How To Write About Literature

True to the lessons held within this book, author Kelley Griffith Jr. tells us with simple clarity, right up front in the preface, "that essays about literature are almost always arguments and, as such, must persuade an audience."


This is the overriding point of "Writing Essays about Literature, A guide and style sheet." The book is broken into two main sections. The first part deals with the analysis of literature, including sections on how to generate essay topics about fiction, drama, and poetry, the variety of specialized approaches to interpreting literature, and how to evaluate the quality of literature. The second part deals with the mechanics of writing about how to handle quotations, apply rules of usage, and document sources.

I read Griffith's superb book because I plan to devote vast amounts of time to reading and reviewing books during this, the remaining half of my life. The first part of the book holds most interest, so this is what we'll summarize. Most of what follows is either paraphrasing or direct wicked quoting:

"...good literature pleases you by reflecting and giving order to life."

Essays about literature raise and try to answer such questions as, How does the work reflect time, and the author's life and thought? What does it mean? How does it work? Is it good art? Has it had an impact on society? What human problems does it portray?

Good literature is complex. It communicates on many levels of meaning using many methods. One work may exist as a system of interrelated sounds, symbols, ideas, images analogies, actions, psychological portrayals, moods. When writing literary essays, 'each writer offers a thesis and accepts the obligation to defend that thesis with evidence and logic.

Literature is...

Language: Authors use words with denotive, dictionary meanings, and multiple connotive expressive, emotional meanings. 'Mother'. They also use them for them for their sounds, rhythms, appearance on the page.

Aesthetic: It gives unique pleasure. Good literature gives overall order and coherence to events in the form of Plot. Fictional: It tells a story. Detected by watching for elements that depart from norms of reality. Try to gauge the distance between you and the material. Does the author minimize or emphasize it? How and why?

True: Tension between fictionality and truthfulness to the reality of human experience. A fable's lesson may be true to our own experience. To embody their worldviews authors use typical characters and probable actions. We expect literature to give order to chaos of real life and expose patterns of meaning. Literature also conveys true by presenting the experience of reality. By using imagination to put us in the midst of it, to make us feel it, understand it. "The profundity of literature lies in its imaginative reconstruction of the experience of commonplace ideas. How to analyze the truths within a work: Look for basic themes: events, dialogue, setting

Note what major characters do and say that identify them as typical Analyze nature of the author's world: good rewarded/evil punished? Characters hostile/friendly? Driven by free will/fate?

Research what author says about their work outside the work.

Expressive: Literature expresses personalities, emotions, beliefs of those who write it. May be charmed or impressed by the presence (or absence) of an author in the work.

Affective: Literature's ability to create an emotional response in the reader. Some make their work unemotional/intellectual, others more sentimental. Ask yourself what emotions the work raises in you, what effect it has, and what the author is trying to achieve by creating it.

Why write about literature? To satisfy your audience's desire to know; to understand what they are reading better. Which underscores the need to use sound logic, include all steps in your reasoning, to state ideas precisely and convincingly. This exercise will take you on a journey of self discovery. You write to answer puzzling questions, to clarify your own ideas and beliefs.

You've got a good topic if most readers can't answer the question that lies behind it after reading the work once. Good topics are thought-provoking, meaningful and narrowly focused.

While both attempt to create 'reality', fictional worlds are potentially more complete and coherent than historical worlds. Fiction writers can produce facts at will, and fit them into a coherent plant (Don Delillo's Libra). "They can enter their characters' minds, look into the heavens, create chains of cause and effect, pierce the future. They must establish at least an aesthetic order, possibly a philosophical order too. They must build conflict into their worlds. Events of history are not always characterized by conflict, events of fiction always are. Fiction writers celebrate separateness, distinctness, and the importance of all individuals and individual experiences. Historians record and celebrate human experiences that affect or represent large numbers of people. Fiction writers see reality as welded and seen through the individual's psychological perception. Time as an experienced emotional phenomenon, as a river flowing inside the mind.


Plot: A pattern of carefully selected, causally related events that contains conflict. Freytag pyramid (1863) unstable situation, a conflict that sets the plot in motion. Exposition that explains the nature of the conflict, introduces characters, describes setting, and provides historical background. Series of events then occur, each of which causes the one that follows and each of which intensifies the conflict. Plot rises to climax, the most intense event in the narrative. This is followed by 'falling' action, which is usually brief and less intense, and leads toward the resolution of conflict and a stable situation.

There are two categories of conflict: external and internal, e.g. Fights between two people, or one person against nature versus temptation within the mind of one person. Protagonist usually a main character fighting for something. Antagonist is the opponent of the protagonist, usually an individual, but it can be a nonhuman force...the protagonist's tendency toward evil, or self-destruction. The most crucial question you can ask of a work: What conflict does it dramatize? Analyzing conflict reveals action, illuminates characters and points to the meaning or theme of a story.

Characterization: Simple/complex. Stereotypes/real, complicated people. Former tend to remain the same, latter change, and grow to a climax or epiphany where a sudden revelation of truth is experienced. Questions to ask: What is this character like? What traits? What kind of character is this person? What do they learn? Does what they learn help or hinder them? What types do they represent?

Theme: The central idea of the work, the comment it makes on the human condition: the nature of humanity, of society, of humankind's relationship to the world, and of our ethical responsibilities. Are human beings innately sinful or good? Does fate control us or do we it? What does a particular social system do for, and to, its members? Distinguish between subject: usually stated in one word: e.g. Love; and theme: what the work says about the subject. Stating a theme involves moving from the concrete situations within the work to the general situations of people outside the work. Many works have more than one theme. Some may not have any. Difficult to say what they mean. Themes in complex works can never be determined with certainty. You must seek patterns and support your interpretations with logic and evidence. Questions to ask: What is the work about? What does the work say about the subject? How does the work communicate its theme - plot, setting, characterization, etc?

Setting: The physical sensuous world of the work, the time in which the action takes place, the manners, customs and moral values that govern the characters' society. Questions to ask: Get the details of the physical setting clear in your mind. Where does the action take place? What sensuous qualities are present? What relationship does place have to characterization and theme? What period of history are we in? How long does it take for the action to occur? How is the passage of time perceived? Slow/fast. What reaction do we and the characters have to atmosphere, the sensual quality of the setting?