way for the deeper subconscious to arise to the surface shimmering and splashing around so that the conscious mind starts paying attention to it.

I enjoyed this chapter because it brings to mind that almost everything in life have deeper connotations than initially meets the eye: a cigar is -never- just a cigar, I'm afraid. A smile is never just a smile, a smile with a twinkle in the eyes is a nice smile, a smile comprised of tight lips and beady eyes is not.

Also, Foster mentions a book I just finished reading last week called "Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant" by Anne Tyler. I wasn't really sure what I thought of the book, but the comments about the family dinner helped add a little perspective to the story (though, honestly, I still don't think I liked the book all that much).

I also like the notion that no piece of literature is ever totally original. I agree with this wholeheartedly - there are probably about, um, 7 stories in the world, but they are constantly ripped apart and put back together into new ways.

Moira at 11:40 AM :: Comments (12) :: ::
Comments:

I like your "smile" example. It's certainly not always a conscious act on behalf of the writer...

Seton Hill offers a master's degree in writing popular fiction. Students are required to have a publishable novel in genre fiction (fantasy, horror, romance, etc.) in order to graduate. One of the student gave a final presentation in which she introduced the class to the mythic quest. Many of the students had already come up with plots that came pretty close to the pattern she sketched out, but most of the readers of those books won't consciously know about the mythic quest... still, just as the authors who hadn't formally been taught about the mythic quest were still pretty much following that formula for much of their work, the readers will have some basic understanding of that structure, and therefore when they encounter it in a book, it will reach them at a deeper level.

Even though one reader might analyze a work and find stuff that the author never intended to put there, one of the tests of the lasting value of literature is whether it holds up under different modes of intellectual inquiry. Thus, books and poems written in order to please Adolph Hitler probably won't last long after that particular regime falls.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at January 26, 2005 12:56 PM

Oooh... mythic quests. Reminds me of an awesome Cultural Anthropology class I had a couple semesters back at the local community college... Joseph Campbell and the like. Yay.

I agree though: literature has to stand up to the test of time. I think that when a writer is a good writer he or she does incorporate elements of literary devises unconsciously. Sure, a writer might sometimes decide to consciously add in symbolic devises, etc etc. but I'd be willing to be that it works better when it just kind of happens... like magic. ;c)

Also, I think that the more a writer READS the more he or she is likely to consciously or not pick up on patterns evident in different pieces of literature. Which is why, despite my initial grumbling about all the literature classes I have to take at SHU for my Creative Writing degree, I realize now that all that literature stuffed inside my head is actually going to benefit immensely in my years of writing to come, even if I complain about it "in the meantime." :c)

Posted by: moira at January 26, 2005 01:43 PM

You bet! Yes, the student mentioned Joseph Campbell, but here's an interesting chart that describes the hero's quest in three different theoretical categories. When it's listed like that, you can see these guys are really onto something.

http://faculty.gvsu.edu/websterm/Hero.htm

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz at January 26, 2005 02:39 PM

I also found the food as communion interesting. And I agree- if the author bothered to write about eating, it must mean something right? If not, what's the point of including it? Unless her editor wanted a few more pages and she wrote about eating just to fill the extra space...but I highly doubt that.

I was also thinking about if the author always consciously means to include all these symbolic elements in his or her novels. Maybe we are just overanalyzing things that she didn't actually want in the story. Or we could be right on and interpret it perfectly.

Posted by: Nessa at January 26, 2005 04:40 PM

Dr. J - that's a cool chart and I'm certain that I will consult that further when I have a bit more time. I still have Joseph Campbell's "Your Mythic Journey" on my bookshelf as part of my "To Read" collection of books... Maybe when I'm in England this summer?

Vanessa - I think that maybe if an author is consciously writing as a literary type person, then maybe s/he analyzes his or her writing and attempts to add all sorts of different literary devices. But, really, I bet that most writers don't do that. I mean... I write a lot and I don't think I've ever specifically decided "Hey this is going to mean that" I don't know.. maybe I should? I'm kinda hoping that all the lit classes I'm taking will eventually permeate my brain so that all that stuff just comes naturally and I don't have to think about it. Who knows tho...

Posted by: moira at January 26, 2005 04:57 PM

I agree. When the writer is writing about food, smoking, anything else, there is something more to it. I have to agree with vanessa as well, I think writer's sometimes consciously we bring the subconscious into play. Foster proves that.

Anyways, the point of this is, even if you dont catch it right away, all the writers do it, and sooner or later, you as a writer does it too.

Posted by: Lou Gagliardi at January 26, 2005 08:56 PM

I agree with you Moira, I've done a ton of writing and never thought about making certain things act as symbols or whatever.

In my creative writing course in high school, everytime we read short stories or poetry that we wrote aloud, my teacher would pick out things I did and ask me stuff like "so is this an allusion to [insert something I've never heard of]"... Now, I do recognize (as Foster points out) that there are plenty of authors that do this stuff on purpose in their works, but... I'd say that at least a small percentage of the time, literary critics pick up on things the authors themselves never even considered.

Of course, that probably goes along with Foster's argument that there is only one story... It's almost (or perhaps it actually is) impossible to write anything nowadays that doesn't relate to some other piece of writing on a slightly deeper level of meaning than the surface. You'd be hard-pressed to think up a completely, 100% original plot, because so many ideas have already been used before.

Posted by: ChrisU at January 27, 2005 12:27 PM

Lou - I'm not arguing that writers don't use symbolic images and the like in their writers just more than I don't know if it's always a conscious decision on the part of the writer.

I am wondering, however, what kind of story would result if I were to sit down and say "Okay. I am going to write a mythic quest story involving a girl named Lulu in a pink tutu and a pair of lime green sneakers that have been stolen by an evil knight named President Bush. errr... maybe I should work on my story line a bit?

Chris - You wrote: "I'd say that at least a small percentage of the time, literary critics pick up on things the authors themselves never even considered."

This comment gets me thinking: it seems to me that writing is a pretty unconscious act (is that the right way to phrase it?).. what I mean by this is that the words, the stories, often times seem to come as if from nowhere. An idea might be sparked by, say, a girl walking down the street in a pink tutu but then as you write it gains momentum and turns into something else.

maybe the symbols that turn up are really a reflection of the writer herself (or himself, as the case may be). As a writer, that's a kind of scary idea. I'm not sure I would like a group of people ripping apart my stories and psychoanalyzing me in the process... *shivers* but that's just me... ;c)

"a completely, 100% original plot"

i think that's a writer's greatest fantasy; however, i also think that's impossible to create. so why do we keep trying?? ;c)

Posted by: moira at January 27, 2005 01:23 PM

Moira-not saying its always a conscious decision for ALL writers. But some of the time a writer will say "ok, I got point A, girl A, and thing A, how can I use them? Well I could have them represent something in my life." Not all do it, but some do it.

Then there are others that people try to figure out if they did that or not. Like B. Shakesspeare, in his sonnets and plays, he always was scornful of women, many say thats because he had syphillis.

Or my favorite author, Bram Stoker, wrote Dracula to portray his homosexual feelings to actor and friend Oscar Wilde (I'll have to research to see if that name is accurate)

That's what I meant by my statements, is sometimes something comes up in life be it a friend jailed, a STD, or some other "quest" an author sometimes does find away to use it, othertimes, they subconsciously do.

-lou

Posted by: Lou Gagliardi at January 27, 2005 10:49 PM

Actually, Lou, upon reflection, I'm wondering if a more conscious use of symbols might not be a bad idea! The Foster readings for today got me thinking about it... I've been wanting to rework a fairytale for a while now - a modern equivalent of a classic tale.

Oooh! I've had a thing for Oscar Wilde since 11th grade English class! :c) The Bram Stoker / Oscar Wilde connection would make an awesome research paper - if you could find anything to back that up! (Might not be difficult, Mr. Wilde was quite flamboyant! :c)

And, yay! Great discussion! :c)

Posted by: moira at January 28, 2005 07:59 AM

It would be really hard to find it out. I know that Bram Stoker was almost as "in love" with Oscar Wilde as you are, Moira. ;-)

But the thing is is that is just speculation. Like i said, you'll find that one way or another, I'll seem to get some obsecure reference or something that deals with vampires in my conversations.

But I agree, sometimes a concious adding of symbols, and the use of symbolism itself is sometimes good for a story. Sometimes the author will just come out and say "THIS should represent THAT" after the book is out.

And yes, this is a GREAT discussion!

Posted by: Lou Gagliardi at January 28, 2005 10:13 AM

I'm taking a Vampire class at Pitt and it's believed that Stoker had a "male crush" on Henry Irving, whom he spent a lot of time with at the Lyceum. He'd pretty much blow off his family to spend time with him. It's believed that Stoker modeled Renfield after himself and Dracula after Irving.

This is my first time at your blog, Moira, and it's great! I like the design:)

Posted by: Ruby at February 9, 2005 09:46 AM
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