English 112

Reading, writing, gaming (with analysis!)

Archive for the tag “literature”

Research Blog Sample Post

Apologies to those of you who scoured my blog last night looking for this post. Last night I was attacked by the Evil Headache of Doom and was forced to beat a hasty retreat into a nice, dark, quiet cave. So here it is now. We’ll pretend I’m writing a paper on postmodern features of writing style in The Road.

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Banco, Lindsey. “Contractions in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.” The Explicator 68.4 (2010): 276-79. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 14 Feb. 2013.

This article explicates McCarthy’s use of contractions in The Road. The lack of apostrophes in negative contractions, Banco notes, is in keeping with the minimalist style of the book as a whole, a style she and other critics attribute to a reflection of the bleakness (she uses the word “nihilism”) of the world in The Road. However, she notes that the preservation of accepted style in positive contractions serves as a balance to bleakness and an emphasis of the importance of remembering one’s humanity. Although not a rigorous, multi-sourced contextual critique of the work, this explication is well done in a scholarly tone, and was published in a respected journal, and therefore is quite appropriate for academic use. In my paper, this can provide another person’s view on the purpose of McCarthy’s deliberate deviation from accepted writing practices, especially as, though I agree with Banco’s idea that keeping an apostrophe is meant to hold back the tide of bleakness, a reader is actually going to find more emphasis in the lack of one, which reinforces the bleakness rather than the preservation of human identity.

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That’s it. Some of your annotations will be shorter than others, as generally the length of an annotation is fairly proportionate to just how much useful information is in the source.

One further note about blogs, this time in regards to your ones on reading: if you’ve noticed that you lost a few points on your last couple of blogs, it is either because your blogs have been significantly short, or because you haven’t been selecting, quoting (or describing in detail), and close reading a specific section of one of the texts for the week. Go back and look at my original example if you’re unsure of what I mean.

In Which I Hope to Demystify Topic Selection

So we’re moving into Inquiry Two territory quite earnestly now, which means it’s time for you to start really thinking about what you want to write about for your next major assignment. For those of you who think you might want to write about Slaughterhouse-Five, I know this seems a bit premature. Yes, you don’t know the whole story yet, but you don’t actually need to know everything that happens in the book to at least start to poke around for context. Considering a book from different angles and contexts is an ongoing process, and it takes place both during and after your first reading. Your opinions about certain angles on the book may change as you learn new things about it, but you can also trust your instincts early on about what’s important. Remember, we’re educated readers, and we pick up on more things than we often give ourselves credit for.

Finding a topic, as I mentioned in class, begins with knowing what you’re interested in, both in the book itself and in terms of possible contextual angles. Keep your personal interests in mind. For example, I’m interested in societal gender constructs and science fiction, so I tend to focus on both in my academic studies. Think about what classes you’ve been enjoying so far in college, and what you’ve learned in them. Are there things you can apply to the literature we’ve been reading?

Once you have a broad topic you think would be cool to research and apply to either The Road or Slaughterhouse-Five, it’s time to research. We’ll learn how to do this tomorrow at the library, but keep in mind that you’re not only researching outside the text, but also looking for clues inside the text that relate to your topic. Gather them together. Do you see a pattern? How does the outside context play an important role in the book? How do we understand the book differently when we hold it up next to the context? Answer these questions and you’ll have the “what” and the “how” of a thesis.

Some of you may already know what your topic is going to be. Others of you may still be playing around with ideas. We’re still in the early stages of Inquiry Two, so this is not a problem. But if you’re looking for some guidance, here are some questions that could help you find possible paper angles. These are not the only angles, of course, so remember there are other literary theories you could apply, and other contexts you can examine these texts from.

The Road

  • Our two main characters constantly refer to themselves as “The Good Guys.” Usually, we think of “Good Guys” as heroes. How do these characters fit in with modern concepts of “hero?”
  • What character archetypes do we see in this book? Why are they important?
  • How does the character of the little boy change over time? How can you contextualize it? Childhood development? Coming-of-age myth?
  • How does this book reflect and/or undermine traditional concepts (either religious or not) of death?
  • Psychoanalysis is interested in the unconscious, and sometimes in how it is manifested in dreams. What do the father’s dreams show us about his motivation and personality? Where do these dreams stem: id, ego, superego, a combination?
  • How is the little boy’s unconscious manifested? What shows us his underlying drives?
  • Names and identity play a large role in this book. What is it saying about the nature of names and identity? Is it commenting on current practices of names or identity? How does the philosophy of names and identity in this book figure in with traditional concepts of these things, either in current society or in myth?
  • What is the role of religion in this book? Is there religious allegory in it? How does a reading alongside certain parts of The Bible or religious tradition in general add more meaning to the text?
  • How does this book reflect and/or undermine traditional family relationships? Gender relationships?
  • What do you think happened to cause this apocalypse? Do you think it was man made, or natural?
  • How does the future world portrayed comment on our current culture? What is important for us that is no longer important for them? Do you see any sort of warning here?
  • How does this text interact with conventions of its genre? How does it participate, expand, or subvert tradition? What genre does it even fall into?
  • How does the text interact with its movie version? (Be careful with this. You are not going to be looking at the movie to see how the text is reflected in it, but instead looking at how the movie changes our understanding of the original text. So this is not a way to avoid reading the book if you haven’t been keeping up with the reading.)
  • How does this text participate in the postmodern style? What postmodern features of the text are important for understanding its deeper meaning?

Slaughterhouse-Five

Keep in mind that as we keep reading, we’ll come up with more of these.

  • What sort of man is Billy Pilgrim? How does he fit into society? How do we usually view people like him? What is this book saying about him and others like him?
  • How does the book interact with traditional concepts of time? Free will?
  • How does this text interact with and comment on societal portrayals of death and war?
  • There are lots of allusions to other texts in this book, starting with Charles Mackay’s text about The Children’s Crusade. Considering this is the subtitle of the book, how does this historical event (and Mackay’s text about it) change the way we understand this book? What about other texts and allusions?
  • Who is Kurt Vonnegut and how might his personal life have affected this book? He becomes a character in it once or twice, which is very interesting and unconventional . . .
  • What was going on in the world at the time Vonnegut was writing this book? How are these historical and political events and issues reflected in the text? How do they help us understand the text better?
  • The bombing of Dresden figures prominently in this book. How does a fuller understanding of the circumstances in that historical event help us understand the point of the text better?
  • How does this book interact with other texts by Vonnegut? He re-uses characters quite a lot, so how does understanding a this larger “Vonnegut-ian” context change our view of this text?
  • How does this book interact with the tradition of satire? What does it do to fulfill/transcend/subvert/etc its genre?

Of Reading Blogs and “Ponies,” Explanation and Musings

Hello everyone, and happy Friday! So, as I mentioned in class, through the semester I will be updating this blog periodically to include my musings about our texts, including bits and pieces I’ve remembered from class discussion, interesting things I’ve noted in your blogs, etc. Occasionally I may link to your blogs as I do my own thing here, so remember the writing you do in these blogs doesn’t have to be formal, but it is certainly produced in a public space for a public audience. So keep the rhetorics of reaching your audience at the back of your mind as you do these posts.

This post is going to be a sort of hybrid of me noting important things and instructions for your reading blogs, and me actually writing a reading blog for you to use as a model. Early on, I don’t think you should worry too much about doing your reading blogs “wrong.” If I’d like you to do something a bit different, I’ll tell you, but I’m likely to forgive any confusion early on in the semester, so you won’t have to worry about losing points just yet. That sort of thing comes into play later, when we’ve settled in and know the expectations for proper completion of work.

So, every week (usually on Monday, but on Wednesday for week 2), you’ll be posting in your blog. Each blog will cover the text we talked about in class on the previous Wednesday, and the texts we will be talking about for that Monday. So in essence you’ll be reporting on, reflecting on, and reacting to what we talked about in class on Wednesday, and “priming the pump” for class discussion on Monday. Now, you need only focus on our primary texts—that is, the fiction we’re reading. If one of the other readings strikes you as really cool and important, then you are always welcome to include it, but I’m not requiring it.

Reading blogs are a mixture of personal reaction and close reading. About half of your post should be devoted to discussing your reaction and general feelings about a text, and the other half should be focused on examining some specific part of the text—either a short passage (of one small paragraph or a few sentences), or even just one sentence if you can glean enough meaning from it. Relate the passage to the text as a whole and pinpoint interesting literary features in it.

Okay, so now that I’ve outlined what goes into one of these posts, it’s time for me to actually do one. Please keep in mind that in this post, I’m only going to look at “Ponies,” since I want to keep my thoughts about the other two stories to myself for now. That way my ideas won’t creep into your Inquiry One papers, and you guys will get the joy of working toward your own opinions of these texts.

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I find Kij Johnson’s “Ponies” to be delightfully savage. And no, not just because of the concept of little girls maiming ponies that are very much portrayed as symbolic extensions of themselves. (Symbols of exactly what, though, I’m still unsure.) The tone of this work is juvenile and somehow “preppy” like the girls the story portrays, and Johnson is not holding back with the underlying meaning of this one. This is pure allegory, and satire at its most cutting. There are no parts of this story that we would usually think of as “laugh-out-loud” funny.

In fact, this story is so uncompromising that many have very mixed feelings about it. Just read the comments section at Tor.com. Many there say they don’t want to like the story partly because they see the truth in it, but the revelation of the story’s “aboutness” makes them respect it all the same. A few others simply can’t get past the heavy-handedness of the allegory, which is a valid criticism. One could wonder if Johnson was a bit too obvious in places, but I think this story in any other context would be a major flop. Imagine trying to read a story with the same concept, but with realistic characters and details. I’m just not sure it would work for me. It would probably just devolve into the genre of horror instead of making its point.

Overall, the “aboutness” I get from this story is, as many people have mentioned in class so far, the danger of changing oneself in order to fit in. The groups that would demand this change, the story suggests, are not worth being a part of, and the damage to oneself may become far more than expected, as we see with Sunny. Once she’s gone too far to turn back, another demand is leveled, and then it’s too late—she must conform or lose everything.

But this interpretation is, I think, just scratching the surface. There are multiple themes here: the politics of childhood (from the perspective of girls), the limitation of female expression, and a hint of criticism for society’s conception of “femaleness” as a whole. This last one sticks out to me the most, probably because feminist theory is a major focus of my own scholarly work. Of course, this isn’t just the over-working of a brain trained for finding arbitrary feminist readings in texts—the text itself supports this reading as an undercurrent of subtext throughout.

In order to become accepted members of society—ie, fit in with “TheOtherGirls”—women and girls learn early on that they must alter themselves to conform to an expected (and accepted) image of femininity. They must change their appearance and maintain it scrupulously, must change their behavior in order to fit into the niche of what is all right for a girl. Take the image of Sunny’s cutting, for example:

It’s not the way it would be, cutting a real pony. The wing comes off easily, smooth as plastic, and the blood smells like cotton candy at the fair. There’s a shiny trembling oval where the wing was, as if Barbara is cutting rose-flavored Turkish Delight in half and sees the pink under the powdered sugar. She thinks,It’s sort of pretty, and throws up.

The use of “real” here in the first sentence is vexing. Clearly these Ponies are real in the context of this story, although they don’t fit our conception of what “real” ponies are. But Sunny plainly feels pain, so I think something else is going on here. There are clues, apart from the tone of the text, that the narrator is buying into this idea of the “cutting-out” as a necessary price for inclusion. (Sidenote: “cutting-out,” “coming-out” . . . I hadn’t noticed this before, but I’m really thinking it’s intentional.)

So if the Ponies are an extension of the girls’ personality and feminine self-expression, then it makes sense that anyone invested in the idea of paring this part of themselves down would also buy into the idea that it’s not really themselves being hurt. After all, Barbara isn’t cutting herself with that knife, right? (Well, wrong, but you get the psychology behind the issue.)

Then there’s the details of the cutting. The cutting of the wing is described as “smooth as plastic,” giving me a striking image of someone cutting parts off a Barbie doll. (Which is interesting . . . Barbie, Barbara . . . not sure what it means, to be honest. Must investigate further!) We also consider plastic things to be fake, so once again we’re getting the idea that Sunny isn’t real, and at the same time we’ve got an image of femininity: plasticness, the idea of altering oneself into the context of fakeness. (And isn’t that what we like to call the girls who are the epitome of the popular embodiment of American femininity, “fake”?)

Okay, this is getting long (hovering at about 800 words just for the part talking about Ponies), so I’ll just note the last line of the passage. Yes, it is sort of pretty. We are certainly taught to feel that altering oneself to embody the ideal notion of “female” is pretty, but it’s also (underneath the surface) ultimately harmful. We recognize this even as we internalize the “prettiness” of it all—hence Barbara throwing up.

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There’s so much more in the story, and please don’t take my reading as the ultimate Word on the text. Also notice something: a reading journal is an invention activity. What I have done here is basically a type of focused freewriting and annotation. It’s more than idle observation of a text, but it’s not quite formal, paper-worthy close reading yet. It’s jumbled, I’m not sure what everything means yet, etc, etc. It’s a step in the right direction, though, and I could certainly use it to start a paper, so keep this in mind as you write your own posts.

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