Sep 5, 2013

Mark Edmundson on being an English major

"The English major at her best isn't used by language; she uses it. She bends it, inflects it with irony, and lets hyperbole bloom like a firework flower when the time's right. She knows that language isn't there merely to represent the world but to interpret it. Language lets her say how she feels.
The English major believes in talk and writing and knows that any worthwhile event in life requires commentary and analysis in giant proportion. She believes that the uncommented-on life is not worth living. Then, of course, there is the commentary on the comments. There must be, as Eliot says, a hundred visions and revisions before the taking of the toast and tea—and a few after as well."
"But I sometimes think that the English major's most habitual feeling about the linguistic solution in which she swims isn't practical at all. What she feels about language most of the time is wonder and gratitude. For language is a stupendous gift. It's been bequeathed to us by all of the foregoing generations. It is the creation of great souls like Shakespeare and Chaucer to be sure. But language is also the creation of salesmen and jive talkers, quacks and mountebanks, hookers and heroic warriors. We spend our lives, knowingly or not, trying to say something impeccably. We long to put the best words in the best order. (That, Coleridge said, is all that poetry really comes down to.) And when we do, we are on the lip of adding something to the language. We've perhaps made a contribution, however small, to what the critic R.P. Blackmur called the stock of available reality. And when we do, we've lived for a moment with the immortals. Poetry has been called the Olympics of language. "
"I love Wordsworth and Shakespeare and Donne. But I like it when a fellow pickup b-ball player points to a nervous guy skittering off to the bathroom just as the game's about to start: "He's taking a chicken pee." Yup—hit it on the head. I like it when, in the incomparable song "Juicy," Biggie Smalls describes coming up in life by letting us know that once "Birthdays was the worst days / Now we sip champagne when we thirs-tay." (And to advertise his sudden erotic ascent: "Honeys play me close like butter play toast.") "
"Language, a great poem in and of itself, is all around us. We live in the lap of enormous wonder, but how rarely do most of us look up and smile in gratitude and pleasure? The English major does that all the time."

Sep 1, 2013

Elements of short fiction

These old teaching notes are a bit dated, but I'm posting them anyway because they're rather clear and concise, and novice readers might benefit from them.

Elements of Short Fiction
Before considering short fiction, let's discuss what we mean by fiction itself. The primary distinguishing characteristic of fiction, as opposed to poetry and drama, is its relative ordinariness. The genre we have come to know as fiction -- fables, tales, parables, short stories, novellas, and novels – is written as prose. Prose is the "ordinary form of spoken or written language." Prose has no definite metrical structure, rhyme scheme or verse forms (i.e. it's not poetry). Prose is written to be read, not performed (as in drama).  

Despite its relative ordinariness, writers can achieve highly stylized effects with prose: feats of verbal pyrotechnics, individuated sentence patterns, and unique tonalities. Just because we call prose ordinary doesn't mean it doesn't have variety and depth. It is just to say that of all the genres of literature, fiction comes the closest to the way we commonly speak and write. 

Another distinguishing characteristic of fiction in addition to its prose form has to do with how we as readers interact with it. Compared to drama and poetry, reading fiction tends to be a more solitary and silent activity. It is a gateway to the interior life. Generally speaking, modern fiction isn't read aloud (although folk tales, fables, fairy tales, and myths have their sources in the oral tradition). Our image of the modern reader of fiction is a person sitting in their favorite armchair on a quiet afternoon or evening reading silently by the lamplight. In this sense, fiction is the most interior of literary genres. Reading a good novel or story is like entering a portal into an imaginary world, an escape into the imagination. To read fiction well, you must be willing to use your imagination because it is less of a sensory experience than a poem, drama, or film. 

History of fiction
The short story is part of a long tradition of imaginative prose extending back to ancient times. There was in fact prose fiction as far back as Ancient Greece and Rome. Apulius's Golden Ass, Petronius's Satyricon, and a few Greek Romances have survived the ages. In them we see prose being put to imaginative use. (That being said, fiction in ancient times took a back seat to poetry and drama.) 

If we go farther back in history, we can find abundant evidence of fiction in mythology, folk, fables, parables, and tales. Those genres used prose to transmit and pass down the wisdom, culture, morals and ideas of societies and civilizations. Examples include Aesop's Fables, stories from the Bible, the parables of Jesus, Grimms Fairy Tales, The Arabian Nights and countless mythologies from societies all over the world.  Prose fiction of this sort got transmitted through the oral tradition (word of mouth, memorization) and only later got recorded in book form. 

Intentional literary art, that is imaginative work written by individual authors purposefully with the intent of entertaining, persuading, and educating, was primarily the domain of poets and dramatists. Only later did prose gain enough respectability to become a legitimate art form in its own right. This happened to coincide with the rise of national languages in the West (as Latin devolved into local dialects which later distinguished themselves into separate languages like French, Italian, Spanish, and as Germanic and Slavic languages coalesced into unified, extended languages like English, German, Russian, and so on.) and the rise of book culture, thanks to the invention of movable type which enabled large scale printing and binding of books in the vernacular. Literacy among the general population increased, and with it, the appeal of imaginary literature written in prose – the most accessible of all literary genres. 

So we see in the 17th and 18th centuries the rise of the novel (long form prose fiction) in works like Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, Pamela, and Tom Jones. The novel quickly grew popular. By the 19th century, authors were playing with the forms of fiction, scaling novel length works down closer to the length of traditional tales and essays. This all happened in conjunction with the rise of magazines, newspapers, and periodicals, which provided the space for the short story to thrive. Thus was born the short story as we know it. 

What distinguishes a short story from a tale, fable, folk tale, or myth? Keep in mind that the lines between these fictional forms is blurry. All of them involve the narration of imaginary events and portrayal of imaginary characters in prose.  A narrative is an accounting or recital of facts. In stories, narrative is the telling of facts, details, and events in the story. 

Myth can be seen as a fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or events, and embodying some popular idea concerning natural or historical phenomena. (the invention of fire, the creation of the world). 

A Fable is fictitious story relating to supernatural or extraordinary persons or incidents, and is a product of popular belief, myth or legend. Usually fables have an obvious moral to them (a kernel of wisdom you can take away from the story). 

A Tale is a story (true or fictitious) drawn up so as to interest or amuse, or to preserve the history of a fact or incident.

Folklore is the system of traditional beliefs, customs, and and legends of the common people in a given culture, often represented in story form (folk tales) or poems (folk songs). 

The modern Short Story differs somewhat from all the forms mentioned above because it is the product of an individual artist, with a discernible aesthetic arrangement of formal elements such as plot, character, setting, tone, mood, style, imagery, symbolism, and so on. Short stories tend to be anywhere from 500 to 15,000 words long. Where fables and folk tales are passed down by tradition, short stories are works of individual craftsmanship.

Generally fables, myths, and tales are spare in the way they are told – they focus on a summary of events and character. Their aim is to explain something: the way the world works, a hidden truth, a moral lesson. Short stories (while they don't exclude moralizing, truth telling, and other educational functions) strike us as being written for entertainment, for capturing a slice of life, a mood, a sense of being, and creating an encapsulated world where our imaginations can play with meanings.  

Edgar Allan Poe saw the short story as a way for writers to hold a reader's attention in one sitting and exert full control over the reader in that short duration, in order to produce specific effects. 

Novelist Joseph Conrad said this of fiction: "My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see. That – and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there, according to your deserts, encouragement, consolation, fear, charm, all you demand – and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask."

Flannery O'Connor's definition of story goes like this: "A story is a complete dramatic action – and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action and the action is controlled through the characters, and the result of this is meaning that derives from the whole presented experience."

The building blocks of fiction
When you read fiction, I encourage you to invest extra time to dwell in the imaginary world being created for you by the writer. Remember, it takes two to tango (you and the writer). Read attentively, slowly, and let your imagination breathe. After you've formulated some initial impressions of the story, you can go back and begin to analyze for purposes of discussion and writing essays. Here are a few of what I call the “building blocks” of fiction:

Plot is like the “ticker tape” of the story, the series of events. It is simply what happens and when it happens. It must be added that plot also establish a causal chain of events. Without motivation and cause/effect, a series of events is just that a series. It isn't a story. Infusing intentionality, motivation, actions and reactions suddenly brings your plot to life. Plot forms the core of narrative art. Keep in mind that plot doesn't have to be in chronological order. 

Chronology: the timeline of events in the story, reconstructed into chronological order
Narrative: the order of events, scenes, incidents as the author sequences them. 

Narrative is really what we mean by plot. Some concepts related to traditional plot structure (it's actually more complicated than this, but these terms are useful anyway):

Exposition: the "setting the stage" phase of the story, where the writer positions you in time and space, introduces the main characters and conflicts, and gives you the information you need to appreciate what's to come later in the story. 

Foreshadowing: sometimes the author plants seeds, clues, and hints of action that will follow later as the plot unfolds.  

Conflict: the opposing forces in the story and how they interact. Most stories thrive on some kind of conflict: man vs. man; man vs. environment; man vs. society; man vs. himself.  (Of course women are welcome too!)

Rising action: the portion of the plot when the conflict intensifies and gains momentum. Suspense may build, complications arise, and characters are faced with thorny decisions. 

Crisis / Climax : the turning point of the story. This is when the action reaches its peak or when the biggest conflict occurs. In many story, the climax sets off a chain reaction of events called the falling action.  

Falling Action: (denouement): After the climax, events unfold (often inevitably). Eventually, some kind of order is restored, the conflict is resolved, we achieve a sense of stasis (for better or worse). 

Epiphany: a moment of startling, sudden insight gained by the main character as a result of the unfolding events in the story. It is a moment in the story when a character “sees the light,” "the light bulb goes on,” a moment of clarity and self recognition flashes before his/her eyes. Short story plots frequently result in an epiphany of one sort or another. 

The people in the story. Characters often can be better understood in relation to their importance in the plot and can be divided into major and minor characters. In novels, writers have a lot more room to discuss many characters. Short stories usually focus on only one or two major characters. 

The protagonist is the leading character, the main character, the center of attention, and sometimes the narrator.  

The antagonist is the force acting against the main character. Usually a person, but doesn't have to be.  

A Flat character is a “two-dimensional” representation of a person – a caricature or stereotype. 

A Round character is a “3D” person (we see more of their interior and exterior being),  a fuller representation of the whole person. 

Dynamic characters are characters who change or grows from beginning to end of the story. 

Static characters don't change or grow as the story unfold.  

Motivation: psychologically speaking, you can analyze what moves a character to think and act the way they do? What psychological drives, needs, values, desires, and outside pressures are at play? All these can motivate a character to action, so motivation connects closely to developments in the plot. A common saying in literature is “character determines fate,” which means that a well drawn character driven by motivations will take actions consistent with those motivations that determine a specific outcome in the story. 

Point of View
Point of view deals with the art of narration: who is telling the story, and what's their perspective? How much do they know? How reliable are they? The voice of the story is the narrator. 

An omniscient narrator knows all and is capable of telling all. Omniscience is a God-like perspective.   The all seeing, all knowing eye. 

A limited omniscient narrator knows all, but doesn't necessarily tell you everything he knows. Certain information is concealed from the reader deliberately. 

A limited narrator, usually a character inside the story telling the story, can't know everything, so she tells the story from her restricted point of view. 

A story's point of view gives it a special character or tone:

Stories told in the first person ("I" or "We" narrator) can be reliable or unreliable, and obviously imply a a limited perspective. You're getting one character's point of view. 

Stories told in the third person (“he,” “she,” “it”) tend to be more objective in style, although you should still question the reliability and character of any narrator, even an “objective” one. 

Where and when the action of the story occurs. In certain stories, the environment can play a significant role. Sometimes the environment is so important it can act as a character in the story or play a role in the story's conflict. Knowing where and when the story is happening will help you to produce stronger, more defensible interpretations. One reason we read for pleasure is for literature's capacity to take us somewhere else. Setting is where the story takes you to. 

The way actions, events, people, and objects are described in the story. Does the writer use metaphor, simile, colorful descriptions? Are there patterns of imagery that can be detected? Imagery often ties in with the story's thematic content and frequently can rise to the level of symbolism.  

Symbol is something that stands for or represents something else, not by exact resemblance, but by suggestion (or convention). It can be a material object representing something immaterial and abstract, like an idea, a theme, a condition, a state of being.  

Irony is a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used. A condition of affairs or events of a character opposite to what was or might be expected, a contradictory outcome of events. 

Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony is a state wherein the character in the story is unaware of something that the reader is aware of. Dramatic irony often results in feelings of pity, suspense, tension, or comic pleasure. 

Verbal Irony
Verbal irony can occur within a story, where the words used by characters say one thing and mean another. 

Literature's capacity to support multiple interpretations or "readings". When a story is ambiguous, it doesn't mean it is vague; it means the story can be viewed from multiple angles and can sustain many layers of understanding: literal, thematic, symbolic, psychological, social, moral, etc.

Theme tends to be an overused term in English classes. It implies that each story has a secret message that can be decoded, if only we can read the clues or possess the secret key. It's a holdover from the expectation that stories must have a moral lesson to teach. Thus the  hunt for literary themes can seem like a absurd scavenger hunt. And yet, if we allow for the fact that stories are ambiguous, we can discuss theme in this way: themes are simply what the stories are "about" in the abstract – in a general way. What ideas are important to the story? What concepts help you understand the story, or what subjects arise out of the story's characters and conflicts? Themes can be timeless and universal, or fleeting, local, contextual and particular. So when we say that the "Yellow Wallpaper" is a story about Victorian Age Woman's struggle for freedom and empowerment, we are discussing a theme, but not the only theme. There may be universal themes in that story worthy of discussion too, like marriage, identity, individuality, mental health.