Friday, May 6, 2011

Teaching English Literature

The other day, I came across this. Even beyond the whole copyright issue, I won't copy it directly, since it contains a swear word and sometimes people get a little odd about an adult who works in children's lit. even referring to a swear word. But the gist of the item linked is that there is very little overlap between what the author intends and an English teacher (one may insert 'English Lit. scholar') thinks they intend. And it's funny.

The importance of authorial intent has been a fierce debate in English Literature - see for example Barthes' "Death of the Author." Yes, I always quip "no, they're alive and tweeting." It's not so much that I think the author's intent is the last word (after all, that would make my job redundant), but that I think scholars need to be balanced in their approach. Scholars should take into account the production of texts and the people behind them, for that gives us an idea not only of the thematic ballpark we're working in, but also the practical ballpark (and here I'm going to break off the baseball metaphor since I don't know a thing about baseball). For example, recently I was reading an academic book, Nikolajeva and Scott's How Picturebooks Work. It's a very good book and I recommend it. However, it illustrates how I became torn on this issue. I wondered if relating the appearance of crinkled brown endpapers in Sendak's We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy, to a statement on "the rawness of a life devoid of the usual 'civilized' resources" was entirely logical (249). I did quite like the proposal that it represented "the need to use and reuse the detritus of a richer life" (249). However, while both statements make fascinating reading and form a cogent analysis, particularly in relation to Sendak's social themes, a little voice inside me wondered if that was going just a bit too far on those themes - or if the crinkled brown paper was just a clever idea, drawn from the practice of crafting itself, that gave texture to the endpapers; an effect that fitted the overall aesthetic of the book. Sometimes, the simpler answer gets to the heart of the matter. Part of the work of literary scholars is to juggle the urge to take the analysis further and the little voice that wonders, bluntly, 'if you're not reading too much into this.'

Of course, often times, an author or illustrator will write or draw something and later think: 'oh yes, that could also be a reference to the detritus.' (I just like the word 'detritus.') Or they'll hear someone else say it later and nod, pretending that was intended all along. (NOTE: And I should add, the more I thought about this analysis, the more I liked and agreed with it.)

This is part of the challenge. But it is worth reminding ourselves, occasionally, that other people are looking at our clever analyses and thinking "sometimes, the crinkled brown paper is just crinkled brown paper."


titanium said...

I wrote a poem, about the experience of eating too many chocolate-coated coffee beans and travelling via public transport. My friend thought it was a really deep look at what it's like to move to Australia.

Can we get all meta and wonder about the death of the [scholarly article] author?

Doc-in-Boots said...

I would love to get meta about the death of the scholarly article author! That's an interesting way to take the debate - seriously. (I also love that chocolate-coated coffee beans can say so much about what it is to move to Australia.)