Introduction to Lit no. 2

How to discuss Literature

There are terms that are used to talk about Literature that can be confusing if not explained. The people who discuss Literature and write about it are literary critics. In Norton’s Introduction to Literature, an interesting point about the term literary criticism is made. Anyone who writes about Literature is engaging in literary criticism and is a literary critic.

So, when the student arrives in High School and begins to read Hamlet and is asked to write about it, it’s literary criticism. When the book club meets at the local library to talk about the latest release by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, those assembled are engaged in literary criticism.

The critic is not there to demean or degrade the work, just to ask probing questions about the work and suggest some answers. The best writing about Literature does not just express an opinion about the work, but also teaches the strength of the work by analysing how well it uses sound and sense to communicate a truth that people reading might care about. Without doing this, the critic is just blowing off steam.

The massive conversation

As a student of literature makes progress in the study of Literature, the major themes popular with writers and poets become clear. The critic will spot repetitions. Tragedies and comedies that seem familiar because they have plots that have been used since writing began. That’s even before the Greeks.

This is something that can be called the great conversation. A writer like Stephen King might like the techniques and themes of Edgar Allan Poe. Dune is a series of novels written by Frank Herbert about a young prince with special powers whose land is threatened and must learn to defend it or lose it all. Dune sounds like the tales of Homer.

This is a back and forth between the present and the past as those present combine some elements of the past with their own creativity to create something new and wondrous. Meanwhile, literary critics point out these relationships in a very passionate conversation in dissertations, essays and papers. Readers might discuss what they have read with others becoming critics too, or simply choose to buy the book that they read about in the critic’s column.

Genres and subgenres

What are genres? Why the subdivisions, categories and classifications? Why are genres so important?

It goes back to the part of this post that described the conversation. A genre is a type. A work belongs to a specific genre based on its structure, sound and sense. There are three main genres: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry and Drama.

Within these there are multitudes of subgenres. Fiction can be science fiction, romance and adventure. Nonfiction can be cookbooks or biographies, histories or manuals. There are epic poems, lyric poems and limericks. In these small lists, there are only a few subgenres mentioned. An exhaustive list might take several blog posts.

It is necessary to use genres to discuss and read Literature. When an author is describing the work that took a couple of years to write to a prospective publisher, they need a short word to describe it, genres are helpful there. When readers go to a bookstore, they need to know where to look for what they want to read. When Amazon uses their algorithms to suggest books for their users, they employ genres.

Nowadays, there are many subgenres that have combined to become new subgenres. There are historical romances and gothic romances. Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Dieselpunk are all fiction, but they share certain conventions or defining features. A Western has horses and shootouts while a Historical Romance has a strong heroine and realistic depictions of how things were done in the chosen time period.

Exercise

  • Think about your favorite type of book. Write about what delights you about that kind of book.
  • Write a short paragraph telling your local bookstore owner to stock that book using a genre and subgenre in your description.
  • Make a go of reading one book this week from your favorite type of book written by an author that is new to you.
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