Sunday, May 22, 2011

Literary Techniques and Book Blogging: A Response

Many thanks for those of you who responded to my post about reading and literary terminology. The breadth and complexity of those comments made my regular mode of responding in the comment section itself seem inadequate (and makes me anxious to install some kind of more sophisticated commenting system. A project for after BEA).

Anyway, let me highlight a few points and respond.

1. It seems that, for the most part, those not actively studying literature or teaching it have lost the majority of whatever literary vocabulary they once had. I'm not at all surprised by this and I'm sure for most of us there is some area(s) of our education that is rusty beyond use. (At one point, I was a philosophy major, but my mastery of thinkers and particular schools of thought are now long gone).

2. Also perhaps unsurprising, those that think about/use literary terminology as they read and write think it's important to do so.

3. This third observation is the most interesting to me as it gets to the center of why I asked this question: many commenters expressed a concern that the infiltration of literary vocabulary into reading and reviewing would come at the expense of enjoyment. Jackie's story about SCUBA diving best represents this position--that copious, detailed knowledge about a subject interferes with a more organic experience of that subject.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to write about literature in a way that the academy does not allow--somehow more personal, passionate, informal, and perhaps even funny. I have consciously refrained from using much academic jargon here, both because I can do that elsewhere and because I've felt that the instant I deploy "metonymy" or "negative capability" the tenor of my writing and thinking changes dramatically. The pleasure/rigor binary, though, doesn't seem necessary or desirable to me at this point.

Tolmsted and Greg both posited that some compromise might be possible, to use the tools of scholarship but do so in a different spirit. This seems to me an exciting possibility that squarely matches both my expertise and desire--to use the skills I have but to do so in a more readable, entertaining way: to not mistake or link inextricably the tools and the tone (Tolmsted, I think this might answer your question about why I am asking these questions).

Perhaps this will fail, but if so at least it will be a failure of imagination.


  1. I think I try to do that; although I notice as more jargon slips in, my comments decrease. However, I try to return to my original intentions for the blog (writing for myself). Although I do want to write to my audience, it enhances my reading and thinking to make different sorts of connections using the tools at my disposal. So, I'm going to do that and hope that there is an audience out there for what I write.

  2. A point I forgot to mention you during your investigation, my initial aim was always to write, rather then to read and endlessly brood about it. It's easy to pick a subject to death. I made my master degree thesis on Deleuze and Freud in Philip K. Dick's fiction, but I could've ransacked the poor guy's work with any thinker. Heidegger, Spivak, Zizek...In the end, it has very little to do with the process of writing fiction. Which is a fact ignored by most scholars I know.

  3. It is exactly this balance that I look for when reading articles in educational journals. And I know the educational jargon. But I want someone who can explain reading theories or the latest research on the efficacy of various writer's workshop models in a more accessible way. I am perfectly capable of sorting through a long research article, but with the limited time I have to read professional journals I choose the articles where I get the most information in such way that I am not just informed, but actually enjoyed the experience of becoming informed. I guess to a certain extent I look for that in my reviews as well.

  4. LBC-
    I'm not surprised that comments decreased. There seems to be a sense out there that the more formal analysis is used, the less accessible the discussion becomes. It's much easier to react to someone's emotional response to a book (even if you haven't read it) to specific, analytical thinking.

    I guess what I would say is: who said anything about picking something to death? I see this response all the time--the mere mention of literary analysis leads people to assume the inevitable blood-draining. Aspiring and practicing writers of fiction do indeed have their own concerns when reading and reviewing, however.

    I think you've hit it--is there a way of keeping a review accessible and entertaining while keeping some rigor? Maybe, maybe not.