Chapter 43: WHAT IS "WRITING TO LITERATURE?"
What are some methods of writing
literature instead of
Introduction: What Is
Writing to Literature--Why and How?
Details in Writing to Literature?
What Is the Meaning or Value of a Work?
Ways Exist to Write about Literature?
Introduction: What Is Literature?
What is literature? It is, simply, the
creative writings of people whose fictional and real stories, poetry, plays,
song lyrics, or other literary forms are especially good.
The process by which these writings become good
often is long, complicated, and even, occasionally, torturous--many famous
writers did not become so until after their death, and others, however famous,
have lived a life of near poverty--and there are a number of current authors who
are well considered whom history will not easily remember.
Even so, literature does not mean just any
creative writing, but rather a more lofty kind, one that is especially
intelligent, creative, and moving to a large number of people who determine what
literature is. Often in any given century, it is other writers and
instructors who determine what from among their own creations is literary.
Sometimes, though, writers may also become famous first (but considered not
particularly literary), and then--if their fame lasts for generations beyond
their death--they may also acquire the status of having been literary.
Charles Dickens, author of A Christmas Carol
(with Scrooge and Tiny Tim) is a good example of this process. In his
time, he was an immensely popular author, but many of his contemporaries
considered him a proficient crowd pleaser at best and a hack writer at worst.
However, his fame gradually grew after his death until, in the past century (the
1900s), he came to be viewed as one of Great Britain's literary giants.
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Literature--Why and How?
So why is all this so important? For one, it
helps to know what you are writing about when you write to
literature--that literature is writing that has been anointed by instructors and
other writers--and sometimes by the public--as being special. Second, it
may help you to know as you write to literature that literary authors are no
one--they are nothing--until a sufficient number of readers (and the right types
of readers) decide they are special. As a result, there are always
dialogues and controversies in literary circles about the importance, value, and
meaning of any given author. There always will be detractors who think an
author is mediocre or poor, even while others think he or she is great.
For this reason, writing to literature entails two great preoccupations:
Two Primary Activities in Writing to Literature
1. Describing the details
2. Deciding their meaning or value
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What Are Details in
Writing to Literature?
You are familiar with the details from your high
school studies of literature. They are the plot, the theme, the
characters, the setting, the scenes, the individual descriptions and images, the
symbols, etc.--what are called the "elements" of literature. You
most likely have written book reports using at least some of these elements, and
some of you have had to thoroughly take apart and describe a literary work using
Using the elements of literature is by far the most
common method of analyzing literature. Literary analysis is a specialized
form of writing. It is used by literary professionals--academic
instructors, scholars, literary critics, and the like--to discuss literature.
In this regard, it is like the specialized writing of any discipline: business
reports, for example, belong to the world of business, lab reports to the world
of science, and court reports to the legal world. When you learn how to
analyze the elements of literature, you are working within the specific
discipline and field of literary thought and criticism.
The first step in thinking about and writing to
literature is a thorough examination of it using the elements of literature like
tools to take apart a literary work, examine it from several different
perspectives, and perceive its basic inner workings. This first step has a
specific name, whether you complete it as a rough draft for your own thinking
about a literary text or develop it into an official paper:
of the elements."
A literary analysis can be as simple as a
description of how each of the above literary elements is expressed in a work of
art; it can be as complex as a comparison and contrast of the use of these
elements to those in other literary works, and detailed description--with
examples--of how each element appears to work, or even a theoretical discussion
of the elements as their use is described in a particular work of art.
Usually, any kind of writing you do about a literary text should at least start
with an analysis of the elements--on your own, if not in the official part of an
assignment. Literary analysis is a basic beginning to writing to
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the Meaning or Value of a Work?
How do you decide the meaning or value of a literary
work? The next step, if such is expected or assigned, is to determine some
kind of meaning in or value of the literary work. This often is done in
one of two very different types of writing to literature:
An interpretive thesis (sometimes called a "literary
thesis") is like a simple academic thesis paper (see this textbook's chapter
a Thesis Argument"); however, it tries to prove a specific interpretation or
meaning of the text, often by using a theory or recognized method of
interpreting or "seeing" the text through a specific viewpoint. And it
does so usually by using the elements of literature to build its proofs--placing
together the types of descriptions, characters, plot events, settings, images,
symbols, and the like to prove a main thesis or argument. For example, an
interpretive thesis might use a theory of psychology to interpret a play by
Shakespeare, a theory of history to explain and interpret The Wizard of Oz,
or a theory of sociology to interpret the significance of Tupac Shakur's
A literary review, sometimes called a critical
review, is quite different. It is very similar to a simple academic or
professional critical review (see this textbook's chapter called "Writing
a Critical Review"); however, it uses the elements of literature to describe
a literary work and then a mixture of professional, public, and/or theoretical
interpretations to suggest possible meanings or arguments about the work.
Finally, it uses a set of criteria to suggest how well or poorly the work is
written--and whether it is worth reading.
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Other Ways Exist to Write about Literature?
Are there other ways to write about literature?
There definitely are. It is possible, in fact, to use most of the chapters
in this book--especially those in the "Arguing"
to Readings" sections--to write about literature. If you have an
instructor who is requiring that you apply one of these other methods of
writing, he or she is asking you to practice a more general academic type of
writing about a subject, and the subject just happens to be literature instead
of some other nonliterary text. This alternative way of writing--using
literary texts--as subjects--is not uncommon, and it highlights a distinction
made in this online textbook:
Using professional types of writing to
literature, such as literary analyses, interpretive theses, and literary
Using literature as a general subject matter
for any type of writing activity
That is why this section of
WritingforCollege.org is called "Writing to Literature."
It is about the particular types of writing taught in literature classes by
literature professionals about the profession of literature. Writing
about literature is an equally respectable activity, but it is usually
confined to composition courses and, occasionally, to other disciplines in which
a story or play may be a subject matter. If you are writing about
literature rather than to it, you may need to change sections and
read about other, more general forms of writing. However, before you do
so, you may find it useful to first learn how to read more thoroughly and
critically. For this purpose, you may wish to choose one of two related
chapters in this textbook. One is in this section, called "Reading
Literature Critically"; it discusses specific reading of literature.
The other is in the "Responding to Readings" section and is called "How
to Read Academic Texts"; it discusses general methods of reading texts that
you are assigned to study.
In conclusion, writing to literature is a specific
type of writing activity used in the discipline and profession of literature.
The elements of literature and other methods of finding deeper meanings in and
values of literature can open you to new worlds, help you rediscover old ones,
and give you many pleasurable hours of analysis, argument, and fun.
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