writing about literature

Maria H. Lima

When you write about a poem, a play, a novel, a short story, or any other literary work, you argue for your interpretation, using the "facts" in the text as your evidence.  A good paper on literature is argumentative: you will try to persuade your reader to read the text through your vision of it.

You will let the structure of your argument take priority over the structure of the text.  After deciding on what you want to say about the text you are reading, you will find the best possible way of organizing your argument.  The chronology of the text, the scenes in a play or the sequence of stanzas in a poem are only very rarely the best way of organizing your argument because you may very easily sound as if you are retelling the story, the poem, the play, rather than saying something original about it.

It is also very important to reach a certain balance between points you make in your own voice, instances when paraphrasing the text becomes crucial, and passages where you let the text speak for itself.  Although the best evidence is the author's own words, only indent quotes (more than four lines) if absolutely necessary!  Make sure that all the connections between your claims and the evidence you select are clear.  A "bad writer" will pile on quotations without showing how they apply to her/his argument.

Do not forget that by convention we write about literature in the present tense.  If you read your paper out loud (which I strongly recommend), you will realize that by writing as if the events are taking place right in front of you, your claims on the work also seem harder to contest.

Make sure your interpretation fits the "facts" and does not neglect major aspects.  Your argument will be stronger if you incorporate objections to it in the body of your paper, to try to refute them right then and there, rather than wait for your reader to remind you of such objections when it is too late.

The most conservative interpreters stick exclusively to the text because they are afraid to take risks.  Your interpretations will go beyond the facts of the text to speculate on what they imply, the motivations behind characters' actions, your opinions on the meanings behind the words on the page.  No text can be said to contain a single, fixed meaning since readers' determinations of meanings are dependent on social, cultural, and literary assumptions that are in a continual state of change.

You are encouraged to write in the first person rather than pretend to be objective/impartial about what you are saying.  Donna Haraway emphasizes the extent to which all knowledge is situated rather than "disembodied."  Gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, historical and geographical location compromise the fictions of unified subjects and disinterested knowledges.  Pay as much attention to the what  of the texts you read as to the who, when, and WHERE of their production.  Readings are also never final: I have reread texts in different moments in my life to find very different meanings.  It is o.k. to say, "it seems to me that at this point the character faces a..."