What’s the Difference Between Symbolism and Literary Analysis?

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In January, Briana wrote a post on symbolism inspired by a McSweeny’s article by Samantha Shanker  titled “Useful Things to Say in English Class.”  If you read the article, it’s a comedic take on the way high school classes are taught in the United States.  Even if a student did not read the book, even if they  did not understand the book, even if they really were not paying attention and have no clue what is happening, they can basically go back to a few catch phrases and make it seem like they’re offering a deep thought.  How do they do that?  Symbolism of course!  The water is baptism, the wine is blood, etc., etc.

I did attend a high school where English was taught this way, so I personally found Shanker’s piece all too real.  Too often high school teachers, overburdened with large class sizes and not enough time, fall back on multiple choice tests or short answer tests because asking students to write, to engage with the text and make connections and arguments, would mean they would then have to read all those essays and actually evaluate each piece one by one.  Is the argument original?  Is the evidence convincing?  Does this interpretation of the text work even if it’s not the interpretation the instructor favors?  That’s a lot of work.  It is much, much easier to spend class time pointing out symbols so students can regurgitate them later on a test.  That way, there’s only one right answer.

To my surprise, however, a few commenters answered Briana’s post by implying that Briana was arguing that there’s nothing below the surface of a text.  We can read for content and comprehension, be able to summarize the text, and call it a day.  But Briana’s post is exactly arguing exactly the opposite.  She says she’s not interested in symbols because the symbols, as defined by Shanker’s article, are not good literary analysis.  Why?  Because they’re obvious! Dickens himself comes out and says the wine in A Tale of Two Cities represents blood: “and one tall joker so besmirched [with wine], his head more out of a long squalid bag of a night-cap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine-lees–BLOOD.  The time was to come when that wine too would be spilled on the street stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there” (25-6).  You don’t need any training in literary studies to figure that one out.  You  just need to be able to read English.

To counter Briana’s post, several commenters offered some literary analysis to demonstrate that reading below the surface of a text can be rewarding.  But that’s not symbolism, and definitely not the type of symbolism the American high school system teaches students to recognize.  That’s a close reading, an interpretation based in textual evidence.  Of course Briana supports that!  The number one rule professionals in literary studies recognize is that texts are not obvious and that you have to dig into them to find hidden meanings.  And that’s the difference between professional work and the type of work high school students are mislead into believing professionals do.  Professionals need to read a text several times, carefully look at the phrasing and the details, and then connect their observations back to an argument about the wider project of the text.  Professionals never sit around and play “spot the symbol.”

Briana and I certainly appreciate the lively dialogue surrounding symbolism that the post generated.  It didn’t seem like the kind of post that would be controversial! However, I think it’s beneficial for us here to distinguish between the symbolism referenced by Briana (as defined by Shanker’s article–we have to keep in mind that her post is a response to a larger conversation and not a personal “misunderstanding” of what symbolism is) and the literary analysis others are promoting and that Briana obviously supports.  If you enter a graduate seminar and start talking about symbols, you will certainly be laughed at.  If you offer a close reading with analysis, you will have demonstrated that you understand the values of the literary community.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Bantam Books, 1981.

Krysta 64

The Debate Over YA Is Over

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Yesterday, I published a post about why I’d like to see bloggers provide more evidence in their blogs.  As an example of a time when I would like to see the blogger cite a representative example of a trend they see and provide a link, I used the line, “People are always making fun of adults for reading YA.”   Many comments disagreed with my desire for links, suggesting that this attitude is well-known among bloggers.  However, while I agree that there are lingering vestiges of this attitude, I disagree that this a real argument we need to be engaging with.  And any blogger who does research on this trend would see why–it’s an argument that’s outdated.

By Googling a combination of phrases such as “YA Adults” and “adults shouldn’t read YA,” it became clear to me that much of the criticism of adults reading YA occurred between 2012 and 2014.  2012 was the year Joel Stein wrote “Adults Should Read Adult Books” for The New York Times.  It was also the year a survey showing that 55% of adults read YA was published, indicating that people then were becoming interested in the trends surrounding YA, perhaps wanting to figure out why it was so popular, who was purchasing it, etc. This study gave solid grounds for others to continue to observe and critique the trend.  Ruth Graham, for example, cited the survey in her 2014 article for Slate, “Against YA,” in which she criticized YA for being a form of escapism and replacing literary fiction in the reading habits of adults.

Graham’s article inspired Caitlin White to respond on Bustle (2014)and defend adults who read YA.  Alyssa Rosenberg responded to Graham for The Washington Post (2014).  Her article is titled “No, you do not need to be ashamed of reading young adult fiction.”  Simply skimming the first few Google results showed me that, besides an interview Graham did with NPR in 2014, no one else in the mainstream media seems to have been belittling adults for reading YA a this time.  All we have is one opinion piece from 2012 and one from 2014.  In 2015, The Guardian explored the question “Why are so many adults reading YA and teen fiction?” but by this point it seems to have been taken for granted that they were and it was acceptable.  The reader responses quoted in the article generally advocate for the sophistication and delight of YA.  And most of the other search results were articles or blog posts advocating for reading YA, not against.

Although no doubt there will always be individuals who believe adults should not read YA, a quick research of the criticism surrounding adults and YA indicates that this conversation was one was that was taking place years three to five years ago.  Even then, it seems there were a few disgruntled critics fighting was what already a lost battle.  To me, spending energy trying to convince people that YA is a valid art form is generally a waste, much like trying to convince people that comic books are a valid art form.  Just about everyone knows this.  YA and comics are widely read.  Journals, panels, academic conferences, and college courses are devoted to them. Maybe every now and then a critic will write an article against YA to see what kind of fuss they can kick up.   Perhaps a few educators here and there worry that reading comic books will hurt literacy rates.  But it’s counterproductive for us to act like this is a discussion we still need to have.  That makes it seem as though the critics are more numerous, more powerful, and more influential than they really are.  We’re hurting our own cause by pretending that this debate is between equals and that it is ongoing.

Do you think we still need to defend YA as a legitimate art form?

Krysta 64

Should Bloggers Provide More Evidence in Their Discussion Posts?

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In the book blogosphere it’s generally understood that most bloggers write for fun, that the rules of writing are relaxed, and that no one expects a minimum of ten credible sources to be listed at the end of a post.  You can write a discussion post based around general observations such as, “It seems children are reading less these days,” or “People are always making fun of adults for reading YA,” and no one comments asking for the latest statistics to back up these assertions, or a few examples of published criticism of YA readers.  However, there are still times when providing numbers or links could bolster your claims.

Whenever I read anything, my gut reaction is to ask myself, “But how do they know?  Where is the proof?”  I begin by reading generously, of course, and try to see the issue from the other person’s perspective.  However, I am also trained to read critically.  The fact that one person claims something does not make it true.  I need evidence.  And I need that evidence from a credible source–that is, from a source where the author is an expert in the field and their assertions have been reviewed by other trained individuals.

The burden of proof is especially important to me when I am on the Internet because very often the credentials of an author remain a mystery.  I can go to a social media site like Tumblr and read all sorts of information about history, politics, and culture, but more often than not I have no way to verify–from the post–whether the author writing this has done any research.  Very often a post may end with a disclaimer to the effect of, “This is true, but I can’t find where I read it.”  Furthermore, I usually have no way of knowing who the author is.  Is it a feminist scholar writing on her blog?  A college student repeating a lecture?  A thirteen-year-old repeating what they learned in class that day?

I do not mean to insult thirteen-year-olds when I note that the information offered in schools is often partial and simplified, so as to be able to fit within the constraints of the curriculum.  There’s a difference between reading a middle school textbook on the Civil War and learning from a National Park ranger at a Civil War battlefield.  One of the sources has far more context and depth.  One of these sources, for instance, will hopefully know more about the contributions of women and Black Americans to the war than a sidebar on the last page of the chapter.  One of these sources can challenge our assumptions about what we know about history and expand our minds.  The other, often not so much.  They’re still busy learning and may not yet have grasped the larger contexts of their lessons, or read the latest studies, or or learned the historical development of the field.  The Internet has allowed a wider number of voices to speak, but not all of these voices are equally knowledgeable or authoritative on specific matters.

Of course, finding credible sources is time-consuming and it often feels silly when we, the author,  know that we know what we’re talking about.  It often feels painful when we know that we know what we are talking about, but we can’t find the source that knowledge originally came from!  And it can feel funny when very few other people use sources.  Will we look too academic?  Will people think we’re intellectually elitist? Can’t people just take our word?

Perhaps many of our readers do take our word.  However, I know that I am far more likely to be convinced by an argument where it’s evident the author has done the research.  I don’t necessarily need a Works Cited at the bottom of the post, but I do need numbers, dates, and links.  I want to be able to verify your work and determine if those statistics are significant, if the information is outdated, if the source is biased. Otherwise, when you tell me something, I am going to remain skeptical.  I have to remain skeptical because, as it’s becoming increasingly clear, the fact that someone tells you something does not mean it is true.

Edited to Add: I do want to recognize the many comments below stating that they don’t need evidence for opinion posts or that they don’t need numbers for certain arguments.  I think it’s obvious that certain genres require  more evidence than others.  This post of course does not provide links or numbers because it is my opinion and I don’t make any claims that need evidence (unless I were to point towards discussion posts I found unconvincing, which would, I believe, be seen as mean-spirited on my part).

And, of course, certain claims require different types of evidence.  Not all claims need numerical or statistical evidence, nor could you find numbers for certain claims even if you tried.  However, I believe specificity is always better.  If you are responding to a trend, for example, citing a representative example from that trend is always useful for your readers.  You don’t need to find numbers for how many people have made such a claim because there is no place that would likely compile such data.  So, yes.  Genre and types of claims do make a different, and I think we can all agree on that.

What kinds of arguments do you find convincing?  What types of evidence do you look for?

Krysta 64

The Unwritten Rules of the Blogosphere

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Definitions of what a “discourse community” is  vary and not everyone believes that becoming one is necessarily a good thing.  However, I think the term may be useful here for the idea of the book blogosphere–a place where we communicate together with shared values and assumptions and towards shared goals.  That is, generally speaking, the book blogosphere might be understood to share goals such as: reading and reviewing books, discussing books and their merits, finding and interacting with others who are excited about reading, etc.  And we have to do all those things by communicating in common and expected ways, perhaps by providing an argument and evidence, or by providing a shorthand recommendation through a star rating.  The trick?  Because the book blogosphere is informal and nebulous (Indeed, who comprises the book blogosphere, and do all parts of it share the same goals and values?), the rules remain unwritten.  And yet, to be accepted as bona fide book bloggers, we most likely have to adopt at least some of them.

Simply by blogging for awhile and  by reading discussion posts about what bloggers like to see in other blogs, why they blog, why they follow other bloggers, etc., I have gleaned some of the unwritten rules, which I understand as follows:

  • Book bloggers expect blogs to be presented in clean, orderly ways.  Uncluttered sidebars, easy-to-read text, easy-to-navigate menus, and a professional logo are often seen as markers of a “real” blogger.
  • Book bloggers ought to be blogging for the pure joy of it or for community, not for monetary compensation or a higher page count.  You may want ARCs or wish you could be paid like fashion or food bloggers, but you’re not supposed to suggest as much.  Being paid is seen as suspicious, as if you have become part of a publisher’s marketing department.  Likewise, you may want to see your stats rise, but if you say so, you ought to clarify that you love blogging enough that the stats do not really matter.
  • Book bloggers should be careful they are not seen as argumentative.  Rose Read has written a little about this before, suggesting that bloggers are often afraid to write negative reviews if the consensus on a book is positive.  This rule goes further, however.  That is, bloggers generally seem to expect comments on posts to agree with the post.  Going back and forth too much with an opposing opinion might be seen by some as argumentative.
  • Book bloggers expect some sort of quid pro quo when they comment.  That is, if they comment on your blog, it’s considered neighborly to comment back, if not immediately at least eventually.
  • Book bloggers are not supposed to mention the quid pro quo rule.  We’re all commenting for the love of community, not to get something back.
  • Book bloggers appreciate fewer memes and more discussions.  Memes are generally considered easy filler, but increasing numbers of bloggers seem to appreciate discussion posts (and some reviews) as they provide more complex issues to think about and respond to.

So what do bloggers value?  They tend to value community, friendliness, and rich content–all good things!  But looking at the unwritten rules can also help us to question some of the current standards.  For instance, why is it so bad to receive monetary compensation for writing book reviews?  Does that make Publishers Weekly and Kirkus publications we ought not to trust?  Why can other bloggers make a living out of their hobby but not book bloggers?  And do the current rules of neighborly discourse potentially stifle conversation?  Are we missing out on lively debates because we fear to seem unkind? And how do we feel about potentially being a discourse community, anyway? Does pressure to integrate into the community mean that we lose some of our individualism?

I’m not sure I have answers to all these questions, but they are ones I like to ponder, along with my musings on my rhetorical choices and the reasons behind them.

So what do you think?  What unwritten rules do you see in the book blogosphere and do you feel pressured to conform to them?

Krysta 64

Are We Failing Students by Not Turning Them into Readers?

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The Benefits of Reading

It’s commonly known among teachers that students who read more or who are read to at home are more successful at school and write more successfully than their non-reading peers.  This probably should not surprise us as, of course, not being able to read at grade level would make studying any subject more difficult.  Furthermore, reading extensively can help students gain a larger vocabulary and become more comfortable with more complex syntaxes.  It can also provide students with models for their own writing and provide them with evidence to support their own arguments when they write.  And, of course, we are now exploring the possibility that reading literary fiction can make a person more empathetic, and help socialize children.

The Depressing Statistics

However, despite the widely-known benefits of reading, all of us know plenty of individuals who do not read and do not like to read.  In 2014, Common Sense Media reviewed research on children and teen reading and the results indicate that inviduals seem to read less as they age.  For instance the results show that in 2012 53% of nine-year-olds reported reading every day, but only 19% of 17-year-olds reported reading every day.

It seems many adults do not read for pleasure, either.  The Pew Research Center reports that a survey conducted from March to April 2015 shows that 72% of adults read at least one book–or part of one book–in the past year.  That means 28% of adults did not read a single book in that timeframe.  In 2016, the Pew Research survey indicated that 26% of adults had not read a book in the past year.

Considering all the benefits reading can have, are we doing students a disservice by losing them as readers?  What happens when a student arrives in college and, upon asked what their favorite book is, admits they have not read a book in at least two years?  The last time because they were forced to for class.  Is that student reaching their full potential?  How might that student’s success change if they read more?  What should we be doing to encourage more reading?

Some Ways to Encourage a Love of Reading

  • Read to children at home.  Guiding children through a story by asking them what they think will happen next or why something happened is a great way to get them engaged and thinking about what they read.
  • When possible, provide children with access to books at home.  Or donate books to charities who provide them to children in need.
  • Take children to the library.  It’s all right if at first they spend a lot of time playing and need to be guided into doing some reading. They’re still going to build positive associations with the library.
  • Model good reading habits.  Share your enthusiasm with others by talking to them about the books you are reading.
  • Encourage reading when you see it.  Even if you think someone is too old for certain material, that a boy should not be reading a “girl book,” or that someone should be reading “real” material and not reading graphic novels or audiobooks, do not discourage their efforts.  You want to build positive associations with reading, not make them feel self-conscious and bad about it.
  • Encourage friends and students to join a book club or a reading program.  Being around others who find reading fun or even just earning prizes for pages read might help reluctant readers see reading as fun, too.
  • Work with someone’s love of movies.  If you know an individual who really loves The Hobbit film, for example, you might provide them with a copy of the book for comparison.
  • Never shame an individual for not reading.  You don’t want people to associate reading with negativity, like they have to do it so you stop nagging them.
  • Provide choices.  People are generally more enthusiastic about doing something if they have more control over it, kind of like writing an essay about something they’re interested in rather than writing on an assigned topic.
  • Inform students why reading is relevant to them.  Students tend to be more invested when they think something will be useful to them.  Let your students know that, yes, reading and writing are connected and are important for any field.  Even STEM professionals have to read and write!
  • Bring in some professionals to talk about what they do.  Students may not believe you when you talk about the work a chemical engineer does.  But if you can show them a real-life chemical engineer who can talk about their work, now they have a model.
  • Find mentors. Students are often not quite sure what is expected from them in class or for the future.  Having a mentor who can guild them through school, the college selection process etc. can be immensely valuable as they’ll know what they need to achieve to get where they want to be.

Do you have suggestions about how to encourage students to read for fun?

Krysta 64

Dante’s Inferno Isn’t What You Think It Is


5 Things You Didn't Know about Dante's Inferno

Dante’s poetic masterpiece can seem intimidating, preventing  many a reader from picking it up.  Even so, it has entered our cultural consciousness and it can feel like we know Dante even if we have never read him.  But not everything you may have heard about Dante is true.


Beatrice Isn’t Really Dante’s Lover.

According to the Vita Nuova, Dante first sees Beatrice when the two are nine.  She is dressed in crimson, the color of charity.  From that moment she becomes for Dante a physical sign of divine love, always pointing Dante towards the greatest good, God Himself.  The two are never involved romantically and are, in fact, married to two different individuals.  After Beatrice’s early death (cause unknown), Dante resolves in the Vita Nuova to write no more until he can write something worthy of Beatrice, the blessed one.  That work would become the Divine Comedy.

Beatrice Doesn’t Lead Dante Through Hell.

Beatrice’s role in the Inferno is to descend from heaven to ask Virgil to leave his place in Limbo and lead Dante through hell so that he may understand the true nature of sin and repent.  Beatrice will not appear again until the end of the Purgatorio, just in time to answer some of Dante’s questions and guide him through heaven in the Paradiso.

The Inferno Isn’t All About Gruesome Punishments.

The Divine Comedy is an intricate work that mirrors the order of God’s universe.  The whole work contains 100 cantos–33 for each book plus an extra one to serve as an introduction to the Inferno.  Each canto is written in terza rima, a complex rhyme scheme that goes aba bcb cdc, etc.  Dante is very interested in using his creation to reflect God’s work and his poem is an extended look at divine justice, divine charity and mercy, and the nature of free will.  His work is full of philosophical and theological musings, as well as moving histories of the people who populate his hell.  Even though pop culture focuses on the gore and horror, there is a lot more going on in his work.

Dante Sometimes Struggles with Catholic Teaching.

In Canto V, Dante meets the lovers Paolo and Francesca, who had an adulterous affair and now suffer eternally for their lust by being buffetted by winds.  He feels so much sympathy for them (and perhaps some guilt over his own role encouraging lust through his older love poems) that he faints.  This is just one moment in which Dante seems to struggle with the teachings of the Church, sympathizing with sins he himself might be guilty of.

In other moments, he questions why his models such as Virgil and the other virtuous pagans must suffer in Limbo by being separated eternally from God.  They lead upright lives, but, because they were born before Christ, they could not be baptized and go to heaven.  It all seems so unfair!  Far from accepting whatever the Catholic Church says without any thought, Dante reveals a questioning and curious mind, one that modern readers can relate to.

You Don’t Need to Know Everything About Everything to Understand the Inferno.

Theology, science, politics, history, classical writers, Italian poets.  The allusions throughout Dante’s work can sometimes feel overwhelming.  However, you don’t need to understand everything about European history and politics to follow the trajectory of the poem.  If you get a translation with a few good footnotes, you’re on your way.

Krysta 64

Don’t Be Afraid to Read Middle Grade

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I’ve written before about the reasons we all should all be reading more middle-grade novels, noting they tend to be less formulaic and more inventive than YA; that they are more joyful; and that they avoid the dreaded love triangle.  However, the book blogging community tends to look down on MG, disparaging it the same way outsiders often seem to disparage YA.  Routinely my reviews on MG books receive comments such as, “I thought this looked cool, but then I realized it was MG.”  A subtle dig if ever there was one.

Of course, we all know that “middle grade” and “young adult” are somewhat arbitrary designations used to market books, and do not often reflect on the sophistication of the content within.  Bloggers point this out all the time when someone dares to attack adults for enjoying YA novels.  Indeed, a simple look at your library shelves or at the community’s Goodreads shelves can reveal the perils of trying to label books.  Works such as Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novels, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series, Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co., and Rick Riordan’s books are routinely listed as both MG and YA because they have crossover appeal.  Another little secret?  Books are often labelled based on the age of the protagonist.  You can be reading the exact same book, but if the author notes the character is fourteen, suddenly it’s YA!  This can make shelving series such as L. M. Montgomery’s Anne books tricky for stores and libraries.  If a character ages from twelve to thirteen and older, are the books MG or YA?

It’s quite obvious that MG and YA can both offer sophisticated, nuanced, and entertaining selections, but readers sometimes seem to distance themselves from MG as a response to the backlash to YA.  That is, since we’re so used to being mocked for reading “books for children,” the instinct seems to point out that, no, the real books for children are those MG ones–the ones we are too old, sophisticated, and intellectual to read.  We try to save ourselves from stigma by casting the stigma onto someone else.

Of course, many readers and bloggers simply do not enjoy or are not interested in MG, and that response is acceptable.  Read what you enjoy!  However, it can sometimes be worthwhile to question our reading choices and why we make them.  I don’t like to avoid books because I worry about what others will think, or because I worry they will place me outside my normal reading comfort zone.  Reading is very often meant to stretch us, to make us uncomfortable, to show us a different perspective.

Perhaps I am fortunate in feeling secure in reading whatever I want because I routinely read a wide variety of books including drama, poetry, nonfiction, literary theory, picture books, graphic novels, classics, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi, etc.  Maybe it’s because I actually read and love Shakepeare and Dante (for fun) that I am able to not care what others think of me when they see me reading MG.  If someone wants to suggest that I am juvenile or incapable of understanding “adult” books, I simply chuckle softly to myself.  I  cannot take someone seriously if they want to judge me based on a book or two they see me reading.

However, I firmly believe that a good story is a good story, no matter what age it was written for (or  maybe just marketed towards).  I do not believe I need to feel ashamed of my reading choices if someone else thinks them “juvenile”, nor do I feel that I need to distinguish myself as more sophisticated than other readers.  If reading has taught me anything, it’s that there’s always more to learn.  Maybe I can’t understand what someone sees in the books they read, but that does not mean the books have nothing valuable to offer, but rather that I  might need to attempt to broaden my perspective and learn to see what they see.

MG does not have to become the new YA, the group of “juvenile” books we’re afraid to be seen with and eager to move on from.  MG has so much to offer, from a higher level of diversity than YA to more inventive formats and more original premises.  We can celebrate all that without feeling self-conscious about it.

Krysta 64