Understanding Literature

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When a writer feels the need to express his or her views on a subject or situation, imaginative literature emerges. This in its original and unique form usually have significance beyond the moment; as described in Ezra Pounds words: ‘Literature is the news that stays news’.

Imaginative literature is the representation of the writer’s ideas in words that are memorable. To make it memorable, language is stretched to its limits with the use of vivid imagery and evocative comparisons.

Imaginative literature is grouped into: Fiction, Poetry and Drama. The popularity of each genre varies per culture, that is, some culture are more comfortable with a particular genre than others. For example, sonnet is popular in the west, kabuki plays are most seen in Japan, while we hear of Arabian poetry.

The common characteristics of imaginative literature is its ability to create adventures and wonders for the readers with the use of vivid imagery, well developed characters, compelling plot, good use of language, among other techniques that will naturally lead the readers to a delightful world of relaxation.

Imaginative literature helps us to understand the world better; i mean, the previous, present and future times. There is no life situation that Literature has not captured. Examples: While Wole Soyinka narrates the ordeal of an African American in getting an apartment in ‘Telephone Conversation’, Alison Bechdel, speaks to the right to own one’s sexuality without being ashamed or stigmatized in ‘Fun Home’ Literature in the words of Pablo Neruda, a Chilean Poet, is ‘the most ancient rites of our conscience in the awareness of being human and of believing in a common destiny’. In other words, Literature is a representation of life.

Conventional Themes

The theme of a work is the main idea being portrayed, that is, the honey spot of the piece of art. This is not usually expressed explicitly. It is largely hidden in the writer’s language, emphasis and imagery. Some works explore more than a theme; so, a book may have multiple themes. Certain themes have recurred over the years and are made conventions. Lately, the recurring themes in works of literature are: women abuse and liberation in different contexts: family, marriage, workplace and the society at large; political (leadership, corruption, development, etc); values: self versus societal expectations, just to mention a few.

Themes are guided by our experiences, environment, cultures, expectations, exposure and so on. These vary per writer.

The Literary Canon

Literary canon are the standard works that are considered good for studying. What is acceptable as worthy literature has evolved over time. Even the standards by which Literature is judged also has changed significantly to give room for inclusion.

Traditional literary canon is said to be restrictive to the already defined western writers who were predominantly white and male: the likes of Homer, Plato, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton; even, Victorian Literature, the Romantics, British and American Literature. Of course, these works reflect the western values.

The so called Traditional Literary Canon has been expanded to accommodate other races ( African, Asian, South America) and gender( female), with broader perspectives.

Interpreting Literature

When you read a  work of literature, you are expected to interpret it. Once you understand the writer’s intent, you will be able to draw possible meanings from the work. If a reader interacts with a literary piece, the interpretations that could be derived will vary depending on the level of interaction. We react differently to situations, same is expected in our reception of a work of literature.

A literary work also suggests the social, political, gender, religious and class affiliations of the writer, from the facts supplied. The facts normally will help the reader follow the plot of a prose, action in drama and poem development. Therefore, a work may be gender biased or laden with political agenda; it may expose a writers displeasure at situations and might even compare the times: past vs present, outlook the future. These point to a myriad of attitudes already. The readers’ understanding of these attitudes will guide the interpretation they give to a literary piece.

In addition, assumptions play a pivotal role in interpreting literature. You might need to understand literary conventions and the periods in history; what is/was acceptable or not. Understanding the writer’s background and situation at the time he or she wrote the book might give a pointer to the book’s semantic direction.

You also bring your personal perspectives to fore when interacting with a work of literature. Your exposure, ideas, ideals, gender, experiences, culture, age, political and religious backgrounds, class and so on that defines you, will influence your interpretation of a literary piece.

Worthy of note, no one meaning is absolute. Every meaning should be respected, especially when backed up with facts. Different perspectives can be gained when reading a book, so it’s better to approach a book with an open mind, however guided with background information (e.g. about the author, period, conventions, etc.), that are good to know.

The reading of a text could either be safe or strong. Safe reading states the obvious, while strong reading is highly intellectual, critically understanding a literary work and challenging / questioning conventions, where necessary. The reading of a work must always be a dialogue, between you and the other (author, conventions, the book itself).

More so, there is no correct interpretation either. Every interpretation must be supported with facts seen in the text being interpreted. Every text has many possibilities. Suffice to say, Literature is not rigid, at all. To gain deeper understanding of a text, you need to ask yourself questions and re-examine your judgments, interpretations and facts in text.

Evaluating Literature

Evaluating is simply going further, not stopping on interpreting. To evaluate a work of literature, you make judgements on the work and analyse it in its various elements. Before you can evaluate a work of literature, you must have given it an interpretation of some sort.

Now let’s shed some light on the elements:

Different genres have different structures and elements. A prose may be in chapters, and embedded with flashbacks and foreshadowing; plays are in acts and scenes with attention to dialogue and stage details, while poems are in lines, and focus is on rhyme and meter. Your level of understanding of these elements per genre, will guide your responses to the text in question.

In evaluating, considering and understanding the theme(s) in the work are vital. Is the work speaking to issues of the past, the present or forecasting a future based on experiences of the past? Is it a comparison of people, periods, and ideals or a message of hope?

Is the work intellectually challenging? There is hardly no work that is not intellectually challenging, the level of engagement, technicality and relevance should be the point of concern. An intellectually challenging work requires some effort from the reader to unravel the meaning and its relevance.

A literary work can also be simply obscure, because it only exhibits the writer’s erudition and scholarship. In fact, such works are often too ambiguous that they can pass for a coded piece. That’s not very good for effective literature. It is too personal and may be solely for the writer’s archive or for his or her close circle that are particularly interested in his or her idiosyncrasies. However, you cannot assume on which work is obscure or intellectually challenging. Not all intellectually challenging works are easy to read and obscure works are not always complex and disorganized. This calls for a close attention. An example of a work that is intellectually challenging is John Donne’s poem, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, where lovers were compared with the legs of a compass.

Literary Criticism

Literary criticism is the outcome of a strong reading of a literary work, analyzing the theme(s) with the lens of a critical theory, movement or a school of thought. Literary criticism allows scholars to share opinions and interact on Literature. As a critic, you may agree or refute another’s critical analysis.  It is very important in literary criticism to understand critical theories. Literary criticism can be found in books, journals and scholarly platforms..

Gbemi Ibrahim

Gbemi Ibrahim

Gbemi has worked as a ghostwriter for well over ten years and counting. She is a pro in business and executive communication. More so, she has a mastery of creative writing and making a polished document out of disorganized thoughts and ideas.

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Gbemi Ibrahim

Gbemi Ibrahim

Gbemi has worked as a ghostwriter for well over ten years and counting. She is a pro in business and executive communication. More so, she has a mastery of creative writing and making a polished document out of disorganized thoughts and ideas.

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