A New Perspective on Lit Analysis

I’m thinking about analysis this morning–literature analysis, as it happens.

This all started because Susan and I got into a discussion about reading non-fiction this morning, which spun into how I’ve finally been out of school long enough to actually want to read it, and from there to how English class ruined me for analyzing anything I read until fairly recently.

Quite apart from the fact that the traditional cannon of dead white dudes would never in a zillion years be published in modern times and that those alleged great authors committed all kinds of egregious writing sins that WE aren’t allowed to get away with, any hope I had of actually liking the stuff we were forced to read in English class was wholly ruined by the insistence of the teachers on analyzing everything to death.  And it wasn’t the kind of analysis that actually looked at the characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts and the driving force behind the plot.  No, it was a bunch of asinine bullshit like what did the green light mean? (Hint, it was just an effing green light.  It didn’t mean a damned thing!  Okay yeah, I’m still bitter about The Great Gatsby)  I was the student who read the book as assigned and then went back to buy the Cliff’s notes to find out what the hell I was supposed to see that wasn’t really there.

Coming off the heels of this kind of crap, my inclination to analyze anything I read was exactly nil.

But over the last several years, as I’ve gotten serious about this whole writing as career thing, I’ve gradually started doing it.  Not trying to figure out what the blue curtains mean but looking at the building blocks of good fiction.  If a book is good, I now have to figure out why.  Why did it engage me?  Why was I entertained?  What kept me from putting it down or throwing it at the wall?

This is part and parcel of being a good writer.  It’s not just about reading craft books, it’s about reading fiction and SEEING those aspects of craft done–well or badly–we can learn from both.  It takes work and self-training to read analytically.  To really be present in what you’re reading so you can actually identify “oh I see what she did there…that’s awesome,” is hard to do.  I usually don’t manage it the first time through.  If a book is good enough that I was pulled out of my natural copy editor mode just to read the story, THEN I’ll go back and reread it, knowing what happened, what was being built toward and seeing how they did it.  I’m trying to be more conscious of doing this and applying what I learn to my own work.

What about you?  Do you analyze the stuff you read?

8 thoughts on “A New Perspective on Lit Analysis

  1. HA, I can’t STOP doing that now–books, movies, tv. I’m now hardwired to recognize craft elements EVERYWHERE. Hubby hates it–“How did you know that was going to happen?” Me: “Ummm, because it’s Midpoint.” Hubby: ….

  2. I was fortunate, in that I always sucked at symbolism analysis in school. So though I had the same literary slaughter classes as everyone else, I never figured out how to “see” it in the text, so it never damaged my ability to read for fun.

    Now, I did have a class in high school that went into such things lke word sounds and how those affect the mood, but I’m technically oriented anyway, so I find that fun. (Now that I think of it, it’s probably part of why I did so well in my poetry writing class.)

    But one major thing that helped me not sabotage my reading was… Well, I couldn’t understand symbolism, so I made myself write a short story that would use a bunch of color symbolism, right? Only I used fill-in colors, planning to go back and look up color meanings later to change the colors to fit. Except… When I went back to look up color meanings, I’d unwittingly used the exact colors I intended. And the story had another item that was a symbol, and I hadn’t even realized I’d written it that way.

    Thus died any awe I had of writers who intentionally wrote things that were chock-full of symbolism.


    1. Oh it didn’t damage my love of reading. I’ve always read like mad. But fun reading that I didn’t try to analyze. Mysteries, romance, thrillers… The stuff the literary crowd turns up their noses at.

  3. You must have had the same discussion about Gatsby that I did, i.e. why he wears a pink suit. And, considering that the pink suit observation was made by someone who saw him at a party once, maybe he never did; maybe the person who talked about it was seeing things after too much bathtub gin.

    I’m pretty much the same way: I avoid anything considered “great literature” like an IRS audit. Most of it is depressing and dreary, even things that are supposed to be funny. I’d much rather read Jonathan Kellerman and Robert Crais than Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. (From what I remember, Dickens was writing “A Tale Of Two Cities” as it was being typerset, meaning that it’s a lousy first draft.)

  4. I’m one of the few writers that don’t analyze. It takes the fun out of reading for me. I just want to be entertained after a long day at work. I don’t WANT to analyze anything. That being said, if there are blatant errors or if the book just plain sucks, I can usually figure out why. Although, the biggest reason is it’s just boring. That’s going to be my biggest reason for not liking a book. Life is too short for boring.

  5. Funny, I never had this problem at school in the sense that I never got turned off all the literary reading – I discovered it way before it came up at school (not that I’m a genius or anything, I just mean for instance that my parents had, e.g. Orwell, in the house and I read it in 8th grade way before we got to it in 10th grade), so that by the time it did, I had my own opinions.
    On the other hand, there are some books we read at school that it doesn’t matter when in life I might have read them, I’ll never like them (I know, cos I went back to them later in life to see if it was me or the books and it was definitely the books), especially Shane. UGH that horrid book!

  6. As a teacher, I can honestly say, I do NOT analyze the blue curtains and the green light. In fact, I’ve heard some authors say they never intended all the deep meanings literature analysts assign to mundane things in their books. Unfortunately, the dead, white, male writers aren’t here to defend themselves.

    However, i do analyze for what makes a book work. If I’m especially impressed with how a writer pulled something together, I do go back and reread it to look closer and dig deeper, just as you say you do. In class, we reread passages and analyze how the author set the mood, or how the author made the character likable, even if that character is doing something unlikable. I teach the same things I’d be interested in discovering as I grow in my own writing ability.

    That’s probably why most English teachers think I don’t know what I’m doing. In which case, I just go on through the green light and close the blue curtains and read another book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.