I hated literary criticism. I went to graduate school in the heyday of Derrida’s influence over the study of literature, and I could never understand why people thought his theories were more important than the words of Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas, and just about every other “real” author.
Enter Tim Gillespie. Tim was someone I knew a little about: He’d written a chapter in a book published by my former employer and was very well respected as a high school teacher. He was working on a book for Stenhouse with Brenda Power, and when Brenda left, I volunteered to work with Tim. Each manuscript that lands on an editor’s desk has its own individual needs. Doing Literary Criticism had just one. It needed to be cut. Cut considerably.
But what to cut?! This was a manuscript written by a master teacher at the end of his days in the classroom. As I read, I discovered that literary criticism made sense and provided important lenses for comprehending difficult literature. From feminist criticism to moral criticism to psychological criticism, Tim made these complicated ideas lucid.
Whether or not you are dealing with the Common Core in your state and district, Doing Literary Criticism is an essential guide for giving your students the tools necessary to tackle complex literature.
In our latest installment of Questions & Authors, Tim Gillespie (Doing Literary Criticism) takes a look at the importance of examining a piece of writing from a moral standpoint. He asks his students to raise questions about whether the text helps them understand others more deeply. “Does the work enlarge our capacity for empathy; does it stretch our moral imaginations? My students usually found this an avenue of inquiry worth traveling,” he writes. Travel along with Tim in this essay and then check out his book the Stenhouse website.
Teaching and Reading Charitably
A word that I read in a newspaper review has been stuck in my brain.
The review considered the latest T.C. Boyle novel, When the Killing’s Done, a story about environmental conflicts on the Channel Islands off the coast of California. A characteristic trait of the fiction of T.C. Boyle, a favorite writer of mine, is his fidelity to life’s complexities. For example, in alternating chapters in The Tortilla Curtain (a novel some colleagues are using in their high school classrooms), Boyle offers the perspectives of a homeless illegal immigrant from Mexico and a suburban California magazine writer just outside of whose gated community the immigrant is camping. Each protagonist, in his attempt to make a better life for his family, damages the other. Through these characters the contentious issue of immigration becomes a profoundly tragic human dilemma beyond all sound bites and shouting, calling forth from readers deeper reserves of imagination and empathy to be applied to the issue.
The same is true of Boyle’s latest novel with its environmental themes, according to reviewer Don Waters in my local newspaper. “Boyle does so much right,” says Waters, “he poses the big questions, refrains from offering answers, and humanizes the argument without proselytizing” (The Oregonian, February 27). Waters marvels in particular at the way Boyle treats the contradictions of characters on all sides, helping us understand their convictions and their doubts, their admirable acts alongside their flaws. The bottom line of the review: Boyle is to be applauded for treating both the complex environmental issues in the novel and his complex characters “charitably.”
That’s the word that has stuck with me: charitably.
The word offers an interesting way to think about evaluating the effectiveness of a work of fiction. I want to talk about that idea with students.
Might an important critical standard for judging literature be how charitable authors are to their stories and characters? Can generosity of spirit about fictional characters and about social issues be a reasonable marker of the quality of an author’s work?
These are the kinds of questions that I regularly brought into my classroom. “What’s your bottom line as a reader?” I’d ask my students. “What makes a novel applause-worthy for you? What counts in fiction? How should we read fiction? Why should we read fiction?”
For me, this kind of interrogation is at the heart of literary criticism. During my nearly four decades as a public high school teacher, my habit was to share a variety of such critical questions with my students—and the assumptions and theories behind them. The more different angles of approach the better, I figured, since all those hungry, iconoclastic teenagers sitting at their desks all have different preferences for what they want to get out of a reading. So instead of teaching particular readings of texts, I sought to teach multiple ways of reading texts. My conviction was that exploring many different interpretive strategies would ultimately help my students be more motivated readers and give them more tools for being independent critical thinkers. My recent book Doing Literary Criticism, describes those classroom explorations.
We would explore biographical, historical, psychological, philosophical, moral, archetypal, genre-centered, feminist, political, formalist and postmodern approaches to texts. Having all these different critical lenses available in the classroom means the door is open to all kinds of different ideas about reading that might walk in.
But what about that idea of being a charitable writer? I guess I’d ultimately call that an aspect of moral criticism, a critical angle that raises questions of great consequence: Does the text help us understand others more deeply, particularly those with perspectives and backgrounds different than ours? Does the work enlarge our capacity for empathy; does it stretch our moral imaginations? My students usually found this an avenue of inquiry worth traveling.
In addition, a moral critical approach lends itself nicely to a classroom unit on fiction writing. This activity is explained in much more detail in Doing Literary Criticism, but basically I ask students to create a fictional character unlike themselves and work at imagining in detail that character’s life, stretching their moral imaginations to invent a realistic, multi-dimensional character with the hodgepodge of experiences, traits, beauties and blemishes, gifts and frailties we all have.
Messing with moral criticism in all these ways means exploring what it means to be a charitable writer, reader, and person.
And messing with literary criticism in general means when we are provoked to thought by a single word in a newspaper book review, we have a way to bring that provocation into the classroom.
In a pre-discussion thread, one of the participants, Rikki, asked Tim how he thinks literary criticism should be introduced to struggling students and whether they would benefit from it. Here is a part of Tim’s response:
As Rikki notes, this doesn’t seem like very welcoming territory for our secondary students, especially those who struggle. However, my experience with my high school classes—mixed-ability groups as well as open-door AP Lit sections—is that if we cut to the heart of various critical approaches, provide a bit of clearly-expressed background knowledge, and offer some supportive activities, many students will feel welcomed to the topic. That is what I tried to do in my classroom and what I have tried to share in this book.
I can’t pretend it’s an easy task, however. It’s not. We are talking about challenging students with challenging texts and ideas. But whenever I got lost in the “lit crit” swamp, my students always forced my attention back to the goal of this journey—to empower them as readers and critical thinkers—and to the essential idea that supports that goal: there are many possible ways to come at texts. With a variety of different-functioning tools in their interpretive kits, readers have a better chance of constructing solid and personally satisfying meanings. So this is our challenge and joy (and occasional headache): how to convey this rich, reader-empowering idea to our students.
Do you have a question about the book? Here is your chance to get a response from Tim and from a community of readers and teachers. And if you don’t have a copy of the book yet, order at www.stenhouse.com and get free shipping by using code ECDLC during checkout.