Thursday, May 19, 2011

Do You Think About Literary Techniques as You Read and Review?

I made a claim in my first post about book blogging and the "I"-centered review that I'd like a little feedback on:  "the spread of "I"-centered reviewing covers for a relative lack of vocabulary and strategies for reviewing books."

What I want to know, well, I I right?

I recently saw this list of 40 basic literary terms mentioned quite a bit, and the number and velocity of links, tweets, and reblogs suggested that people want more vocabulary for this stuff than maybe they have at their disposal.

Maybe this question is more generative--do you think about the techniques and vocabulary when you are reading or reviewing literature? 

I know many of you have studied literature--how much of that education and training remains in your head? And what percentage of that could you use?

Would you like to use more formal terminology and modes of analysis? Why or why not?

I'm really quite interested in this and appreciate whatever feedback you can give. 


  1. Pretty much nothing. I'm more apt than I was at discerning themes and seeing the big picture, the place of a novel in its posterity, in history at large. But for the rest, nada. Comparative Literature is somewhat deviated from cultural studies, so what I've learned in class is of more importance to me what I look at a pop culture phenomenon than when I read.

    I'm happy that somehow I still kept the magic, the alchemy of reading, despite the graduate degree.

  2. I want to learn more! As an English Major, I'm still learning, but it is really helpful in analysis. I just learned of Propp's 31 facets found in Russian fairy searching for the long out-of-print book where he explains it.
    Learning more is always a good option, if just for the sake of learning!

  3. As someone who's a current grad English student, I like a little of both. I want to know the mechanics of how the novel works, but I also want to know what the reviewer really thinks. I mean, Hemingway is stylistically good, but I don't like him. Does that make sense? But I do think adding a level of academic rhetoric makes a review a little more solid that the run of the mill "I did or didn't like it" trope.

  4. I just printed out that same list of literary terms. Twenty years ago, when I took my first graduate class in literature (Russian, not English), I bought one of those laminated "cheat sheets" that one sometimes finds in university bookstores which defined lots of literary terms: I knew more literature and grammar terminology in Russian than I did in my native language. Even now, possibly because I had that cheat sheet (long gone) and did not retain much of what I read, I suspect that my 4th-grader is more fluent in literary terminology than I am.

    Whether or not I think about literary techniques and vocabulary when I read depends on what I'm reading and why. I've had a few good reasons not to think in that way when I read: (1) I usually read too fast. (2) For many years - really, for most of my life - I've read to escape to some other reality. Identifying and appreciating a sexy synecdoche doesn't help much with the escape attempt. It's like watching a magic show when you know how the magician pulls off all his tricks. (3) Because of my earlier profession, reading for technique and vocabulary seemed analogous to navel-gazing. Interesting to contemplate in theory, but a waste of time in practice. (4) I watched an Alfred Hitchcock movie in college with a theater-major friend who was taking a film class. She did so much deconstruction during the film, and was so bipolar about it (everything was either BRILLIANT, or it sucked snake teat) that it seemed she would never again watch a movie for pleasure. I didn't want to risk getting all bipolar about books. Books are sacred. It would be a tragedy to fall out of love with them.

    Now I'm retired. I have time to ponder the many mysteries of my navel. My career involved intense analysis and critical thinking, and being in the Stay-Home Mom Mafia doesn't; I read more critically and analytically now because it's a great workout for the mental muscles. I got a master's degree in writing, and when we read, we did so to understand what was working for us and what we might try out in our own writing; that's fun, too. Catching the magician at his tricks now seems like a fun game. These days, if I'm reading for technique and vocabulary, it's a way of having an intimate conversation with the author - and one path to living an examined life.

    All that said, I think I'm still not very good at deconstructing while I read. I'm trying out the dual-entry reading journal format that my 4th-grader showed me, and it's helping some. But I'm not writing many reviews on my own reading blog yet because I don't feel like I have the credentials to pronounce judgement on someone else's fiction, and because I'm afraid of sounding silly - of revealing my own inadequacies as a reader.

    Right now, I'm mostly thinking and blogging about the experience of reading, and hoovering up what other (more qualified?) people are saying in their book blog reviews.

  5. As an English graduate, I have to say I quite often don't use much of the stuff i've learned at all when reading and reviewing. When I was in Uni, I really had to make myself read in an interpretive way, and now that i'm out, my natural instinct is to just read and react to the book. That said, there are times when I know that I can get more from a book (perfect example is a recent read of Tender is the Night) by looking at techniques etc and coming to it from a much more analytical point of view. I do often wish that my brain had retained more of what I learned for everyday use than it has though!

  6. Please indulge me by letting me tell you a little story:
    I used to love SCUBA diving. I went diving at every opportunity, even going as far as becoming a qualified instructor. I decided to offer my services to a charity that mapped coral reefs with the aim of locating and protecting rare species. I spent several weeks learning the names of over 300 fish and then I went diving. You’d have thought my new found knowledge would have increased my pleasure, but I found the reverse to be true. I could no longer look at a fish and admire its beauty – I had to name it in my head. This meant that my brain was constantly swimming with fish names, “parrot fish, snapper, zebra fish, goby” Everywhere I looked I couldn’t stop myself from naming what I saw. It meant that I could no longer take things at their face value and I started searching for the rarer fish. It changed the whole diving experience for me and not for the better.

    I think the same is true for those with a literary education - they no longer enjoy a simple story, but are continually looking for those literary techniques you mention. They become obsessed with grammatical errors and fail to notice the magical message the author is trying to convey if they make even the tiniest of mistakes. So in answer to your question, I do not look for literary techniques and I’d hate to do so. I look for fantastic story-telling and books that touch me on an emotional level and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Ignorance is often bliss.

  7. I don't have a background in English, so I am a bit ignorant of proper literary terms. That list of 40 was an eye-opener for me. However, I do have an advanced degree in another discipline - getting it required critical thinking about the work of others. Part of the reason I read and blog is because I like to write. I have no formal creative writing training, but I study what other writers are doing, and I read every writer's reference I can get my hands on. When I critique a book, I'm doing it as someone who has struggled with messy plots, flat characters, and stilted prose in my own writing. By deconstructing other novels, I am learning how to improve my own little piece of fiction. I just started my book blog (3 months ago), and already I struggle with the questions you ask yourself: What is my purpose? To recommend books to others? Is it just for me? I often "review" books that are passe in the eyes of the "bookish" community simply because I didn't get around to them when they were hot off the presses. I try to get in some classics. I read nonfiction. I read stuff for my kids. I choose what I read based on what is most meaningful to my life at any given time rather than reading and reviewing only what will get attention on my blog. Reading is a lifestyle. What you read is a reflection of who you are at a given time. I digress - I guess I'm trying to say that I do think about literary techniques and I've been known to bandy about words like doppelganger and denouement. I still remember a few things from undergrad lit courses. But I don't want to make my posts overly formal and academic - it can still be entertaining and funny while giving readers something "meaty" to chew on. Thanks for the discussion - it's helping me shape what I'm trying to do on my blog.

  8. I absolutely do. Critical thinking in any field is enormously important; looking at literature critically is almost doubly important, as it reflects us as a society, a culture, and a human race. It's almost cowardly to not poke and prod at texts, I feel. I don't strain myself to identify techniques, but as a college student studying English Literature, I've developed a toolkit that serves me well at all times.

    I reserve more formal modes of analysis for my academic work, but I imagine it'll seep into my blogging when I no longer have an academic outlet, although I do write papers for the hell of it. Like Book Phantom, I strive to be entertaining and enlightening. I certainly hope it works.

  9. I don't focus on literary technique when I'm reading, but then I don't have a background in literature. That doesn't mean I don't recognize magical realism or purple prose when I see it, though! Often it is when thinking back on what I've just read that I can tease out elements of the author's craft. And of course, I don't always read books that the literary establishment would call literature. As much as I love to escape into a Southern Vampires novel on a long weekend, I realize that other than an engaging story there's not a ton of capital L literature going on there. I think that as I read other bloggers who focus on the classics or contemporary literary fiction I've become better at framing my reviews in literary turns, but like in everything else I'm still evolving.

  10. As a recovering English major, I read first and foremost for enjoyment. I spent too many hours of my life deeply analyzing things; I just want to read the way I used to, out of sheer passion for reading. I do sometimes think more "critically", but don't make a conscious effort to.

  11. If I were a paid reviewer, I would avoid "I" like the plague. Because my blog is about my reaction to my reading, I give myself some freedom. Because my students are aware of my site, though, I try not to break too many of my other rules. I try to set an example that I won't have to justify to them.

    As for a consideration of literary terms and vocabulary - I let the book guide any discussion of that. I actually tend to worry more about structure and organization than anything else.

    I have noticed, however, that there are a number of people out there who don't have the background in literature and often misuse literary terms and genre classifications. I'm actually going to be doing a series of posts on that, I think. I want it to be a guide to literature for everyone else (who didn't get a degree in it). I'm starting with Magical Realism, as that is the term I most often see misused.

    Maybe the two approaches - the casual reviewer and the academic - can find some sort of happy medium?

  12. Yes, yes, YES! Of course I want a certain foundation of rigor, recognizable-method-of-analysis, and intelligence in reviews, and of course I try to discern the literary techniques (and think about what I've learned) as I read. There has to be a cornerstone. Reading and reviewing/blogging is just like any other hobby, occupation or thing you do to pass time: The more tools you have in your toolbelt, the richer your experience, the better you get at it, the more you can appreciate it, etc. etc.

    Say a stamp collector has no understanding of what makes a stamp interesting or valuable — he just likes doing it to do it because it's fun — and therefore his entire collection is post office-purchase stamps with no value. He may be pleased with himself, but it's not really a collection other people who know stamp collecting will be interested in or consider worthy of discussion.

    That said, you don't need a PhD in literature to read or review intelligently. But at least having a working understanding of why a writer made the choices s/he made adds value to an opinion. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, but obviously the opinion of an expert is more useful, interesting, and fun to read — especially in the case of The Reading Ape's blog! ;)

  13. I feel like a rarity among book bloggers, someone who didn't study any English-language literature at all at the tertiary level (really, none, not a smidge). I do often find myself struggling for the right vocabulary--jargon, really--but when I read the list of terms you cite, I found it really disappointing. The items seemed so basic , or at least unhelpful.

    I definitely think about techniques as I read, though, and how I might describe them. Along with themes, motifs, etc.

  14. This series of posts is wonderful, and it's good to see other bloggers are asking the same questions I have been.

    I don't have a formal degree in literature (though I've taken lots of elective classes) - but I've been an avid reader all my life and am familiar with the list of 40 literary terms you linked. One thing that brought me to blogging was my love of the traditional book reviews in the NYRB, NY Times Book Review, Times Literary Supplement, etc. In the beginning I tried to model my own reviews on that traditional format - but it just seemed anti-intuitive for blogging. In the end, after making a survey of other blogs, it seemed that readers want a more personal interaction. And who are we writing for if not for readers? I'm still trying to find a middle ground.

    Out of curiosity, are the more editorial posts your writing generating more conversation than your earlier book review did? You say you're doing more of them. Or is this where your question comes from?

    Oh, and thank you. :) I am now hyper-sensitive every time I use the pronoun "I" (10 times in this comment. I refuse to count "me" and "my!)

  15. *sigh* and please forgive my typos. "Your" in paragraph 3 should be "you're".

  16. This is something I struggle with when I review books. I read and blog for my own enjoyment, so as soon as it starts to feel like work, it becomes a problem. Saying that, although I don't have a degree in literature (I studied science then history of science) I'm still interested in literary theory and deconstruction and wish that my reviews were a little more academic/professional/critical. But then I'm not an academic or professional reviewer. It's about finding a balance, isn't it?