Aristotle’s Poetics

What can I say about Aristotle’s Poetics that has not already been said, and by those much more capable? Certainly, despite being just a collection of drafts and journal entries, this is one of the most significant, relevant, and pervasive pieces of literary criticism in the western tradition. It continues to influence readers and scholars alike. While some have said the work is difficult to read and understand, I thought the Malcolm Heath translation (Penguin Classics 1996) was excellent, and the Introduction even better.

Heath takes Aristotle’s Poetics chapter-by-chapter, explaining what each of the core concepts is in any given part of the text, then elaborating with details, explanations, and contemporary context, which makes the original text much more readable. It was particularly helpful to read the introduction because the translation itself dropped some of the original language, without reference. For example, mimesis, hamartia, and katharsis, three incredibly important terms in literary criticism (including the study of rhetoric, drama, and narrative), are addressed by descriptions of their functions, only, and the translated terms (imitation, error, and purification) are what is given in the text itself. This is one of the few flaws I found in the translation because, presumably, anyone reading this text is doing so for edification on the topics of literary study and should hopefully be aware of the Greek terms that we continue to use in conversation of these topics, even 2,000-plus years later.  

That slight blip aside, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Aristotle’s Poetics. The majority of his musings are about dramatic tragedy, particularly in comparison to dramatic comedy, which he finds a lesser art form. That said, much of what he describes also applies to the study of narrative fiction and storytelling more generally. His methods of analysis, too, are fascinating in that they illustrate how one might go about “doing” the work of literary criticism, not to mention that his insights provide excellent food for thought regarding the dramas he analyzes himself (such as works by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Homer). Of the utmost interest is the idea that readers (more appropriately: audiences) derive pleasure from what are often painful emotions related to tragedies: fear, anger, loss, disappointment, etc. This, of course, leads to Aristotle’s explanation of catharsis and supports his argument that the cathartic experience of reading emotional works or witnessing an emotional play (of a specific type, at a specific sophistication, and for a certain privileged kind of audience) is the reason why storytelling is so powerful and effective.

One of the most unique and compelling aspects of Aristotle’s analysis, for me, has to do with the study of character, and what makes a “good” character. Aristotle claims that the character needs to be moral, but not perfect. He should be believable in his purposes and his struggles, but should also be “better” than we are, so that we can look to him as one to admire and so that we react rightly when said character falls. I think of the kinds of books I most often respond to, and they do indeed tend to have characters that are flawed but noble, that often fail but do great good (either actually or didactically/philosophically). In treating my thoughts on characterization in book reviews, I will try to consider Aristotle’s perspectives a bit more closely.

Aristotle also explains the function of plot and describes which are better or worse, depending on their constructions and outcomes. He describes “ordered structure” for example, and the idea that even in chaos, there must be some kind of realistic expectation for the events that are occurring. In other words, a character/reader/audience might be surprised by something that happens, but whatever it is that happens must be probable to the situation at hand. This is somehow both an obvious observation but also a profound one: how many plots have run afoul because the author seemed to throw in some plot device or tangent that made no sense and that could have been removed without influencing the story whatsoever? Everything must have a purpose. Whereas I found the exploration on character interesting from my perspective as a reader, I find this analysis of effective plots invaluable when thinking about my work as a writer.

The last element I found most fascinating, though I am skipping plenty that is interesting for the sake of brevity and because I simply did not conduct an academic reading on this text, is the idea of language. Aristotle criticizes some of his contemporaries who balked at the fact that some poets were using colloquial language. He writes that “the most important quality in diction is clarity, provided there is no loss of dignity” and adds that “the clearest diction is that based on current words” (36). He argues that the best language is that which is “some kind of mixture” of diction that is both clear and out of the ordinary, traditional and inventive. In many ways, I think this argument presages what Shakespeare would do in retelling familiar stories but couching it in the language of the people, even going so far as to invent much of the language he needed because it simply didn’t exist yet (or didn’t fit into his rhyme scheme). It is heartening to think that Aristotle, one of the foremost minds in all of western philosophy and an authority on language, was not an old fuddy-duddy.  

Aristotle’s Poetics is book 2 completed for my 2018 TBR Pile Challenge

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Mini-Reviews: Salinger, Forster, and Eagleton

Hi, folks!  I have been pressed for time, lately (lately? Please. This is nothing new, and we all know it) and I am way behind on reviews.  I “definitely” have four book reviews outstanding and “technically” have another three as well (texts I assigned to my composition students, which I have naturally read and should review at some point…).  Anyway, the only way for me to get to them, at this point, is with some mini-reviews or less-than-organized thoughts.  I recently read The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, too, for which I do hope to provide a full review (because it is on multiple of my challenge lists for 2013).

The following three are all works of non-fiction (one biography and two literary theory type texts) so I feel it is somewhat appropriate to present them together.  Here we go!

1. Salinger by David Shields and Shane Salerno — 4.0 out of 4.0

This is perhaps one of the best biographies that I have ever read.  No, in fact, it is probably the best biography I have ever read, as the other works which come close, in my mind, are actually autobiographies (Mark Twain’s, for instance).  The authors spent eight years researching Salinger’s life and works in order to get at the truth behind this brilliant but troubled writer, and their exhaustive studies have resulted in a masterful portrait and new understanding of the man who was Holden Caulfield.

The book is divided into four parts, and these four parts directly correspond to the four steps of Advaida Vedanta Hinduism.  These four steps included “Apprenticeship” (Brahmacharya); “Householder Duties” (Garhasthya); “Withdrawal from Society” (Vanaprasthya); and “Renunciation of the World” (Sanyasa).  Separating the biography into these sections, which clearly, then, correspond to chronological portions of Salinger’s life (personal and writing lives), helps the reader to make sense out of the mystery that was J.D. Salinger.  Why did he retreat from society?  But, more than this, Shields and Salerno dig deeper and expose the sometimes hypocrisy of Salinger’s self-exile – including the ways he would stay in touch with the world, though on the fringes, and the moments when he would reappear for just long enough, and in only the “necessary” ways, in order to refuel the flame of public interest.

What is truly wonderful, too, about this biography is that it is not titled too far toward fanatic praise (such as the Paul Alexander biography) nor toward outright personal animosity (such as the works of Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, as well as the Ian Hamilton biography).  Ultimately, the two biographers, here, present a notably balanced picture of the man and writer.  Much of Salinger’s history and personal relationships are either related for the first time in this work or presented with corroborating evidence such as has been missing in previous works, due to the fact that no one would speak about Salinger while he was alive.

Some have experienced mixed feelings about whether or not to read this biography, as it seems to be an invasion of the privacy Salinger held so dear.  I would argue, however, and I think the two authors of this work would agree, that Salinger did not intend or expect his life and work to go unexamined forever – just while he was alive.  Part of his religious teachings included the commitment to one’s art, without the fame or fortune which might come with it.  Evidence suggests that he did continue writing, and likely very much, over a long period of time, but he chose not to publish that writing for  variety of reasons, most of which had to do with his religious beliefs (though there are other elements to this decision, as Shields and Salerno mention).  Ultimately, it seems Salinger left instructions for many works to be published following a certain posthumous waiting period.  Since this is the case, one can, I believe, feel comfortable reading this intimate, sometimes expose, knowing that Salinger was likely perfectly aware that, following his death, his secret world would come out.

The structure of the work might work more for some than for others, as it is set up similar to a screenplay (which is perhaps appropriate, considering the documentary and the book were planned together and developed together, as a kind of single entity).  It worked well for me in certain parts, but at other times I found myself wishing for a traditional narrative form.  Ultimately, though, I find myself with very little to criticize. As a fan of Salinger (so much so that this very blog’s name is inspired by his work), I can and do highly recommend it.


157995922. Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster — 3.75 out of 4.0

E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel heralded the now enormous scholarship on theory and criticism of the novel and the writing process. In this work, which, like Virginia Woolf’s incredible A Room of One’s Own is actually a series of lectures, Forster lays out his now infamous set of seven elements of the novel: Story, Plot, Fantasy, Prophecy, Pattern, and Rhythm.  This is also the work responsible for bringing to readers and writers the idea of “flat” versus “round” characters — yes, those terms, unlike many, are actually traceable to a source!

In his lectures, Forster discusses in length, and from many perspectives, the differences between readers and critics, including their different purposes, the approaches they do (and should?) take, and also their abilities.  He says, for instance:

“The reader must sit down alone and struggle with the writer, and this the pseudo-scholar will not do. He would rather relate a book to the history of its time, to events i the life of its author, to the events it describes, above all to some tendency” (13-14).

This passage, I think, captures the essence of what Forster is trying to do, which is to separate the critic and the artist – to acknowledge the importance of a more artistic approach to reading, rather than a technical or historical one – to validate, in fact, the personal relationship a reader has with individual texts.

He does much more than this, of course.  He is teaching writers how to write, without having them write a word.  He gives numerous examples, from Dickens to Proust, from Woolf to DeFoe, to explain how and why certain writers do certain things.  He examines beauty and fantasy – he explains, like none other have been able to, how Virginia Woolf is indeed a “fantasist” who writes with “deliberate bewilderment” (19).  Why was the world of beauty closed to Dickens?  Why is it so hard to define the term “story” and, upon defining it, what is its importance?  Why do we tell stories and how are we more truthful, more connected, in fiction than in real life?

Some of Forster’s greatest insights, I think, come in the section on “People.”  He says that “a character in a book is real when the novelist knows everything about it. He may not choose to tell us all he knows – many of the facts, even of the kind we call obvious, may be hidden” (63).  From here, he explains why this is and how it both strengthens a work and benefits the reader’s experience with it.  “A novel is a work of art,” after all, “with its own laws, which are not those of daily life.”  Whether we are reading a work of fantasy or realism, naturalism or postmodernism, what we should be looking for is the rules of the particular world at hand, and how are those rules governed, followed, or broken?  For me, this approach has opened a number of doors – has made it much easier for me to accept the unacceptable (except, of course, in stories which are just downright bad).

In addition to specific evaluations like the one above, Forster also discusses elements such as allegory, mysticism, and symbolism, among others, with direct references to works and writers who employ them well.  He even compares to writers or works who might both be mystics, for instance, and talks about how they do what they do – how it is different, perhaps, but equally effective.  For a student of literature, the approach is, I think, wonderful and helpful.

Some of the references are outdated, and some of the language, too, but though these lectures happened decades ago, one can understand why they were the foundation for schools of thought which have cropped up and built upon them ever since.  For any serious reader, Aspects of the Novel is a must.


160732983. How to Read Literature by Terry Eagleton — 3.5 out of 4.0

I just love Terry Eagleton.  He certainly will not appeal to everyone (in many of his works he is overtly political, which some readers will find put-offish, even if they agree with his politics, but especially if they don’t.  I do happen to agree with most of his politics, and I think the guy is hilarious.  And also a damn good writer – engaging, entertaining, and yet seriously knowledgeable.

This particular work, his most recent, is like a user-friendly introduction to literature and to many of his other works.  He, like Forster, separates his text into themes: Openings, Character, Narrative, Interpretation, and Value.  Within each section, he elaborates on how to effectively read and understand certain aspects of these themes by giving great examples of writers doing it well.

Of particular interest, to me, were his explorations of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (found in the section on Interpretation) and also his exploration of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (found in the section on Character).  In both cases, his examination of the texts and how they work added much to what I had already taken away from them in my original readings (or to what I understood about the writer’s particular talents).  In fact, it made me want to re-read both right away – which, sadly, I haven’t found the time to do!

Eagleton also gives some helpful, if not overly academic distinctions between “a book” and “a text,” for instance.  Those who have traveled far in their literary education may find this book somewhat superficial; however, for those who are newly interested in literary studies or who are avid readers but do not necessarily know how to “talk the talk” – how to dissect a work of fiction, this could be a wonderful place to start.  And, honestly, even for those with decades of experience, many of Eagleton’s examples are witty and transferable (I am using some in my own classes in the future, for instance) and his dissections of classic novels are always, always worth the ride.


More Earlier Reads & Light Reviews

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

The Crying of Lot 49 is an apocalyptic narrative which deals with the thermodynamic concept of entropy. Pynchon prophecies the technological age and the lack of genuine communication/conversation between humans will result in the slowing down and eventually destruction of civilization.

Very interesting read, probably one of Pynchon’s more “accessible” novels, though I had to pop on the web a few times to get a better grasp of the thermodynamic concepts.

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism by Vincent Leitch (Editor)

This is the graduate student in literature’s bible. No joke. The pages are even as thin, or thinner, than those in my Bible. It’s heavy, too. Literally and metaphorically. Essential. Also, probably the reason I now have hunched shoulders.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Incredible work of creative memoir and meta-fiction. Worth the read to anyone, especially those interested in war fiction (“non-fiction”). However, in response to reviews which state that this novel “takes no sides,” I am befuddled. The Things They Carried is every bit the anti-war novel. O’Brien implies and states pointedly that he was entirely against the war. On page 61 he even states that he was a coward for going to the war, because it meant choosing what was forced upon him rather than what he knew to be right.

In any case, great read. Eerily playful and profound.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Very interesting but not very entertaining. This is more a philosophical work than a piece of literature, but it is excellent for what it is. Those who read the back and become interested in the “love story” it touts might walk away a bit confused, if they finish the book at all. However, the very last section, “Karenin’s Smile,” is absolutely breath-taking.

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

Excellent read. Entertaining, sad, sexy. Great summertime, beach book.

Reviews: The Earlies Part 4

So Hard to Say by Alex Sanchez

Meh. Sanchez’s novels are okay for pre-teen/teen readers, I guess. They’re simple and generally truthful. But, if you or someone you know is interested in really good, moving young adult fiction involving gay characters or themes, check out Boy Meets Boy by Levithan or The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Chbosky.

Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller

A critical work about the “feminist” movement, though Fuller’s idea of feminism leaves much to be desired. She is, I suppose, a voice for change in her time, but she seems to have been locked in that need to balance even the feminist movement with the needs of males. Perhaps this was a necessary concession for publication in such a patriarchal time and profession – but she (and Wollstonecraft, to be honest), while heralded as a liberating mother-figure, seems more of a moderate than a liberal.

Go Ask Alice by Anonymous

Heartbreaking.

The World of Normal Boys by K.M. Soehnlein

It’s forgettable but it’s god for what it is… an easy read on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A quick but worthwhile read. I think what most interests me, though, is Hurstons own story – and the study which Alice Walker did into Hurstons life, the revival.. the reclaiming of Hurston into literary prominence, etc. A discussion of this is included in this edition of the novel.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

For some reason, I thought I didn’t like Hemingway much. I enjoyed Old Man and the Sea.. plus some of Hemingway’s short stoires. But I still dreaded reading a full-length novel. I’m not sure why. After reading A Farewell to Arms, I know how ridiculous I was being. Absolutely lovely – and easy to get through.

Sarah: A Novel by J.T. Leroy

Hm. Interesting – lacking in lucid detail, but that’s probably a good thing, considering the subject matter.