Literature is realistic in one way or another, though not always obviously, and not always in relation to the same idea of reality
Literature is about the human condition; it's a repository of cultural wisdom; authors are particularly insightful about "human nature"
When we read, we focus on things like plot, character, setting, point-of-view, theme
Our readings are based on belief rather than suspicion: we believe what the author/book tells us
Some of these are the questions we ordinarily consider when we talk about a piece of literature as if its characters were real people-combined with some simple questions about structure, such as how plots help embody themes.
What's happening here? Why? How do we know? So what?
What motivates these characters? How do we know? So what?
What's this piece really about? Love? Hate? Families? Growing up? Loneliness? Loss? How do we know? How realistic is the treatment?
What does this piece tell us about human nature? Life?
Some are more complicated questions, moving beyond what we might consider a "common sense" notion of "realistic."
What kind of realism are we dealing with here? What's the text's view of reality? What kinds of gaps are there between text and world? What kinds of techniques does the author use to represent reality?
Reading as Experience
Literature is the experience its readers have while reading
In thinking about texts this way, we focus on how they manipulate their readers both on small and large scales-how our experience changes from page to page, moment to moment, whether our expectations are fulfilled or not, how we automatically fill in gaps in the text
We may assume a kind of "generic" reader-the one the text or author "wants" for itself or the "ideal" reader who knows all the references and sees all the nuances
We might also focus on experiences of particular kinds of readers-individuals with their idiosyncracies and private psyches; readers from the text's original historical contexts; readers grouped by age, gender, race, class, kind of education, place in the world, etc.
The big question here is always some version of what does this piece of literature do?
How does this text manipulate its readers, word by word, line by line, chapter by chapter? Does the way it works match what it says? How do the large structural elements work? If the plot is not chronological, how do the mismatches manipulate the reader's experience?
Where does the text set up expectations? Do these get satisfied or frustrated? So what?
Does the reader's experience parallel the characters'? Contrast? Do we learn at the same time as the characters do, before, or after? To what effect?
What might the experience have been for the text's earliest/original readers? Would they have been more surprised? Less? To what effect? What did the work do to the genre expectations of its own time? To general cultural values? To hot issues?
What kind of reader does the work want for itself? How does it construct/assume this reader? What kinds of info would this text's ideal or educated reader have?
How does the experience of different kinds of readers differ? How do the reader's time period, culture, class, race, ethnicity, gender, education matter? What are the options for resisting as readers?
Reading for Structure
Literary works are carefully structured objects whose formal details are significant; which details matter & how varies from type to type
Some deliberate attention to details grounds most other ways of reading; different details matter in each context
We might focus on plot, on language and imagery and the unity of the text, on the structural "skeleton" and big underlying oppositions, on literary conventions such as genre and sub-genre, on versions of often-shared stories such as myths
What are the elements of the story? (consider plot, character, setting, etc.) How does each function? What if we were to take some out or rearrange them?
Which of these elements are often found in other pieces of literature, and is their function always the same? If they are common, why? Because they are central to human life? Because they belong to dominant cultures? Because they are central literary conventions?
What are the image patterns? What other special uses of language are here, and what do they contribute to the effect and meaning of the piece?
Is there irony? Ambiguity? What holds the piece together as a unit? How does each detail contribute to the whole?
Can big underlying structural issues and/or oppositions be identified-light and dark, life and death, good and evil, man and woman, individual and society? If so, how do the text's details contribute? What does the text conclude about any major oppositions, if anything?
What role might this textual treatment of such issues play in a culture's ability to maintain itself? Are these issues common to all humans at all times? Why/not?
Are there any underlying myths here? What kinds? Freudian myths about family relations? Myths about gender? Myths about heroes & quests? Myths about cultures & minds? Myths about class values, about history, about nature? Popular culture myths? If so, how do they function in the text, and what does the text say about them?
Literature can reveal much more than is on the surface; every text and every reading is partial (biased & incomplete) and ideological; authors, texts, readers, language can't be trusted to tell the whole truth, but always hide some things while revealing others
Here we read with a focus on the workings of personal, cultural, and textual unconscious/subconscious-the way we repress things (gaps, slips, lies), the shapes of compulsions (repetition), the way we disguise things through displacements/condensations/symbols/etc.
We might question everything about the text-the main terms, oppositions, assumptions/values; we read for gaps, textual self-contradictions, stray details that don't seem to fit, oddities; we ask what's at stake with various elements of the text; we try to keep our interpretations unsettled
Are there any apparent or hidden contradictions here? Is there anything in the text that might contradict or complicate the writer's main points? Is the text ever self-critical? To what effect?
Does the text tell us anything the writer might not have wanted it to? Can we see the writer's own personal or cultural limitations? Where and how? Might he/she have been expected-given the time period and culture-to see what we can see, or not?
Does the text reveal any major social/cultural problems/ issues the writer might not have recognized? What are the text's ideologies?
Does the text assume basic categories we might not assume? Does it break down/critique/analyze its own categories? If so, does it do so deliberately or accidentally? Does it critique any major cultural assumptions/values?
Does the structure of the text seem at all to follow the structures of unconscious forces (dreams, repressions, desires, etc.)? Does it hint at hidden meanings different from the obvious meanings? If so, of what kinds? Authorial? Cultural?
What meanings/values/assumptions seem stable here? At what cost? What's silenced to leave room for what's said?
Reading for Culture
Literature takes part in cultural conversations about issues; forces of influence go all directions (to and from literature, to and from the rest of the world); other cultural expressions (including popular culture) may be equally relevant & useful; literature is part of the negotiations between individuals and cultures
Here we read with a focus on how texts represent things (historically contextualized); how texts participate in the construction of the "real"; how texts might undermine or critique certain cultural representations/ assumptions/ideologies; we look at the detailed historical circumstances of both writing & reading
These readings depend on all the strategies above, including especially those based on suspicion
How are categories like "femininity" or "masculinity" or "whiteness" or "blackness" or "civilization" or "nature" represented? What are the historical & cultural circumstances of these representations?
How does the text participate in the cultural construction of categories/meanings like these? Is the text's position straightforward and single, or complex and multiple? Does it match and support the dominant views of its time, or criticize them, or subvert them?
What does the text say about major economic systems like capitalism? What is its position re class? Race?
What other cultural expressions of the same time might be relevant/similar? What does this text contribute that's different from or like these other things?
What historical events/circumstances are present in this text in traces, between the lines, behind or beneath the pages? What might original readers have known that later readers, or those from different cultures or groups, would not know, and what differences would this information make to their understanding of the text? What kinds of research might one have to do to understand a text's full historical context?
How do the issues of the reader's time & place affect his/her interpretations of texts, and in what ways are our own cultural circumstances hard to move beyond?
*(Thanks to Sue Ellen Campbell for this portion of the guide's content.)