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Thread: Literary theory?

  1. #1

    Question Literary theory?

    Hi there,

    I'm not really sure if this is even the right sub-forum to post this question in, but since there are a lot of teachers in here I guess someone might be able to help me.

    At the moment I feel kind of lost within the whole giant field of what one may call "literary theory". I am trying to understand how exactly literature works, why we find it interesting and why it touches us on an emotional level. In order to achieve this, I have been trying to find out about such things as genres, literary movements, theories of how literature might be interpreted and -- of course -- how the use of language effects the way we react to something we read or hear. Unfortunately, as of now I haven't really been able to find a book that covers all those themes in a comprehensive and understandable way. I really want to understand how all those aspects that make up literature connect to each other -- and how they might be seperated into different categories and different levels.

    For example:

    Is language in itself a literary element? How exactly do point-of-view, structure and narrative connect to each other? What exactly is "style"? Is it just the way the author uses language or does it also cover characters and topics that might be frequently used by the writer? Does dramatic-structure belong to the literary element of plot or to the literary element of narrative? Is a motif a device or an element?

    So, as you see, I am kind of lost. I have not been able to find one comprehensive book on this topic that shows how all those parts work together, how they are seperated and how they influence one another. For example, "Mastering English Literature" by Richard Gill is a really wonderfully interesting resource of knowledge, but it fails at giving a complete view of the whole field.

    So what I'd like to ask you is: Can you recommend me any good books or websites on this topic?

  2. #2
    Stélé
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    Well, I can't really help you on this topic, but I do know that "Literary Theory" is a field of college-level study, similar and closely related to the Comparative Literature, a field which I myself wish to follow in college.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparative_literature

  3. #3
    Thanks for your reply...well, turns out you're right. Literary theory seems to be a whole different field of study in itself. I wasn't really aware of that, I just used the term because I thought it would make clear what it is that I am looking for.

    Maybe I should put it differently: Any good books on the mechanics of literature and narratives?

  4. #4
    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Unless you have to learn literary theory for college, Tueday, I wouldn't bother with it. It has nothing to do with real appreciation of literature. Literary theory is what college professors do to feel important.
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

    "Love follows knowledge." – St. Catherine of Siena

    My literature blog: http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/

  5. #5
    @Virgil: I think you misunderstood me due to my use of the term "literary theory". As I pointed out, I'm not really interested in what is described here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literary_theory

    I'm just really intrigued by all those literary devices and techniques...be it tropes, schemes, plot twists, motifs or foreshadowing. And now I'm trying to figure out how exactly all this stuff works, to put it short.

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    A pretty big question cove! One you'll only be able to answer after reading a lot of real books. Critical commentaries wont help unless you become familiar with a lot of literature. How would you know the critic wasn't just full of bs unless you read a lot yourself?

    'Is language in itself a literary element? How exactly do point-of-view, structure and narrative connect to each other? What exactly is "style"? Is it just the way the author uses language or does it also cover characters and topics that might be frequently used by the writer? Does dramatic-structure belong to the literary element of plot or to the literary element of narrative? Is a motif a device or an element?'

    OK BRIEFLY

    Q1 Yes
    Q2 Point-of-view is the angle from which the narrative is presented to us. Structure refers to the construction of the whole text and point-of-view is an integral part of that.
    Q3 Yes to both bits but take the simple approach and consider it as the language. That may well be an important part of the theme.
    Q4 I don't really get this question. It sounds like you are refering to drama rather than prose fiction.But in the passing I would say that not enough people make a clear distinction between plot and narrative because whatever the narrative or storyline is, it is definitely NOT synonymous with plot. Plot is a structural device.
    Q5. Device or element could be synonomous here and I find that difficult to answer briefly. Motifs usually have a subconscious effect on the reader if they aint blatant.


    Maybe a teacher could give you some more generalisations but I reckon that's all you'll get here for such a wide ranging series of questions.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by ennison View Post
    Q5. Device or element could be synonomous here and I find that difficult to answer briefly. Motifs usually have a subconscious effect on the reader if they aint blatant.
    Hey, thanks for taking the time.

    In regard to "devices and elements": I'm referring mostly to the info and definitions given on this site: http://mrbraiman.home.att.net/lit.htm

    By "dramatic structure" I meant such characteristics as rising action, falling action, climax and so on. I was just wondering if this has more to do with the plot itself, or more with the way the plot is presented by the narrator. I know that those things are interconnected and influence each other, I was just wondering.

    And as to your first sentence: I've wondered about that also...is there really one definitive and generally accepted way those terms are defined? It almost seems as if everybody has a different approach to it.

    Just in case your wondering: I'm so interested in all this stuff because in school we were only taught about "the usual suspects": metaphors, similes, alliterations, puns, oxymorons and so on. Just some of those evergreen figures-of-speech. Now I'm trying to get a broader picture, especially in regards to literary techniques that don't necessarily have something to do with language, like all those devices concerning the plot.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Virgil View Post
    Unless you have to learn literary theory for college, Tueday, I wouldn't bother with it. It has nothing to do with real appreciation of literature. Literary theory is what college professors do to feel important.
    Tuesday, Virgil,
    Exactly that same viewpoint, in all its parts, is supported by Francine Prose in her opening remarks in her recent book How to Read Like a Writer. And my own looking at the Lit. Crit. shelves at my local bookstore causes me to also agree.
    I haven't seen a single book that covers the similar kinds of questions I have that you have, Tuesday, but I have had luck educating my self via google, searching for whatever term or idea is of interest at the moment, e.g. 5-part dramatic structure, intertextuality, etc.
    I have concluded it will simply take my own reading for pleasure and then looking at a lot of books or google for answers.
    Recently I have bought the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Perhaps that might help assuage your longing. I have the feeling that it explains more individual terms than you or I will ever need to know.

  9. #9
    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Walter View Post
    Tuesday, Virgil,
    Exactly that same viewpoint, in all its parts, is supported by Francine Prose in her opening remarks in her recent book How to Read Like a Writer. And my own looking at the Lit. Crit. shelves at my local bookstore causes me to also agree.
    I haven't seen a single book that covers the similar kinds of questions I have that you have, Tuesday, but I have had luck educating my self via google, searching for whatever term or idea is of interest at the moment, e.g. 5-part dramatic structure, intertextuality, etc.
    I have concluded it will simply take my own reading for pleasure and then looking at a lot of books or google for answers.
    Recently I have bought the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Perhaps that might help assuage your longing. I have the feeling that it explains more individual terms than you or I will ever need to know.
    Very good Walter. I take it you haven't been forced into contemporary literary theory in any class. You're lucky. It's junk, but unfortunately it's something college students have to undergo. I saw a review of that Fracine Prose book and it caught my eye. It was a raving review. I've been wanting to buy it.
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

    "Love follows knowledge." – St. Catherine of Siena

    My literature blog: http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/

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    Quote Originally Posted by Virgil View Post
    Very good Walter. I take it you haven't been forced into contemporary literary theory in any class. You're lucky. It's junk, but unfortunately it's something college students have to undergo. I saw a review of that Fracine Prose book and it caught my eye. It was a raving review. I've been wanting to buy it.
    No, my college was a long time ago and I was on the engineering track so I didn't get too deeply into anything literary. My reading has always been simply for enjoyment, until lately when I have been seeing some technical terms creeping into book discussions. Then I find out what they mean.
    Reading Like a Writer is fun to read because her examples are so great. In addition, there has been a forum discussion of her book, with her as a guest, over on Barnes and Noble during February in case you are interested.

  11. #11
    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Walter View Post
    No, my college was a long time ago and I was on the engineering track so I didn't get too deeply into anything literary. My reading has always been simply for enjoyment, until lately when I have been seeing some technical terms creeping into book discussions. Then I find out what they mean.
    Reading Like a Writer is fun to read because her examples are so great. In addition, there has been a forum discussion of her book, with her as a guest, over on Barnes and Noble during February in case you are interested.
    You're an engineer? So am I. I'm a mechanical engineer. But I got a master's in english lit after I graduated as an engineer. (read my profile and my introduction is on the first page of Introduce and Say Hi thread) That's where they force fed me this lit theory junk.

    Now I have to order that book. Thanks and I'll check Barnes and Noble.
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

    "Love follows knowledge." – St. Catherine of Siena

    My literature blog: http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/

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    Quote Originally Posted by Virgil View Post
    You're an engineer? So am I. I'm a mechanical engineer. But I got a master's in english lit after I graduated as an engineer. (read my profile and my introduction is on the first page of Introduce and Say Hi thread) That's where they force fed me this lit theory junk.

    Now I have to order that book. Thanks and I'll check Barnes and Noble.
    Yes, I'm an electrical engineer and have worked with computers and software all my life. Now I'm semi-retired and finally have the time to read, the other thing I have always loved most. Reading and rereading are the major joys of my life at the moment, but addiction to the Web is not far behind. Life without computer or books would be impossible.
    Last edited by Walter; 02-26-2007 at 10:12 AM.

  13. #13
    Vincit Qui Se Vincit Virgil's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Walter View Post
    Yes, I'm an electrical engineer and have worked with computers and software all my life. Now I'm semi-retired and finally have the time to read, the other thing I have always loved most. Reading and rereading are the major joys of my life at the moment, but addicition to the Web is not far behind. Life without computer or books would be impossible.
    Well, welcome to lit net Walter. I'm still 15-20 years from retirement, but I try to squeeze in reading and writing now that I'm on lit net when I can. Good to know of another engineer here.
    LET THERE BE LIGHT

    "Love follows knowledge." – St. Catherine of Siena

    My literature blog: http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/

  14. #14
    Thanks for your time, Walter. I've had an eye on that Penguin dictionary for quite some time now and just ordered it via Amazon. The price is really low compared to most other books of that sort, especially the ones published by Norton, Oxford and Cambridge.

    Virgil: I just checked out your introduction in the thread you mentioned, very interesting. Just out of curiosity: Where does your contempt for this more scholarly approach to literature stem from? I don't know much about things like deconstruction or formalism, but I think it would be at least interesting to learn something about it...after all, one doesn't have to believe in it. But then again, I'm probably 20 years younger than you are and teaching methods nowadays are quite different from what they were back then, I guess.

  15. #15
    in angulo cum libro Petrarch's Love's Avatar
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    Tuesday-- Not sure if you're still hanging around here, but I just came across this thread and thought I'd give a reply. First off, wonderful to see someone so curious and eager to understand more about how literature works. As others here have also commented, you probably won't find the answers to many of the questions you raise in a single book. This is partly because they are such large and complex questions, and partly because there are a variety of views and approaches to answering such questions.

    Some of the questions about terminology I think you'll probably have covered already if you've ordered the Penguin dictionary. If you're interested in going deeper into literary analysis, the best thing I can recommend is to read and keep on reading lots and lots of literature first and foremost (which I assume you are doing already or you wouldn't be interested in these questions), and to read critical texts associated with individual books that you're looking at. For this purpose (since finding good critical texts is a lot of work) I would highly recommend reading the Norton Critical Editions of some works you're interested in. These are fairly affordable paperback editions of "classic" literary works with context and criticism contained in the same volume as the work itself. For example, my Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost contains a brief biography of Milton, a chronology, an historian's account of his time period, numerous selections from Milton's other prose and poetry, pertinant selections from the bible, concise pieces on certain key concepts and topics in PL, exerpts from the thoughts of eleven famous writers (John Dryden to Virginia Wolf) about Milton, and the pertinent pieces of articles and books from eleven 20th and 21st century scholars to give the reader an idea of what people have had to say about Milton and how they approach his work. They have these editions for poetry, novels, plays, stories etc., and I'd highly recommend them as a way of starting to read secondary historical and critical approaches to literature.

    In terms of a more general overview of literary criticism and theory, I would recommend a book called The Critical Tradition, edited by David H. Richter. The current edition is fairly expensive but you may be able to find the 2nd edition at a very good public library (or certainly a university library if you have access to one) or I think there may also be some good deals on used 2nd editions on Amazon. It's a collection of selections of famous writing about literature and the study of literature (I think there's a similar anthology of criticism put out by Norton, which may also be useful, but I'm not as familiar with that one). The first half of the Richter (which would be the most useful for someone starting out) is called "Classic Texts in Literary Criticism," and gives you 44 essays with useful brief introductions by the editor, containing famous thoughts on literature. These span history and include Plato, Sidney, Pope, Kant, Coleridge, Hegel, Tolstoy and many others in between, ending with Susan Sontag. What's useful about this is that it gives you a good historical perspective on how great thinkers (many of them philosophers or writers themselves) have approached some of the questions you raise and much more. It will also help you understand better what the background is that current critics and other literati are responding to.

    The second half of the book contains writing by prominent scholars of the last century or so, including that literary theory that Virgil's so down on. Virgil's right that a lot of literary theory can be safely ignored, but if you're willing to sift through a bit you can at the very least sometimes find some interesting food for thought. I would only look at theory after first having read a lot of lit. and having looked at some of the history of literary criticism and more common sense observations and approaches to literature. Theory isn't really where you go for explanations about literature. Its purpose is more to spark thought on more abstract philosophical, cultural and historical issues in relation to literature. Since you mentioned it in the previous post, if you ever were to find yourself curious about what theories like formalism and deconstruction etc. are all about, I have just recently found what looks like an invaluable little book called Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Jonathan Culler. It's in the Very Short Introductions series put out by Oxford U. Press, which are little pocket sized books offering concise introductions to a variety of topics for the very reasonable price of ten US dollars. I find that Culler's done a remarkably good job of making a number of very befuddling concepts as clear as possible, and I think it would be a good place to start if you did want to venture into the murky waters of Lit. Theory. Best of luck with your explorations. Feel free to come here and ask more questions or suggest topics for discussion as they arise along the way.
    Last edited by Petrarch's Love; 03-10-2007 at 04:02 PM.

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