Writing about Literature

Writing about Literature

When making claims about literature you will most often be interpreting or evaluating critically a primary text or texts. Like other argumentative essays, the literary analysis is built upon a main claim supported by evidence. In addition, there are certain formal guidelines you must follow when writing about literature, including using the literary present and, when necessary, integrating outside sources.

Making claims about literature

Your goal in an essay about literature is to interpret, not to describe, and to persuade rather than prove. Your claim should be argumentative and debatable, like the claims you have made in your other papers (e.g. those for your composition courses), but it should also be supported by convincing evidence in the form of specific examples from the text. If you're having trouble coming up with a claim, you might consider the following common approaches: A discussion of patterns in the text: is there a recurrence of certain kinds of imagery, events, or language?

In William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, whenever Quentin Compson, the narrator, is retelling particularly traumatic events from his family's past, his sentences become longer and use less punctuation, sometimes going pages without a period.

A discussion of a problem in the text: is there something about the text that bothers or doesn't make sense to you? A character who behaves in unexpected ways? A piece of important information that the author withholds?

William Faulkner illustrates the unreliable nature of historical narrative by having the multiple narrators of Absalom, Absalom! frequently give conflicting information about their family’s past.

A discussion of the characters: are they realistic? Symbolic? Based on historical accounts?

The stories passed down about Quentin's grandfather, Thomas Sutpen, portray him as more of a myth than a real historical individual. Sutpen functions in Absalom, Absalom! as a symbol of the antebellum South.

A comparison/contrast of the choices different authors or characters make in a work.

William Faulkner's use of multiple and intertwining narratives, unreliable narrators, and complicated, non-traditional syntax make him a distinctly modern writer in comparison with his contemporaries such as Edith Wharton or Theodore Dreiser.

A study of the historical, social, or political context in which a work was written: how does the context influence the work?

William Faulkner incorporates his own experience of living in the racially segregated South into Absalom, Absalom!. Quentin Compson's complex and painful relationship to the legacy of slavery in the South reflect Faulkner's own relationship to this legacy throughout his life.

These are only a few starting points for developing strong claims about literature. The best rule of thumb is to start with something about the text that intrigues or troubles you, or about which you are uncertain. By asking (and then attempting to answer) good questions of a text, you’ll be able to move toward a strong claim.

Using the literary present

Always write about literature using the present tense. Even though many literary works are narrated in the past tense, when we write about literature we use present tense. We would say that the protagonist talks to his friend because he thinks he is going to help him. And even though William Faulkner is no longer living and writing, we say that Faulkner suggests or uses or says; in his novels a line or word suggests or means or implies something. However, if you are referring to a historical fact about the author, use the past tense, e.g. Faulkner lived and wrote in the early 20th century.

Integrating outside sources

Sometimes your instructor will ask you to use secondary sources to supplement the evidence you find in the primary text (See the handouts “Library Database Guide” and “Evaluating Sources” for guidance). These sources should only be used as an aid. Your thoughts and ideas should be the backbone of the essay. As you develop your claim, bring in the ideas of the scholars from your secondary sources to back up your claim and augment the evidence you find in the primary text.

Be sure to responsibly and gracefully move between others’ words and your own by using precise citation and documentation (see the handout on “Using Sources in an MLA Paper”) and by adhering to the following guidelines:

Only use quotes that accurately and sufficiently summarize one of the author's claims or express his or her argument in language that you cannot improve upon.

William Faulkner faces the same struggle as Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom!. In order to tell his story, he has to "repudiate the uncritical allegiance and assent demanded by a closed society even though it was still his home and native land" (Backman 599).

Only use quotes that relate directly to your argument, and only excerpt the part of the quote that you need.

Melvin Backman has pointed out Faulkner' s difficulty in avoiding what he calls "distortions wrought by Southern legend and pride" (599).

Don't leave a quoted passage or paraphrase by itself (especially at the beginning or end of a paragraph). You must explain the material and show how it relates to your thesis. Information from secondary sources is only meant to strengthen your claim; your own voice should prevail. (See handout on “Quoting and Paraphrasing” for detailed guidance on integrating sources.)

Where in The Bedford Handbook?

See Section 55: Citing sources; avoiding plagiarism