Tuesday, August 13, 2013

August's Book: How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster
Literary Theory (2003 - 314 pp.)

How to Read Literature Like a Professor covers a lot of the main patterns and images a careful, informed reader will (often? hopefully?) find in every book he or she reads. For the most part, each chapter covers a different type of image (death, sex, flying, water, et al.) along with appropriate examples in (mostly) 20th-century literature. Foster's choice of authors feels arbitrary at times - I know Toni Morrison and Angela Carter are acclaimed, but why them instead of similarly acclaimed authors? - but is generally consistent with the aims he sets out in the book. For the water chapter, pick a book that involves water imagery, and so on. My favourite choice, a book I had never heard of but think Foster explains masterfully, is Judith Guest's Ordinary People. The uses of drowning and identity in it are exactly what Foster is going for with his book.

Foster and I are in complete agreement on some of the points he makes. For one, I too consider "The Waste Land" to be by far T.S. Eliot's best work. I don't think "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is even good. The more important agreement we have, if only because it is far from limited to a single author, is the importance of avoiding tunnel vision. (This is an even bigger mantra in history.) Put glibly, a reader shouldn't impose his or her time's norms on a literary work. This principle can be applied to reading everything from The Iliad to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, both of which Foster use as examples. Not everything was always the way it is now, nor will the way things are now persist forever. Understanding that is extremely important for any kind of literary or historical study.

One of Foster's readings that diverges considerably from mine is that of D.H. Lawrence's "The Rocking-Horse Winner". Foster reads it in lockstep with Lawrence's more salacious works, most notably Lady Chatterley's Lover. He goes on to depict "The Rocking-Horse Winner" as a story about masturbation; the boy cannot please his mother like his father used to (rather thankfully), so he engages in repetitious rhythmic motions hoping to win big while his sisters look on aghast. I had always read "The Rocking-Horse Winner" as being about opiate abuse. The boy is desperately trying to escape economic depression, is constantly trying to get back to where he used to be, eventually falls off the horse in an exhausted daze, and, of course, is riding a horse. Whether this means Foster is wrong, I am wrong, we are both wrong (maybe the boy's really just riding a rocking horse), or whether either interpretation is equally valid and we're both at least kind of right, is anyone's guess. Certainly, a reading about something with a bad stigma as of the story's 1932 publication date is a good start.

The extended section on Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party", which Foster reproduces in full and then discusses based on levels of imagery, is a sharp break from the rest of the book. Surely, in a book on literary theory, I hadn't expected to read actual fiction. It is a good story, perhaps not the masterpiece Foster makes it out to be, but definitely a signpost of modernism. Foster walks through how different levels of student may respond to the story, including an A answer from an English graduate and then Foster's own analysis. His analysis is more in-depth than mine, if only because I had no particular desire to write an essay on "The Garden Party" in the middle of reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor. When I want to write, I'll write. Reading a book is about reading. Although Foster makes some wonderful points, including a few I did not, I am stunned at the lack of attention he pays to Laura looking "Spanish" and the cottages at the bottom of the hill being "chocolate brown". In a story so reliant upon the insulation of the self from the other, I am surprised Foster does not draw attention to the exotic look Laura takes for the party or the racialized otherness* of the poor. Those descriptions are part of the linchpin of my criticism.

It is difficult to read a book like this without thinking of my own writing, as I imagine any author would. I have employed symbolism and allegory extensively, yet I tend to bristle a little at the idea I may have included something beyond my intent. There have been times when I have included elements of a story that I do not consider crucial to the main point in a haphazard way simply to show they do not matter as much. Examples are generating lesser characters' names using a random name generator and giving objects such as cars arbitrary colours simply because people tend to notice their colours when they see them. Any professor who reads something into one of these traps would have a very unpleasant surprise at discovering its true nature, I suspect.

Now for a footnote section far longer than mine have ever been before:

INSIDE THE TEXT: My page numbers are so different from the original book's (thanks, e-readers!) I haven't bothered giving page references, only chapter references by topic. The book is so well organized nothing should be too difficult to find.

BRAGGING: When discussing different grades of literary development, Foster places Great Expectations in the "Master Class". I read it in grade 11, at the tender age of 16. Feels good. I moved on to Bleak House in early 2012.

SELF-AWARENESS: Yes, I understand how ridiculous "racialized otherness" sounds, and how much it gives away that I hold an English degree. Well, you think of a better way to describe what's happening in the story.

NITPICKING: In his discussion of "Lolita", Foster uses the term "pederasty" to describe Humbert's affections for Lolita. When I read that, alarm bells immediately went off in my head - isn't pederasty limited to homosexual interactions? I looked it up to confirm and yes, I am right on this one. This is minor, though, as Foster's communication isn't really hampered by this tiny error. I also refuse to recognize anything as mind-bending as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as "kiddie lit", but I recognize it's one of the literary works Hollywood has gift-wrapped for children in the years since its publication.

WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS: From Foster's conclusion: "What this book represents is not a database of all the cultural codes by which writers create and readers understand the products of that creation, but a template, a pattern, a grammar of sorts from which you can learn to look for those codes on your own. No one could include them all, and no reader would want to plow through the resulting encyclopedia." Astoundingly, TVTropes would start doing this exact thing the following year (Est. 2004), and has garnered widespread popularity for it.

OUTSIDE THE TEXT: Foster drew my attention to "The Arrow of Heaven" by G.K. Chesterton for the first time. I love the premise of that story, but having read it, Chesterton is far too taken with the detective/mystery angle to really use the premise to its fullest extent. It would be better off as a logic puzzle or brainteaser than as a full pulp story, as the character development never adds to the solution of the problem, only distracts from it. Maybe I'll write it as a puzzle and see what happens.

Ease of Reading: 6
Educational Content: 7

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