Beginnings in literature and literary theory

August 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

After the two back to back intensive reading sessions of Barry’s history of English studies and Eagleton’s ‘Literature and the Rise of English’ in Walder, I am almost depleted and in a very weakened state. For two reasons: firstly, because of the sheer culture shock of it all, discovering such huge amounts of information that I had never come across in my reading and secondly, because of studying and labouring over these long texts until late at night. I woke up early enough the past few days, at a time when the sun was up but the new identity that I have to adopt as a student of English calls for much effort.

If I may make a few comments as to my experience so far in the course, I should mention at point blank the Arts Good Study Guide textbook singularly as the book -a book that is not listed as a text under consideration but nevertheless a great book- that is shedding important light on the correct way of studying. Of course, there is the actual study materials that are waiting piled up on the work table to be perused and analysed but where sound advice is needed, this has got to be where a difference can be made for a high achiever. It gave directions on how to write a study chart to allocate hours for study from Monday to Sunday, introduced a few online libraries worth knowing to visit for further research, such as the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), breaking down tasks into smaller ones in manageable chunks, and reserving a study area and storage spaces for working and for retrieving filed notes. All of these helpful methods and more can actually save a lot of time and can, not only enhance our learning but also make us likely candidates to receive higher marks.

This is my study week chart, based on the model given in the book:

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
AM 2 hours 1 hour 1/3 2 hours 1 hour 1/3 2 hours 1 hour 1/3
PM 2 hours 40 min. 3 hours 2 hours 40 min. 3 hours 2 hours 40 min. 3 hours
Eve 2 hours 2 hours 2 hours 2 hours 2 hours 2 hours
Total 6 hours 40 min. 6 hours 40 min. 6 hours 40 min. 6 hours 40 min. 6 hours 40 min. 6 hours 40 min.

It can be revised where necessary as schedules are shifted.

Now, back to Barry. The second half dealt mainly with how writers and thinkers from Aristotle to Keats viewed English studies or what constituted literature. In Poetics (4th Century B.C.), Aristotle theorised about the nature of literature itself, and gave succinct definitions of tragedy and insisted that literature was about character and that the character is revealed through action. Sir Philip Sidney, who wrote ‘Apology for Poetry’ in 1580, profusely discussed the definition of literature first formulated by Ovid, who said that its mission was ‘docere delectando‘- to teach by delighting (meaning, in his day, to entertain) and quoted Horace to effectively say that a poem is ‘a speaking picture, with this end, to teach and delight’. Thus, the difference between philosophy and literature are highlighted where pleasure is given a central position in the reading of literature and the stigmatised counterpart is seen as worthy but not fun. As for the breakthrough to English studies in recent times, Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets and Prefaces to Shakespeare is credited as being an impetus to critical theory, giving a detailed commentary on the work of a single writer, Shakespeare. In the following century, Wordsworth too had his say when he collaborated with Coleridge on writing a text that would discuss high literature and popular literature. Coleridge would differ greatly from Wordsworth in his view on the lyrical ballads that which some of the literary ballads were, that had been based on the model of the popular oral ballads of ordinary country people, but these issues of the relationship between poetic language and ‘ordinary’ language sparks great interest in us readers in seeing the rationale behind this theoretical discussion. These two ambitious poets were trying to make their poetic voice sound as much like prose as possible. Later in Biographia Literaria, Coleridge addressed his now reformed views basing his interest in the effects that Aristotle and Sidney maintained, that poetry should use the language as needed for its ‘fictive’ qualities otherwise the language would be dead and not be entertaining. Shelley, a contemporary, thought in a similar vein: in A Defence of Poetry, both Shelley’s and Eliot’s notion of defamiliarisation to impersonality distances the reader and writer as much as possible. He wrote of poetry that ‘strips the veil of familiarity from the world… it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity… It compels is to feel that which we perceive and to imagine that which we know’. Keats took the Freudian notion of the mind made up of conscious and unconscious elements. the ‘silent workings’ denote the unconscious and ‘spirit’ the conscious.

the mind in creation is a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power rises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or of its departure.

(A Defence, lines 999-1003, italics the author’s)

The latter half of the second half of the essay is on the founders of practical criticism, such as Matthew Arnold and I. A. Richards. I find these a bit tedious to read, mainly because I don’t have a clue what they are saying. Hopefully things will improve upon second reading.

Finally Eagleton’s language was so much more fluent and easier to read. It did have a few difficult passages in the middle on the constitutive of knowledge (pp.34-5) and ideology. More light on this matter in due course.

Also, a very true gem. Oxford World’s Classics’ Hamlet. Since it’s getting late, I will summarise a point about the original play that Hamlet was based on, in my next post. Hint: it’s a Norse saga and it even involves a Roman hero.

To-Do List

August 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

I thought I’d go on a mini-vacation today and give you my to-do list for the upcoming week.

To Do List: 23 August 2013

1. Review the second half of Barry’s Theory before ‘Theory’- Liberal Humanism and Eagleton, Literature and the Rise of English in Walder (1)
2. Read Hamlet (5) [due 5th Sep]*****
2.1 Read Introduction to Hamlet (5)**
2.2 Read online sources pg 20 of guide (2)
2.3 Watch a film version of the play (3)
2.4 Activities pp.22-8 (16)*****

3. Read Barry Chapter 6 (4)*****
4. Read Montgomery Units 7 and 23 (4)*****
5. Read Walder Language and Gender (4)*****
6. Play
6.1 Read Samuel Beckett’s play (1)***
6.2 Read Taylor, Stage Writing (5)***
6.3 Watch a film version. Find out if there is a live stage performance in English and book tickets. (1)
6.4 Exercises (15) [by 5th Sep]**

7. Anderson, Writing Fiction. Cluster writing and free write (1/3) [until 26th Aug]**
7.1 150 words dichotomy or different co-ordinates (1/4)***
7.2 Morning pages (1/2) [until at least 11 September]**
7.3 300 words about books that were important to me and why. 5 min. on my favourite poem (1/3)***
7.4 5-10 min. reading a newspaper or magazine, for unlikely material. Radio, to a talk station and see if any topic or phrase grabs my attention, is evocative or highly charged. (1/5)***
7.5. Haiku (1/2) [on 28th Aug and on 4th Sep]
7.6 A letter of 300 words from the character produced in Activity 2.2 (1/2)***

8. Next: Approaches to Text Chapter 1 [by 12th September]**

Stars indicate the degree of importance with 1 star being the least important and 5 stars being most important. Number in brackets indicate hours of duration for completion.

What is literature?

August 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Today’s morning session began just like the previous two days: trying to recap the last chapter and summarise main points. Inevitably, my fingers flipped through the books’ pages in desperation as I struggled to recall last nights’ words. My biggest stumbling block is without a doubt Culler’s Literary Theory. How can such a tiny mole of a book make such pompous clashing sounds on my desktop amidst the thicker bulkier notches of Walder or even Barry? So far, my impression of the language in the texts is that the easiest to digest structure-wise is Walder, maybe having something to do with the fact that the book was actually meant as an Open University textbook for beginning students to literature. Thankfully, though, Culler did manage to get right into belting out its numbers on what literature is and if it matters at all.

Important term to remember: ‘hyper-protected co-operative principle’. Simply put, narratives should contain communicative elements. These are part of a larger class of stories, or ‘narrative display texts’ that rely on their ‘tellibility’ rather than on their relevance to their listeners. Whatever that is communicated should have a ‘worth it’ response. Are they going to find amusement or pleasure in the story? Then it is defined as literature. Also, another factor that plays a role in its being labelled as literature: its having been published, reviewed and reprinted, so that readers will approach them with the opinion of it having been well-constructed. Five qualities are prerequisites to a work earning this mark:

  1. Literature as a foregrounding of language. We have to be able to see a significant linguistic patterning, such as repetition in rhythm and sound.
  2. Literature as the integration of language.  Novels do not foreground language and tongue twisters rarely attract attention as literature. There must be relations of reinforcement or contrast and dissonance.
  3. Literature as fiction. There is a time in fiction that is ethereal.
  4. Literature as aesthetic object. Immanuel Kant observed that aesthetic objects have a ‘purposiveness without purpose’. For literature to differentiate itself from propaganda, it needs no external purpose.
  5. Literature as intertextual or self-reflexive construct. To read literature is to consider it as a linguistic event that has meaning in relation to other discourses. It is created possibly from previous poems or may be a work that seeks to criticise the political rhetoric of the day.

Very very important background knowledge to theoretical schools that followed from 1960s onwards is the question of when English studies began to be studied as a degree course in university. It was only in 1828 that English was offered as a subject at King’s College, now part of London University. Previously, only Classical Greek and Latin were the subjects that the exclusive male class of Anglican communicants could study taught by unmarried clergymen. What began as a shift towards interest in English studies began concurrently with the Chartist agitation of the 1830s, due to fear of an uprising similar to the French Revolution. Loss of interest in religion among the working class meant that some other thing had to replace it to teach them morality and to restrain them. Then come in the major players to the founding of ‘liberal humanism’, or what can be designated as such to students who are not an adherent to any school, whether it be Marxist, feminist, structuralist, or stylisticist. The ten tenets of liberal humanism make up the criteria for what deems good literature. Not so easy to understand on first reading but I must try and read intensively into it again.

Overall, I think today’s readings in both Culler and Barry will be the most foundational chapters that I will encounter on this course. It might be good to read or at least skim through it everyday for the next few months like a well-travelled path to the next bus stop or to the grocery.

On keeping a writer’s notebook. Each activity needs to be done and some of them, whichever works for me, should be incorporated into my daily writing routine. Virginia Woolf wrote half an hour after tea at fast speed, Maugham wrote character sketches that had dichotomy or different co-ordinates, Monique Roffey wrote her entire novel Sun Dog from writing in her notebook each morning right after getting up, American writer Susan Minot writes of her early memories of reading books and how she was particularly moved by a phrase that stuck with her. Lesson learned: keep at writing and use your writer’s notebook for all kinds of writing. These can become material that can grow and explore possible ways forward.

Fiction Writing

August 21, 2015 § Leave a comment

It’s like that moment when, often early in the morning, perhaps in a strange house, you pass before a mirror you hadn’t known would be there. You see a glimpse of someone reflected in that mirror, and a moment passes before you recognise that that person is yourself. Literature exists in moments like that.

Baxter 1997

The feeling of strangeness and excitement that rushes in with sudden insight that make writing a thrilling craft is what prompted Charles Baxter to describe this experience as ‘re-cognition’. Keeping a writer’s notebook to freewrite for 20 minutes a day for the first week into the course of Creative Writing will keep the juices flowing. So, with a few exercises involving clusters, which are essentially keywords that trigger personal thoughts that work organically than sequentially, I ventured into writing a three-minute passage with a section of a cluster that worked for me best. Each writer will have unique experiences to write from and this exercise proved just that. To prevent the bane of every writer’s life, or the writer’s block, from getting in the way, each writing session should start with this sort of brainstorming that moves our mind in a way that we want to express our deepest innermost selves as possible. The results yielded a surprising fact: I write best from a cluster that stems from a big abstract idea. This may be helpful when working with big themes, like ‘war’, or ‘neighbourliness’ that are best translated into the personal and specific.

My fingers were aching from continuous writing and I had even more reasons to be proud of a day’s work. Finally, to pull analytical and critical studies together, here’s a look at units of structure. Grammar is one aspect that we do not notice with every passing phrase, every sentence we read on a page but with a closer look at grammatical rules, some impossible sequence words are linked together, which deviates from what is acceptable as a sense making phrase. One example is in a line by the poet e.e. cummings (1940):

anyone lived in a pretty how town

The sequence article-adjective-degree-word-noun in ‘a pretty how town’ is not possible in English. It’s odd because where ‘how’ is, which is a degree word, an adjective would have made sense, such as nice, awful. Of course, if we were to change the order of the sequence to read ‘how anyone lived in a pretty town’, not only is the sense of the sentence an entirely different one (how anyone could live in such a pretty town is a mystery to me), if it were to match this interpretation with the rest of the poem, we would find that it doesn’t seem to work. This is apparent in the subsequent use of the word ‘anyone’ that appears in ‘anyone’s any was all to her’ (line 16) and in ‘one day anyone died i guess’ (line 25). It is more likely that the poet uses ‘anyone’ to refer to a nameless unimportant entity that was born and passed on to lie in a grave that experienced the similarly boring and monotonous life he lived in a rather drab town. It makes the poem more thought-provoking than to use a personal pronoun, such as he/she/the woman/Bill/Alice, with the effect being an indefinite pronoun referring to a particular group of people who are emptied of individual significance.

Once more to practising and understanding how words work, a jumbled mixture of sentences that describe the plot of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist was used. The first activity was to put them in the right order looking for evidences in phrases and linking words. The second one asked you to put them in any order you like with possible repetition of some as would be used in a flashback. That was a good exercise. It helped that I had only read Oliver Twist once and never finished reading the whole book. When I checked my answer with the answer key at the back, the story made sense and I was aware of what actual words that told me so.

I have finally been able to make a clear sense of the difference between Foucault’s and Derrida’s view on theory. It meant something as simple as just underlining one defining key phrase and committing it to memory. That should do the trick. Otherwise, why can so many recite the Lord’s Prayer or remember God’s 10 commandments in the Mosaic Law without even trying? Isn’t it all about repetition?

Literary Theory

August 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

I was elated when an untraceable textbook that I had ordered was delivered today. Funny how the bookseller suggested sending me another copy if I could not find it. I mean, couldn’t some bad people make huge bucks that way by issuing undelivered items to their sellers and then the bookseller having sent additional copies? I guess if they were unconscientious people like those who spit out their chewing gum on the clean asphalt ground as they walk or people who abuse telephone booths. It happened to be a lifesaver, too. Just when Culler’s Literary Theory was taking a toll on my eyes (typeset is a funny kind of serif font that is often used in tourist guidebooks like the Lonely Planet series) and mind, Barry’s Beginning Theory – An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory was a fresh summer breeze through my study room window. Not only is Barry from the generation when literary theory began to be published in English, he developed this subject as part of the BA programme at his university and decades later published this book.

That literary theory is difficult for all undergraduates coming from a straight A-level Literature background was very settling for me. I’d thought I was the only one to be losing myself in the winding text of theory jargon never come across before in my years as an English student. Barry gives a few pointers to make the readings bearable: firstly, become a slow reader. It is much better to read intensively than widely. Even if you have gleaned just one argument and how it unfolds and is qualified and contextualised, it is better to have skim-read it in desperation and not understood anything. To do that, a technique is used, known as ‘SQ3R”, or Survey, QuestionsReadRecall, and Review. Secondly, be patient with theory. Most writers were French and what we read are translations of Romance words into English where many Anglo-Saxon words that are everyday terms are missing. And although, for the most part, theory will unleash profound ideas for which we will show considerable patience for, it is not always the case. It should deliver something to us, not use us. For that to happen, we must show some patience but not wait too long for it to become solid. Sounds like a good introduction to a theory class.

More questions were in order in approaching an unfamiliar text. Those sets of questions asked the very nature of the texts, in form and in content, and also from what the narrative means. It was a great start. I really think I gained much from this exercise and plan to use it every time I read a new text even just for a spell. The second chapter focussed on how to find resource material on the internet, what dictionaries are available, concordances, and the like for researching different facets of the text and its background information. These tools can be used to look up words we don’t know, words we know but upon looking it up, finding that there are multiple meanings that may have become outdated at the time of writing and its significance to its meaning, using various reference books to investigate cultural references, and finding more about the themes, myths and symbols, which are similar to cultural references, such as the Bible, Greek mythology and so on. Hence, chapter two will prove to be invaluable when getting down to writing the essay; it covers social contexts, additional expounding of the text in terms of any other editions available and whether they have been edited, expurgated or cut and why are discussed. Tomorrow’s chapter three will analyse structure, one that will be important as a poetic device.

After a crash course in literary theory, simple exercises in reading an unknown text, and mulling over a poem, I can say that my one year spent in English Literature in the Sixth Form had been worth it. Many literary terms are definitely familiar and approaches to reading are reminiscent of the classroom learning I received back then. I am only thrilled and anxious about getting back into ‘shape’ as it were and to be able to conduct researches, make copious notes, print them out on a newly-bought laser printer and rewrite essays. Oh joy of joys.

My first diary entry

August 18, 2015 § Leave a comment


This is my first blog entry. I am starting this blog as a means to keep an online diary while studying for my degree in English. For this year, I will be logging a diary entry at the end of my study session in my chosen course modules, namely, Approaches to Text, Explorations in Literature, Introduction to Creative Writing, and Introduction to English Language.

The blog will be formatted with the following headings:

  1. Main Achievements
  2. Main Setbacks
  3. Feelings about Study
  4. Lessons learned
  5. Major tasks ahead
  6. Ideas for tackling next tasks

I would like to keep it informal, though, and will write the entries so that they will sound more like a journal entry rather than a report.

Well, so this is my first entry.

After having read the introductory chapters in each course module guidebook, I came up with a study plan as recommended. In a course of 22 weeks, or 30 weeks for Explorations in Literature, I will be devoting 10 hours per week per study subject. That will mean allocating from 5 hours 40 minutes to 6 hours and 20 minutes each day, except for Sunday, for study. It may sound like a lot but time flies when you are immersed in a book you’re reading, so I doubt that any less amount of time will be sufficient.

M biggest worry so far from reading the introductions is Approaches to Text. The course description sounds straightforward enough; issues, concepts and terms will be introduced that will enhance my studies throughout the programme. Mostly, the aim is to develop my analytical skills and to think broadly about the processes of interpretation and nature of English studies. A variety of approaches to texts will be introduced, including Marxist, feminist, historicist, postcolonial, and gay, lesbian and queer criticism. Others will be literature and cultural studies, like the relationship between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and the broader question of value. What, then, is a big worry is that the final examination will be a three- hour long paper from the seven topics studied throughout the course. They recommend studying at least 5 or 6 topics to answer the questions from. All of these chapters will have sample essay questions at the end to practise writing essays. At least three essays are recommended for practising to get feedback from the tutors. Fundamentally, essays will be the only way to practise for the exam. Five required texts are chosen, which we should know pretty much inside out plus additional further reading if we intend to answer a question on the topic in the exam. The exam will be in two sections. Section A will ask for commentary on one or more examples offered, and Section B, responses in the essay form. The set texts will completely engulf me because I have no background knowledge in cultural and literary theory. I can only make out from the commentary next to the titles that one of the books will be a reference book for terms and concepts, another deals with the theoretical schools, yet another on the schools but more readable than the former, another deals entirely with learning how to read analytically and critically and the last one a collection of essays and documents.

What seems then is the key to actually acquiring these analytical skills in reading is that I should follow up each chapter with exercises given. Also important are the outcomes which I need to tick off on completion to make sure I have fully understood the topic under discussion. Many books arranged by topic are given that I need to read up on to be able to write an exam question in the case that I decide to answer it in the exam. Some are familiar such as Barthes’ Mythologies, or Gombrich’s Art and Illusion. Others are new waters to me, like those on literary theory and language and rhetoric. I guess my best bet is to read the texts and follow along not knowing exactly what I will be learning.

My strengths will be in Literature. Since I have studied it before at A-levels and later in university majoring in English Language and Literature, some of the texts will be familiar – Hamlet, Emma, the Metaphysical poets, Coleridge, even books I read at leisure, such as Joyce, Woolf, Dickens, Hardy, and others that were covered broadly in uni, such as Chaucer and Homer. Most of the study times will be at reading the texts itself. The activities and explanatory notes for the sample structured study syllabus are only for certain chosen texts. Others will need to be worked on by me similarly with more essay writing exercises and by reading past exam papers at the end of the guidebook. These will need to be practised under exam conditions (timed and closed book). VLE will have more of these past papers and the Examiners’ reports.

Creative Writing will be straightforward. Mostly centred around one chosen text each for prose, poetry and stage writing. And one essential text for each of these genres. I am to keep a writer’s notebook to jot down ideas and writings as the ideas come. I am pretty excited about this subject as this will be the only one out of the four that will allow a coursework to be submitted instead of an exam. (Yay!) One other perk is the VLE where I will be posting my writing and commenting on others’ writing. The main practice will be in imitating the writing of the works. Further reading is not essential but will be useful. Some of the bibliographies in the set texts will yield results, such as the Routledge list, for example. Important in the course is that with the exception of Creative Writing, all are required to submit a piece of formative assessment in the form of an essay or a creative piece for Creative Writing, that will not contribute to the final assessment.

Finally, English Language is a linguistics course. Very simple: read the required texts and answer an unseen paper. The syllabus is so easy to understand that it doesn’t require any more explanation. One piece of advice given at the end was that I am free to write whatever I wish but make sure that it presents a fluent and coherent argument. A first-class answer will not be a regurgitation but will show an independence of thought and critically contrast, compare, and engage with the material I am referring to before coming with an informed judgment of my own.

Today I made a headlong jump into the first text, Culler’s Literary Theory. A lot of ideas are being discussed, incorporating Derrida, Rousseau, and Foucault. It’s difficult to follow along when you’re more used to reading novels but upon rereading some parts, I think I am getting there.