Writing About Literature: Literary Studies as a Discipline

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Writing About Literature: Literary Studies as a Discipline

  • Introduction to Literature
  • Lecture 2

Critical Thinking

  • In writing:
  • to learn to articulate ideas properly
  • to accumulate data
  • to arrange data into an appropriate
  • argumentative line
  • to learn how to refute mistaken,
  • incorrect, erroneous opinions
  • to learn how to draw a relevant
  • conclusion from premises

Frank Kermode on literary theory

  • "It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways in which we try to make sense of our lives. This series of talks is devoted to such an attempt, and I am well aware that neither good books nor good counsel have purged it of ignorance and dull vision; but

Frank Kermode on literary theory (cont)

  • I take comfort from the conviction that the topic is infallibly interesting, and especially at a moment in history when it may be harder than ever to accept the precedents of sense-making -- to believe that any earlier way of satisfying one's need to know the shape of life in relation to the perspectives of time will suffice.”

Critical Thinking

  • the intellectually disciplined process of
  • actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating
  • information gathered from observation, experience, reflection,
  • reasoning, or communication based on intellectual values such as clarity, accuracy, consistency, relevance, depth, fairness
  • see def by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul,
  • quoted at http://www.criticalthinking.org

Critical Thinking

  • involves the intellectual commitment of using those skills to guide behavior
  • Fairmindedness
  • to avoid skillful manipulation of ideas
  • to avoid irrationality, prejudices, biases, distortions, uncritically accepted social rules and taboos, self-interest, and vested interest
  • to avoid thinking simplistically about complicated issues
  • to consider appropriately the rights and needs of others

Style Guides

  • The formal requirements of a research paper
  • may be specific to discipline
  • publication
  • publisher
  • individual class

Joseph Gibaldi: MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers New York: The Modern Language Association of America (7th edition)

Style Guides

Good writing

  • Grammar, structure, style
  • Mechanics, punctuation
  • Usage
  • Clarity, coherence, unity
  • in sentence structures
  • in developing paragraphs
  • Exposition, argument, persuasion
  • Conclusion
  • Abstract, summary

Critical genres

  • Review, criticism
  • Research paper, scholarly essay, personal essay
  • Book chapter
  • Collection of essays, critical papers, reviews
  • Thesis, dissertation
  • Book, monograph

Donald Hall and Sven Birkerts Beth S. Neman Writing Well Teaching Students to Write Longman 9th ed. Oxford University Press 2nd ed.

Critical Thinking The Act of Writing

Writing with a Purpose

Some magazines of literary criticism

  • in which the articles and books reviews are exemplary
  • - in their layout,
  • - intellectual precision,
  • - competence,
  • - fairmindedness:

Times Literary Supplement founded in 1902

London Review of Books founded in 1979

The New York Review of Books founded in 1963

Periodicals with literary essays

  • TLS The Times Literary Supplement
  • http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/
  • London Review of Books
  • http://www.lrb.co.uk/
  • The New York Review of Books
  • http://www.nybooks.com/

The literary essay

  • Flexible form – formal or informal
  • when informal: ideas are presented
  • and argued
  • supported by quotations
  • (history of the essay as a literary kind)
  • when formal: the academic essay

The academic essay

  • Tends to be formal, with a set of rules
  • depending on the area of expertise
  • Essays and essay formats within various disciplines covered by SEAS:
  • http://seaswiki.elte.hu/research/publications

Summary: Forms

  • News media: scandals, celebrations, promotions
  • Authority issues: censorship, publication rights
  • Format: journals, magazines, collections, monographs
  • online, printed
  • Education: papers, exams, theses, dissertations
  • presentations
  • Audiences: specialised or lay readership
  • Styles: formal, informal from academic writing to blogs

Examples from DES

  • angolPark
  • http://seas3.elte.hu/angolpark/
  • The AnaChronisT
  • http://anachronist.atw.hu/
  • Style guide for literature:
  • e.g., MLA Handbook 8th Edition

For a seminar paper

  • Check requirements of instructor, concerning theme, content, method, form
  • Select a work or a problem that is of interest to you.
  • Choose a title that describes a question or problem.

For a seminar paper (cont)

  • Collect the points that you want to make, and build an argument from them.
  • Support your points and arguments by quotations from the work(s) in question, using critical sources as well. Always provide the source of your quotation.

For a seminar paper (cont)

  • In the introduction explain what you want to do, such as analyse a book from a certain point of view; compare the treatment of a problem in two or more works; describe a feature of an author's style or other strategy in two or more works by the same author; discuss a more theoretical question of literature using works as examples.

For a seminar paper (cont)

  • Problems to discuss and features to analyse:
  • narration, characterisation, structure, style, motifs, use of symbols, treatment of social or moral issues, among others

For a seminar paper (cont)

  • Then go ahead and write an interesting, argumentative paper.
  • In your conclusion summarise your results. What have you learnt from all your work? How could you sum up your most important discoveries for someone new to your topic?

If you want to test yourself

  • Give a one-line definition of the following terms:
  • variation
  • author
  • anthology
  • Give a one-paragraph definition of one of the following terms:
  • context
  • edition

Now for a 15-minute task

  • Choose one of the following two extracts and
  • list possible ways you could analyse the piece
  • choose one approach and actually carry out the analysis
  • Please find extracts on the next slide.

Extract No 1

  • All the world's a stage,
  • And all the men and women merely players.
  • They have their exits and their entrances,
  • And one man in his time plays many parts,
  • His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant, ...
  • Shakespeare "As You Like It" II.vll.

Extract No 2

  • I am the poet of the body and I am the poet of the Soul,
  • The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
  • The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.
  • Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
  • Section 21
  • http://www.princeton.edu/~batke/logr/log_026.html

Now see what you have done

  • Did you write all 3 one-line definitions?
  • Did you notice that you only had to write a one-paragraph definition on one topic?
  • Did you notice that you had to list possible analytical approaches to one of the two texts only?
  • Did you remember to do the list, as well as choose one approach to elaborate?

Planning, writing and presenting a critical paper

  • The purpose is to enable the student to demonstrate that
  • she/he knows how to use libraries and other sources effectively to locate relevant materials
  • she/he can prepare and write up a sustained and logically structured academic argument in clear prose
  • she/he can present her/his work well, using appropriate scholarly conventions


  • Deciding on a topic
  • Wide range of possible research topics
  • At BA and MA levels usually assigned to students
  • When the task is assigned, questions to be asked:
  • What were the key studies in the field?
  • What kinds of approaches have been taken to the subject?


  • Turning a topic into an argument
  • to give a direction
  • to develop a set of questions to be
  • answered or problems to be solved
  • in the paper
  • Information and data should be gathered in
  • order to answer the questions, solve the
  • problems
  • A good paper takes the form of an argument


  • turning a topic into an argument: argue
  • - for or against an existing critic or critical position
  • - about the importance of a particular influence on a writer or an influence exerted by her/him
  • - about the nature of the genre of a work
  • - about the significance of a little-known or undervalued author or work
  • - about some historical or literary-historical aspect of literature


  • Working out a structure
  • Consider the question of length of the planned paper
  • Internal division of the argument into introduction, elaboration, conclusion
  • The elaboration section may be divided into smaller units
  • Development of the argument


  • A research proposal when registering for a BA thesis should contain:
  • Title
  • Argument – in a concise form
  • Materials – presented in some detail (primary sources, secondary sources)
  • Conclusion – provisional
  • References – sources to be used
  • Bibliography – all relevant primary and secondary texts


  • Writing a paper
  • taking notes – techniques
  • from the first rough draft to the final version
  • format of the text
  • setting out references – acknowledge quotations

Appendix: an example for a history of literary evaluation

  • The critical reception of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot from the first reviews of the 1953 Paris première of En attendant Godot to canonisation


  • I do not quite know how to begin describing this play
  • by Samuel Beckett, ‘Waiting for Godot’ (directed by
  • Roger Blin, now playing at the Théâtre de Babylone). I
  • have seen this play and seen it again, I have read and
  • reread it: it still has the power to move me. I should
  • like to communicate this feeling, to make it contagious.
  • At the same time I am faced with the difficulty of
  • fulfilling the primary duty of the critic, which, as
  • everyone knows, is to explain and narrate a play to
  • People who have neither seen it nor read it. I have
  • experienced this difficulty several times before; the
  • sensation is infinitely agreeable. One feels it each time


  • one is called upon to describe a work that is beautiful,
  • but of an unusual beauty; new, but genuinely new;
  • traditional, but of eminent tradition; clever, but with a
  • cleverness the most clever professors are unable to
  • teach; and finally, intelligent, but with that clear
  • Intelligence that is non-negotiable in the schools. In
  • addition, ‘Waiting for Godot’ is a resolutely comic play,
  • its comedy borrowed from the most direct of all forms
  • of humor, the circus.

Harold Hobson In ‘Sunday Times’ 7 August 1955, 11

  • Strange as the play is, and curious as are its processes
  • of thought, it has a meaning; and this meaning is
  • untrue. To attempt to put this meaning into a paragraph
  • is like trying to catch Leviathan in a butterfly net, but
  • nevertheless the effort must be made. The upshot of
  • ‘Waiting for Godot’ is that the two tramps are always
  • waiting for the future, their ruinous consolation being
  • that there is always tomorrow; they never realise that
  • today is today. In this, says Mr. Beckett, they are like
  • humanity, which dawdles and drivels away its life,
  • postponing action, eschewing enjoyment, waiting only
  • for some far-off, divine event, the millenium, the Day of
  • Judgment.

Harold Hobson In ‘Sunday Times’ 7 August 1955, 11

  • Mr. Beckett has, of course, got it all wrong. Humanity
  • worries very little over the Day of Judgment. It is far
  • too busy hire-purchasing television sets, popping into
  • three-star restaurants, planting itself vineyards,
  • building helicopters. But he has got it wrong in a
  • tremendous way. And this is what matters. There is no
  • need at all for a dramatist to philosophise rightly; he
  • can leave that to the philosophers. But it is essential
  • that if he philosophises wrongly, he should do so with
  • swagger. Mr. Beckett has any amount of swagger. A
  • dusty, coarse, irreverent, pessimistic, violent swagger?
  • Possibly. But the genuine thing, the real McCoy.

Postlewait, Thomas: “Self-Performing Voices: Mind, Memory, and Time in Beckett's Drama. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter, 1978), pp. 473-491

  • Time is the burden in Beckett's drama-both as chronic
  • endurance and as recurrent theme. His characters
  • suffer time without being able to form it and
  • consciousness into a satisfying design. It does not
  • become for them, as it has throughout Western history,
  • a causal principle of existence, the soul and measure
  • of being: the Greek's Alpha and Omega-Chronos
  • (confused with Kronos), Heraclitus' river, Zeno's arrow,
  • Plato's moving image of eternity, Pindar's father of all
  • things, Aristotle's "number of motion in respect of
  • before and after," the Hebraic "Chronicles," the neo
  • Platonist's Nous or Cosmic Mind, St. Augustine's three
  • times (present of things past, memory; present of

Postlewait, Thomas: “Self-Performing Voices: Mind, Memory, and Time in Beckett's Drama. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter, 1978), pp. 473-491

  • things present, sight; present of things future,
  • expectation) the medieval wheel of fortune, Petrarch's
  • devouring time with the hourglass, the Renaissance's
  • Father Time (half devouring demon, half eternal
  • principle), Spenser's mutability, Shakespeare's Time
  • of many faces (transience, death, decay, tyranny, sweet
  • remembrance, gloomy prospect of "tomorrow and
  • tomorrow and tomorrow," and historical record of
  • royal and national needs of purpose), Locke's
  • measurable idea of succession and idea of duration,
  • Newton's "absolute, true, and mathematical time,"
  • Hegel's dialectical march of the Absolute Idea, Marx's

Postlewait, Thomas: “Self-Performing Voices: Mind, Memory, and Time in Beckett's Drama. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter, 1978), pp. 473-491

  • progression of economic history, Bergson's duration,
  • Proust's memory, Einstein's relativity, and throughout
  • history the pragmatist's Locks of Opportunity. None of
  • these holds consciousness together for Beckett's
  • characters. Shakespeare writes that time "nursest all
  • and murder'st all that are"; however, it does not even
  • do this in Beckett's drama. It simply runs on and on
  • without cause.

Postlewait, Thomas: “Self-Performing Voices: Mind, Memory, and Time in Beckett's Drama. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter, 1978), pp. 473-491

  • To illustrate this, Beckett divides Waiting for Godot,
  • Happy Days, and Play into two days or parts that are
  • confusingly the same. And Endgame, while limited to
  • one day and act, is nevertheless the representation of
  • repetitive actions in a daily sequence. […]
  • Life is spent in anticipation of direction and
  • meaning, and when this does not arrive, then life is
  • spent in aimless routine and habit to pass the time of
  • day. The two main "actions" in Beckett's drama are
  • anticipation without much memory (Waiting for Godot)
  • and memory with much anticipation (Endgame). Most
  • of Beckett's short plays dramatize a mind or voice
  • recording in distant isolation the fragmented pieces of

Postlewait, Thomas: “Self-Performing Voices: Mind, Memory, and Time in Beckett's Drama. Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter, 1978), pp. 473-491

  • memory that tumble out of consciousness as words,
  • words, and more disjointed words: Krapp's Last Tape,
  • Embers, Play, Eh Joe, Cascando, Not I, Footfalls, and
  • That Time.
  • Although the action in Waiting for Godot appears to
  • be random, especially from the characters' point of
  • view, the play is organized into a carefully controlled
  • plot. It unifies around two questions that recur
  • throughout the play: "Do you not remember?" and
  • "What are we waiting for?" That is, memory and
  • anticipation. The words "remember" and "waiting" are
  • constantly repeated in the play, closely matched by the
  • words "yesterday„ and "tomorrow."

Gordon, Lois: Reading Godot. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002, p 62

  • Beckett mirrors the paradoxes of existentialism — the
  • persistent need to act on precariously grounded
  • stages — with the repeated absence of denouement in
  • the enacted scenarios. Since much of act I, with its
  • series of miniplays, is repeated in the second act,
  • which concludes with an implicit return to act I, Beckett
  • creates a never-ending series of incomplete plays
  • within the larger drama, each of which lacks a
  • resolving deus ex machina. The paradox of purposive
  • action and ultimate meaninglessness pervades. A
  • deceptively simple boot routine is rationalized as
  • purposeful activity.

Graver, Lawrence: Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 20-21

  • The title, the sense of universal present time, the shape
  • of the plot and of the characters, the often pointed and
  • tantalizing allusions – these obviously invite allegorical
  • interpretation, and for many play goers and readers the
  • invitation has proved irresistible. It is also important to
  • remember that when Waiting for Godot was first
  • performed in the1950s, arguments about systems of
  • meaning were often influenced by a large body of
  • philosophical and fictional writing generally known as
  • existentialist, which seemed at first glance to have
  • marked similarities to Beckett’s work. Although not a
  • cohesive school, the existentialist writers were

Graver, Lawrence: Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 20-21

  • preoccupied with many of the same vital issues, most
  • notably the problem of discovering belief in the face of
  • radical twentieth-century perceptions of the
  • meaningless or absurdity of human life.
  • A characteristic existentialist response was to
  • accept nothingness, absence, and absurdity as given
  • and then to explore the way human beings might self
  • consciously form their essence in the course of the
  • lives they choose to lead. The origin of the inclination
  • for transcendence was little agreed upon by such
  • writers as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert
  • Camus, and Karl aspers; but as Richard Shepard has
  • described it, ‘a radically negative experience is seen to

Graver, Lawrence: Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 20-21

  • contain the embryo of a positive development – though
  • the psychological and philosophical content of that
  • development is extremely diverse’ (Fowler, p. 82).
  • The pervasiveness of existentialist thinking in the
  • 1940s and 1950s was so great that any work about an
  • individual’s quest for purpose and order in life,
  • especially in relation to an absent or a present divinity,
  • was likely to be discussed in the context of current
  • controversies about existence, essence, personal
  • freedom, responsibility, and commitment. Many
  • philosophers who were not existentialists were also
  • absorbed by these same questions.

Graver, Lawrence: Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 20-21

  • For instance, Simone Weil, who coincidentally
  • had been a student at l’Ecole normale superieure when
  • Beckett lectured there, published a widely-read book,
  • Attente de Dieu (Waiting for God), just at the time that
  • Beckett and Roger Blin were trying to stage En
  • attendant Godot. Yet there seems to have been no
  • direct connection with or influence of either writer on
  • the other. The issues were in the air.

Worton, Michael: “Waiting for Godot and Endgame: Theatre as Text”. In: Pilling, John, ed.: The Cambridge Companion to Beckett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp 67-87

  • Beckett's first two published plays constitute a crux, a
  • pivotal moment in the development of modern Western
  • theatre. In refusing both the psychological realism of
  • Chekhov, Ibsen and Strindberg and the pure
  • theatricality of the body advocated by Artaud, they
  • stand as significant transitional works as well as major
  • works in themselves. The central problem they pose is
  • what language can and cannot do. Language is no
  • longer presented as a vehicle for direct communication
  • or as a screen through which one can see darkly
  • the psychic movements of a character.

Worton, Michael: “Waiting for Godot and Endgame: Theatre as Text”. In: Pilling, John, ed.: The Cambridge Companion to Beckett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp 67-87

  • Rather it is used in all its grammatical, syntactic and –
  • especially - intertextual force to make the reader/
  • spectator aware of how much we depend on language
  • and of how much we need to be wary of the
  • codifications that language imposes upon us.
  • Explaining why he turned to theatre, Beckett once
  • wrote: 'When I was working on Watt, I felt the need to
  • create for a smaller space, one in which I had some
  • control of where people stood or moved, above all of a
  • certain light. I wrote Waiting for Godot.‘ This desire for
  • control is crucial and determines the shape of
  • Beckett's last theatrical works; the notion that

Worton, Michael: “Waiting for Godot and Endgame: Theatre as Text”. In: Pilling, John, ed.: The Cambridge Companion to Beckett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp 67-87

  • the space created in - and by - the playscript is smaller
  • than that of the novel, however, needs urgent and
  • Interrogative attention. It is undeniable that, having
  • chosen to write in French in order to avoid the
  • temptation of lyricism, Beckett was working with and
  • against the Anglo-Irish theatrical tradition of ironic and
  • comic realism (notably Synge, Wilde, Shaw, Behan).
  • However, his academic studies had led him to a
  • familiarity with the French Symbolist theories of
  • theatre — all of which contest both French Classical
  • notions of determinism and the possibilities of the
  • theatre as a bourgeois art-form. (68-69)

Banville, John: “The Painful Comedy of Samuel Beckett”. New York Review of Books, November 14, 1996

  • Reviewing among others:
  • Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by
  • James Knowlson. Simon and Schuster
  • Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist by Anthony
  • Cronin. HarperCollins                                   
  • The World of Samuel Beckett, 1906-1946 by Lois
  • Gordon. Yale University Press

Banville, John: “The Painful Comedy of Samuel Beckett”. New York Review of Books, November 14, 1996

  • However different their approaches, Knowlson, Cronin,
  • and Gordon have a common intention, which is to
  • present in a more appealing light the personality and
  • work of an artist who is too often seen as
  • unapproachably difficult, pessimistic, and
  • misanthropic. At a certain level, all biographies are
  • also autobiographies. Thus Knowlson’s Beckett is not
  • only a great writer but also a kind of super academic, a
  • man steeped in world literature, a paragon of
  • scholarship and learning. Cronin’s Beckett, on the
  • other hand, is a dedicated working artist, not at all as
  • disengaged from the world as he liked to pretend, or as

Banville, John: “The Painful Comedy of Samuel Beckett”. New York Review of Books, November 14, 1996

  • his admirers preferred to believe, an Irishman fond of a
  • drop, a ladies’ man who would sooner essay a song
  • than talk “balls” (a favorite Beckett word) to the likes of
  • Professor Knowlson. In Gordon’s version, Beckett is
  • caught up in and to a large extent shaped by the
  • history of his time, the great events of which are
  • reflected, however obliquely, in his work. All three
  • versions, complementary rather than contradictory, are
  • more or less persuasive, and although few non
  • specialist readers may be prepared to plough their way
  • through all three of these books, taken together they
  • do provide a remarkably rounded picture of a deeply
  • mysterious artist.

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