Thursday, May 19, 2011

Fiction Writers and Literature

A friend of mine is currently struggling with her English major right now due to the literature ALL English majors, no matter the track, must take. She is on the creative writing track, but currently grappling with her confidence to be able to analyze literature effectively to complete this degree.

I am an English major as well, though I am on the rhetoric and composition track. I feel her pain. While I love to read literature and can write well-written literary analysis essays, it's not my passion and something I likely won't do ever again once I graduate.

In any case, somebody decided to pose the argument that all creative writers must be able to effectively analyze literature to write compelling prose. I cry poppycock at this statement. While I believe writers do need to know the basics (theme, symbolism, ect.,), I do not believe they need to know how to analyze literature to the depths an English major must do to write compelling prose. Plus, we English majors constantly have to read the classics, and let's face it: the classics aren't for everyone. While writers must give them a chance, they shouldn't force themselves to read the classics if the classics don't fit their taste. What worked then doesn't work now. No one would get away with writing wordy prose you find in many 19th century classics. Also, while writers should constantly expand their horizons, it's often best for them to pay careful attention to the type of prose they write, whether it be middle grade, young adult, fantasy, or sci-fi, and not the type of prose that Emerson or Austen or Orwell writes, because, again, what worked then will not work now.

Writers need only analyze literature the way writers should, not the way English majors would. Writers only need to analyze literature insofar as plot development, character development, and the like are concerned. They do not need to analyze literature that concerns, for example, how the social mores play out in a particular story, or how women are subtly treated as inferiors to their male counterparts, or how space plays an important role in a particular story. That is for English majors, not writers, to do. What writers do need to pay attention to is how Main Character is developed throughout the story in relation to other characters, or if Main Character even develops at all. Writers need to look for what the author did good and why and what the author did poorly and why. This is not something we English majors look at or are even allowed to criticize. We English majors can only critique the argument of another person's analysis, but we cannot critique the author's writing the way writers should know how to. What literary critiques analyze is far different from what writers analyze. Literature classes DO NOT TEACH YOU how to analyze literature the way writers would. They only teach you how to analyze literature the way literary critics would, or even readers would--even then it is primarily literary critics who would analyze something as space in a story. Readers, in a commercial sense, would read a story similar to the way a writer would: how the plot, characters, ect. are developed, though they do not necessarily pose solutions on how they would fix it as writers would.

All in all, writers analyze literature differently from English majors. So don't despair if you as a writer cannot analyze literature to the depth and complexity of an English major. Your story can still be compelling without you as a writer trying to expose some social truth. If readers want to analyze literature to that depth, they'll often find something you didn't even realize you had written. I don't even think most literary greats of the past wrote with the idea people would find all these things we have today. Poor writers are often those who do try to write with purposed complexity, rather than just trying to write a compelling story with compelling characters readers will relate to. And I am speaking about this as a literary magazine editor who has received stories in the past that try to expose some social truth but often spend pages upon pages with characters musing over some object that is supposed to be symbolic of some greater truth. It's convoluted nonsense. Just write what you want to write and don't worry about trying to put some literary depth to it.


  1. I know what you're talking about. I studied English Literature (sadly I haven't been able to get my degree yet...but I will) and literay criticism was never for me, only in very few cases I did great and that was because I loved the text I was working on. Anyway, character development has always been important to me, and more when it is focused on psycholoy aspects. As for writing, I have trouble writing prose, not being able to give enough details, follow a straight-logical story line. Reading prose, like i love to do, should help or that's what I think. So i'm getting there. Read, analyse, criticse, then try to use that into my own writing.

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  3. Aline is a lot like me. I have troubles writing prose as well. One reader says: "You give too much details about the surroungings!" Another says: "You must add the details. I don't see the place." So I understand Aline.

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