Monday, 25 May 2009

Understanding Fiction

As part of a current project, I am reading textbooks on teaching fiction. Over the next while, I plan to post reviews of Robert Protherough's Developing response to fiction and Elaine Showalter's Teaching literature. If anyone has further recommendations I would be glad to receive them. I'll start, today, with Understanding fiction, by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, prominent members of the school of New Critics. (This textbook was first published in 1943 and went to three editions, the image is of the third edition, but the second edition of 1959 is fuller, and the page numbers of quotations in this post are from it.) Brooks and Warren laid out a method for a fiction textbook: presentation of a set of pieces in sections to illustrate plot, character, and theme—mostly short stories by distinguished authors—along with suggestions of how one might think about them. In addition there is a section of stories without annotations. In the first and second editions, a nine-page "Letter to the teacher" offers Brooks and Warren's philosophy of teaching. They say their belief is that:
... the student can best be brought to an appreciation of the more broadly human values implicit in fiction by a course of study which aims at the close analytical and interpretive reading of concrete examples. It seems to us that the student may best come to understand a given piece of fiction by understanding the functions of the various elements which go to make up fiction and by understanding their relationships to each other in the whole construct ... such an end may best be achieved by the use of an inductive method (pp. xiii-xiv).
I take it that what Brooks and Warren mean by "inductive method" is to have students make a "close analytical and interpretive reading" of the pieces to develop a skill that can be applied to any fiction. The first problem for the student, say Brooks and Warren,
is to understand the nature of fictional structure, to become acquainted with the idiom in terms of which the art operates, and to broaden the imaginative sympathies so that the student can transcend stock responses and threshold [i.e. initial] interests (p. xvi).
The watchword of the New Critics was close reading of each text: the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text, excluding readers' emotions, or other aspects of readers' responses. The goal of the analytic process is to break "fiction down into the component parts—plot, theme, character, exposition, atmosphere, and so on" (p. 527). The process involves drawing on the evidence of the text to discover such parts.

Included in the book are four short stories by writers known to the authors (one story, indeed, is by one of the authors!) along with the authors' reflections, written specially for the second edition of this book, of how each story was written. The purpose of this, say Brooks and Warren in a rather non-New-Critical kind of way, is to make "a dramatic presentation of the fact that fiction—serious fiction, at least—is grounded in experience and has a significant relation to the world of actuality" (p. x).

One of the stories is by Eudora Welty, one of best American Southern writers. It is called "No place for you, my love." It's about a man and a woman who meet by chance at a luncheon in New Orleans. Both are strangers to the region, and the man guesses the woman is married and is having an affair. He offers to take her for a drive south of the city in a car he has rented. She accepts, and wonders what the price of her decision will be. After some hours, they come to the end of the road. "The end of the road—she could not ever remember seeing a road simply end—was a spoon shape, with a tree stump in the bowl to turn around by" (p. 538). The story is about the atmosphere of the region, about the relationship between the man and the woman that forms, briefly, in this place.

Welty's reflection is entitled "How I write." It is about how she had a version of a story, and how it was taken over by a drive with a friend south of New Orleans through a region to which she had never been, "south from South." In the second version of her story, the drive is incorporated, and contributes an atmosphere of unbearable heat and unbearable mosquitoes, of road and foliage and houses and rivers and occasional glimpses of people. For her, said Welty, "The story is a vision; while it's being written, all choices must be its choices, and as these multiply upon one another, their field is growing too" (p. 549). The story is about "what a relationship does, be it however brief, tentative, potential, happy or sinister ... what's seen fleeting past by two vulnerable people" (pp. 550-551).

For Brooks and Warren, the good reader, after breaking down a story into its component parts, "puts them back together again ... [to] form a richer and more meaningful whole. The good reader ultimately attains to a sort of 'vision' too" (p. 528).

Cleanth Brooks & Robert Penn Warren (1959). Understanding fiction, second edition. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.


Bad Horse said...

I'm thrilled with this book! I've read dozens of books on writing, and this blows them all away. Writers are obsessed with style, but they way they usually fail is by failing to write about anything. This book takes stories apart and shows what they're about and how they work.

It's unfair to call the book "New Criticism." It isn't anything new; it's just going back to the old idea that stories mean something. If someone else wanted to make a crusade against the teaching of author biographies, fine, but that's not what this book does. Note the frequent references to authors' biographies or other works, such as in the sections on Hemingway and Faulkner.

It's especially unfair to pretend that it (or New Criticism) wants to exclude readers' emotions. That's a false charge leveled later by reader-response theorists, to try to make themselves look important.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Bad Horse, for this comment. I was interested to hear how much you liked Understanding Fiction by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. The reason I called the book "New Criticism" is that Brooks and Penn Warren were members of a group that was called "The New Critics" by John Crowe Ransom, in 1941. I am sorry that you think that I was "unfair to pretend that it (or New Criticism) wants to exclude readers' emotions." I was guided by a famous paper of the New Critics, Wimsatt and Beardsley (Wimsatt, W.K & Monroe Beardsley, "The affective fallacy", Sewanee Review, vol. 57, no. 1, (1949): 31-55.) in which they argued that emotions of readers should not be taken into account in critical work in literature.

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