Just Like Me, They Long to Read, Close to You…

Bindweed flowerA book is like a hyper-convenient version of Pandora’s box – it can spawn a plethora of different things, but it’s up to us which one will come out. We can read for work or for school. We can read to form an opinion on a controversial book, or to examine the politics at play in a popular series. We can read just for the simple pleasure of words on a page.

Just as there are different purposes for reading, there are different levels of reading. Most frequently, we read a work in its entirety, and we read it on a surface level. A detail here or there might slip past us, but we grasp the overall point and meaning of the book. Even the most serious scholars will approach a book in this way at first.

However, you don’t have to come up with an opinion and move on once you’ve given a book a read-through like this. In fact, you shouldn’t move on if you really want to learn from it. Instead, you should pick an interesting passage or two and subject them to a good, old-fashioned close reading.

In a formal academic setting, a ‘close reading’ is a short essay (of 500 to 1,000 words at my alma mater) written on a sentence or two in a novel. I want to be a nice creative person and say “but you can choose your own method,” but no – at first, you’ll need that goal of 500 words to get you really thinking about the short (no more than 55 words!) passage you’ve chosen. Do it right, and you’ll think you’ve gone crazy: you’ll be going to seemingly absurd lengths to find some additional meaning hidden in a little grammar quirk. You’ll be looking up words in dictionaries, you’ll be thinking about section structures, and you might even be looking up the current academic discourse of the book.

This madness is exactly the point of close reading. It forces you to grasp at straws, to look for different interpretations, and to think of strategies a writer may have been using to make a point. That process will help you understand literature, it will help you develop your own strategies for making points, and it will help you develop a new level of understanding for the books you read.

 

Should Writers Study Literary Theory?

Hornets' nestThe study of literary theory is several degrees removed from the process of writing literature. The discipline incorporates elements of political theory, art theory, and cultural anthropology; its great works are often dense and dry. Studying Edmund Burke or Louis Althusser will not give you any hints on how to improve your sentence structure or tighten your plots. Nonetheless, some writers find it rewarding now and then to devote a little attention to literary theory.

This discipline is not concerned with the crafting of a work, but with the reading of a work. Literary critics explore the relationship between a story and its reader, and they do so from a variety of angles. There are critics who want to examine the nature of beauty; there are critics who want to examine the representational nature of language; there are critics who want to examine the subversive politics that make a certain narrative appealing.

Because the practice of literary criticism is so reader-focused, I find that reading criticism helps me understand why the audience wants the things it wants. This in turn helps me think of ideas that a particular audience might enjoy. An interesting discussion on a topic might inspire me to take it up in a story, or a harsh criticism of a trope may inspire me to re-imagine it in a way that makes it more palatable.

I certainly won’t argue that reading criticism is a necessary exercise for everybody; in fact, I seldom find I have the dedication to read a dense critical piece in my spare time. However, writers who have a high tolerance for dense prose may find some remarkably good ideas buried in a piece of literary criticism.

 

The power of literature to alter your state of mind

Shoes and hand-bag

Not shoes to want to walk a mile in perhaps.

There’s an article on BBC News today discussing the effect of music on people who are grieving or depressed. Which works better, they ask, cheerful music to try to alter your mood, or sad music which reflects your mood? It made me think about literature in the same context.

Reading is a more cerebral and less visceral activity than listening to music. Its influences are more on the conscious level and can be more complete and detailed. It follows that the ways in which it works are more complex.

Let’s think of the medium which is possibly closest to music in the context: poetry. A poem can speak to the inner, quiet, individual mind like nothing else can, throwing up images in a similar way to song lyrics. It can also meet us on an intellectual plane, and sometimes it’s through the intellect that comfort is derived or the spirit is uplifted.

Small volumes and pamphlets of both poetry and prose exist to address the different emotions and situations which people struggle with during their lives. Mostly a rational mind tries, through their pages, to reach another mind which is trying to be rational. But sometimes it isn’t straightforward advice that breaks through to a person but a saying or ‘mantra’ which speaks to them and alters their life, or a desire to imitate a character, or personal identification with a hero or a villain.

“Never criticise a man till you’ve walked a mile in his shoes,” goes the saying. This could in theory change one person’s way of thinking about another. I personally prefer the rebuttal: If you’ve got his shoes and you’re a mile away, you can say what you want!

Literature can present a complete world for immersion and hence distraction of the troubled mind. Stories and novels lighten a humdrum life, relieve boredom or inspire hope. Dark tales of tragedy soothe through harmless schadenfreude.

Music stirs our entrails with irrational feelings but literature introduces us to other realities in which we can live, and heal. I would say that the primary value of much of literature, and certainly of fiction, is its power to alter your state of mind.

The value of repeating a joke

Clown

Humour is constantly evolving and some jokes wear thin

When we were read stories as children, which many of us can recall, a large part of the enjoyment was knowing what was coming and being able to join in.

“Fee, fi, fo, fum,

I smell the blood of an Englishman,”

or “Trip, trap, trip, trap,” of the Billy Goat Gruff going over the troll’s bridge.

As more sophisticated adults looking for realism in our reading, this appreciation of repetition, or of fulfillment of expectation, has largely migrated to our sense of humour.

Sideshow Bob of ‘The Simpsons’ can step on the tines of a rake and bang his head with the handle multiple times, and it’s still funny.

Comic characters rely on repeat phrases and stances, even if it’s just the calling out of a name. Again in ‘The Simpsons’, there’s the school inspector’s inflexion as he yells: “SKIN-NER!!”; we instantly look forward to seeing the Principal in trouble.

These catchphrases are a form of branding. The audience lifts them out and uses them, and their enjoyment of the original is intensified.

The same thing works in written fiction. ‘Shiver my timbers’ is uttered 7 times by the ‘Treasure Island’ pirate Long John Silver and is then adopted by Nancy Blackett, the Amazon Pirate of the children’s classic series ‘Swallows and Amazons’. It’s the pirate’s comical exclamation ‘par excellence’.

Two articles in the BBC News, one from yesterday and one from today, list a total of 30 euphemisms, some of which have become widespread due to their application in a political context and others of which have their origins in private family use. They’re invariably funny; that’s what makes them memorable and what made them catch on, and it’s through repetition that they come into their own. I particularly like ‘Paddling up the Mohawk River’ – look it up!

What better way to highlight a fictional world than by creating original and humorous phrases, and repeating them to the point that they stick!

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