Northrop Frye is a famous Canadian English literature professor who wrote quite a few books on literary theory, among other achievements. Several buil...moreNorthrop Frye is a famous Canadian English literature professor who wrote quite a few books on literary theory, among other achievements. Several buildings at the University of Toronto have been named after him, and he's still a voice to be reckoned with in the field, though he died in 1991. In 1962 he took part in the CBC Massey Lectures with six lectures on "The Educated Imagination". This book is his six lectures, and if you're hoping for a review as intelligent as this book is, you've come to the wrong person.
Frye tackles many questions which revolve around the importance of studying literature and an analysis of literature, studying it, and having an imagination. He posits three kinds of language within a language - that of ordinary conversation and self-expression; of conveying information in a practical sense; and of the imagination, i.e. literature. That's overly simplified and there's no doubt a better way of summing it up, but that's what I've come up with. Naturally, arguments build one upon the other, and I would be setting myself a horrendous task to try to describe them in brief. It's just not possible, as the lectures cover a great deal. You'd be better to read the book itself.
Of all the lectures, I appreciated the last one the most, probably because it spoke to me the most. At one point he discusses freedom, and says "Nobody is capable of free speech unless he knows how to use language, and such knowledge is not a gift: it has to be learned and worked at." (p93) There can be no free speech in a mob, he says, only babble and grousing. What he doesn't say, but what he's saying, is that it's incredibly important for the lower classes to be well educated. With education comes not just the ability to express yourself articulately but to really see the world around you, and understand it. This is something that draws me to education, especially for the working class.
The other thing I loved about this lecture was how he validates having and using our imaginations, not relegating them to the realm of fantasy or child's play. He reveals how we use our imaginations constantly, how necessary the imagination is to everything, and how "literature speaks the language of the imagination, and the study of literature is supposed to train and improve the imagination." (p82) Which I absolutely agree with; the lectures give very good insight into how important the imagination - and an educated imagination - is to us.
At times his arguments read a little dated, but one in particular stands out, especially as it connects to the study of Dickens, which was what I was reading at the time, and helps me to understand why novels like A Week of This (Nathan Whitlock), which I read recently, don't have the same effect. "To bring anything really to life in literature," Frye says, "we can't be lifelike: we have to be literature-like." (p53) This is what he calls "writing badly", which Dickens does - it doesn't mean that he's a bad writer, but that he exaggerates and creates larger-than-life characters that feel more real than if they had been represented realistically. Reading Great Expectations you come across a great many of these characters, from Estella to Miss Havisham to the convict. Even Joe and Mrs Joe. They're almost like caricatures of themselves.
When you meet such a character as Micawber in Dickens, you don't feel that there must have been a man Dickens knew who was exactly like this: you feel that there's a bit of Micawber in almost everybody you know, including yourself. Our impressions of human life are picked up one by one, and remain for most of us loose and disorganized. But we constantly find things in literature that suddenly co-ordinate and bring into focus a great many such impressions, and this is part of what Aristotle means by the typical or universal human event. (p35)
Frye is a great proponent of classical literature and the necessity for studying the ancients, and then Shakespeare and Milton, and so on, as well as poetry. He has some good arguments that, re-worded, could work on the typical high school student. I'm not absolutely sure how much I agree, with his reasoning at least, but it's true that our culture and society is founded on such works and continues to influence them without our even realising or noticing - to be able to clearly see our world in such a way would take a lifetime of study. I don't think that the common way of throwing Macbeth in the faces of fifteen-year-olds works at all; in fact, it has a detrimental effect. The problem is that most English teachers don't get or like Shakespeare either - it's a cycle.
While Frye is a terrible name-dropper and obviously knows - knew - his shit, he sometimes reads like a stuffy academic who annoyingly links everything back to the Bible. That's not a bad thing, except it comes across as a bit narrow - you get caught up in his arguments, which are well-expressed in general, and suckered into his way of thinking. The margins are littered with my comments and thoughts and counter-questions - this is a book you need to read armed with a pencil. There are lots of great quotes, and it's very readable, even if you don't have a background in English Lit. I recommend it to teachers and readers and the general populace alike, because it is very interesting and presents a solid argument for the validity of studying English lit - and writing literature in the first place - which I wish our politicians would appreciate.(less)
I was eagerly awaiting the paperback edition to read this, it sounded so interesting. And it was. Is. Grr. Don't worry, it's not about grammar or punc...moreI was eagerly awaiting the paperback edition to read this, it sounded so interesting. And it was. Is. Grr. Don't worry, it's not about grammar or punctuation. This is about reading for enjoyment and also for inspiration, motivation, guidance, example....
Divided into chapters on words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, dialogue, gestures - you get the picture - Prose (isn't that the most perfect name?!) uses analysis, anecdotes and extensive quotes to bring books and short stories to life.
The first chapter, on Close Reading, was very reassuring and gave me cause to be quite pleased with myself too. (Writers are perhaps the most needy of people, constantly needing reassurance and a bolstering of the ego.) She offers advice to new writers on reading books like 'professional' writers do:
I read closely, word by word, sentence by sentence, pondering each deceptively minor decision the writer had made. And though it's impossible to recall every source of inspiration and instruction, I can remember the novels and stories that seemed to me revelations: wells of beauty and pleasure that were also textbooks, private lessons in the art of fiction. ... What writers know is that, ultimately, we learn to write by practice, hard work, by repeated trial and error, success and failure, and from the books we admire.
This is so true. From the time I could read - also the time I could write - I was fascinated by how stories were created, formed, structured, plotted. I was the only kid in my class, if not my entire primary school, who wrote what the teachers called "sagas" (a new word for me): very involved stories, complete with dialogue, plot, beginning, middle, ending, and illustrations. Even my punctuation - learnt from reading - was spot-on. I'm sure they weren't particularly original, but they satisfied a great, urgent need in me, and still do. I also learnt - and continue to learn - vocabulary: I can still remember discovering the word "melancholy" from a book I was reading in grade 5, and it was fun to work out the meanings of new words from the context in which they were used. Sadly, this means I often struggle to give a dictionary-definition of a word; I'm more likely to put it in a sentence and expect people to get it like I do. Better get better at that if I want to be a teacher!
Different books got me started on experimenting with different styles. After reading the Silver Brumby books, for instance, I practiced writing description, creating pieces that weren't even complete short stories, often discarded, like sketches. After reading Georgette Heyer's Regency romances (don't knock 'em till you've read 'em!), I practiced dialogue - she has a great knack for it. And so on.
The works that Francine Prose quotes from are a little more sophisticated than the ones I used growing up, but the principle is the same. Her chapters on gestures and details is a great reference for me - they're often overlooked aspects in my writing, that still needs a lot of work. I fear cliches, which are almost unavoidable. She leans towards Chekov, Flannery O'Connor, Joyce, Flaubert, Kleist, Alice Munro, Melville, Austen, Paula Fox and Henry Green, for example - only a few of the books she mentions or uses in analysis have I read. A particularly fun chapter, Character, starts with an anecdote of the time when, slightly out of mischief, she assigned a story by Heinrich von Kleist called The Marquise of O- to a group of students in Utah: all mormons, which was about a lady who was raped by the chivalrous knight while unconscious after he'd saved her from a fire (during a battle), and so on, only to discover that the students came alive in their discussions and talked about the characters like they knew them personally.
The problem with this book is it gets you so impatient not only to start reading these works of literature, but also to go back over your own writing and see what traps, if any, you've fallen into, or how you can lift up a passage of dialogue or even reveal your characters in a different way. It's definitely one of the better writing guides I've come across - and the only one I've ever bothered to read, since it's an informal guide at best, not at all condescending, and lacks a superiority complex. Prose loves to read as much as she loves to write, and teaches as well, and has a real talent for opening up an otherwise dry passage to the treasures going on in the inner workings.
What Prose also mentions is that there are no rules, that every time she tried to give advice to her students such as Don't write from the point of view (first person) of someone who dies in the story, she finds a story - often by Chekov - that contradicts that rule, and works. In this sense, writing is a very distinct artform: you learn how to do it "properly", just as you learn how to draw a face with perfect proportions, before you go all Picasso on it and have the eyes sticking out the side and the nose upside-down. Perhaps an absolute genius would skip that learning stage, but if we do it's like - what's the expression? Learning to run before you can walk? It takes time, and patience, and hard work, and perseverance, but if you have the passion it's not painful in the slightest. And if you lose momentum, or get writer's block, Prose has some great advice: to have a shelf put aside for especially inspiring novels, to pick up one author who excels at, say, dialogue, and read a passage at random for inspiration. She even has a list of "Books to be read immediately" at the end of the book. For myself, I can say that this works, though I usually read the entire book to get into the flow of a style. Even when working on my fantasy story, though, I often prefer to read literature. I find it helps to stop me from slipping into cliche-mode.