Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Students Might Be Wrong

I hate this picture.

In fact, I hate that I hear this sentiment all the time in my Lit class, and outside of it, and oftentimes on the Internet. And it used to be funny, when I was in the dark and I was one of the rest of them.

Teacher says that the curtains are a symbol of massive grieving and pain and all the shame and sorrow of the world and blah blah blah blah blah.

No. The curtains are just blue.

But our required reading over the summer totally flipped my view on symbolism, and motifs, and all the Easter eggs that are “supposedly” in the writing. It’s really not a joke: it’s a pattern.

What I didn’t see before is that there are patterns. When we see an orphaned child who becomes a hero—Cinderella, Harry Potter, Eragon, Luke Skywalker, Alina Starkov, Frodo, Will Treaty, etc.—we won’t expect them to be the same, of course, but we can expect a pattern.

Maybe it’s the mentor character (Gandalf, Fairy Godmother) or their rise to sudden power and purpose. It could be the team they surround themselves with, their love interests, the plotline, the victory. If you look at Cinderella and Ranger’s Apprentice, I daresay you’ll find plenty of delightful differences between the two. It’s not that these patterns take away individuality.

It’s that these patterns make the story into something more.

They say something about self-actualization, about mentorship, about friendship and power and victory and evil and pain and justice and mercy and righteousness and the end game. Sometimes they criticize what is. Other times they insist on what should be.

Regardless, it’s these patterns that help us turn anything—from a ten-page fairy tale to one of George R.R. Martin’s books—into something specific.

Sure, disagree with me, whatever. But the patterns are there. Sometimes it’s hard to see. And sometimes it takes a lot of practice. Yet there’s this thing my teacher likes to bring up, called the “range of right.”

The best part about English is that there’s nothing set in stone. What to you represents betrayal to me might represent forgiveness. And that’s okay.

So, for the first part, yes, there are things to analyze in books. They’re often awesome, if you like to read, read a lot, and give them a chance.

And for the second part: you are being ridiculous if you think a book analysis IN ANY WAY takes more thought than writing a book. I’m not saying it’s not hard—I’ve run into stories that make me struggle, too.

But I’m also writing a novel right now and let me tell you: it is a crapload of work and thinking and trying to make sure I make sense and don’t suck and I assure you: those of us who are taking AP Lit tests this year are going to have to write book analyses (perhaps about things we’ve never even read before) in forty minutes.

If you think you can write a perfectly publishable book in forty minutes, then go. Do it. I’m watching. Let’s go with the NaNo novel standard: 50,000 words. Formatted right. Spelled right. All from scratch—all the plotlines make sense, all the characters are fully developed, it is compelling and interesting and doesn’t disappoint the reader at the end. Forty minutes.

I’m waiting.

Maybe that seems like a cruel demand—after all, “nobody needs to know English.” But as someone who has always loved to read, I have to say that an image like this running around on the Internet disgraces those of us who read, not only for pleasure, but to try to see the world in a different light. We taste culture, history, pains and passions, worlds we might never know: all through looking at books, and taking a little extra time to examine what the author means.

The fact is, even though math and science and computers may be the things that may get you a job in this world, I believe it’s the stuff we communicate through our self-expression, including writing, that shows why such things are worth doing.

Whoever made that teenage post: shame on you.

And everyone: remember, things are not always what they seem. Who knows? It just may be that there was an author who decided to put time and effort into their book.

What a novel idea.

Someone assure me that I’m not alone in being infuriated by this picture. And if you’re a teenager, all’s the better. But if you disagree with me—do you have a reason why? I’m curious to know.


  1. This is an amazing post, Heather. I don't think people really understand how much work it takes to write a novel unless they actually sit down and go through the whole process of planning, writing and revising/editing one. It's so different from just analyzing a novel, and it definitely takes longer.

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it! It's funny, to me, because so many people have "writing a book" on their bucket list, but it is much easier said than done. You're right that analysis is an entirely different ballgame. XD Thanks for reading!

  2. This is absolutely true. This picture has always sort of irritated me, but I've never been quite sure WHY until now, and this is probably it. It might not be in the same way as the teacher analyzing the novel, but us writers put SO much thought into every little part of it, even more so if it's going to be published. Wonderful post, as always!

    1. Finding out why you are bothered is always an interesting concept to me, because knowing the why of something makes the what of it something a little different every time you figure it out. I know that some people have issues with the way teachers analyze, but I agree—suggesting that an author wouldn't try to create symbolism because he or she was lazy is stupid thinking. Thanks for reading! :D

  3. I agree with you! I find English harder than Science and Math because it isn't set in stone, so it's hard to pin down, but that is the beauty of it.
    There are authors out there who put so much time and effort into their novels- for me, I am writing my second draft, and everything that I am cutting or adding means something to the story.
    Analysing helps us understand part of that hard work.

    Great post!

    1. Absolutely, having no one right answer definitely makes English harder, but I, for one, enjoy the challenge. The fact that you've written a book of your own, of course, just shows that you have an insight into what another author must have done for his or her own book, so I think that's cool for everyone in this trade. XD

  4. You're so right. When I first saw the blue curtains picture (in the middle of exams, granted), I identified with it so much. But then as I dug deeper into the world of writing and literature, I also realised there's a problem with this perception.

    There's actually also a post about the blue curtains post sitting in my draft folder, although I took it in the direction of "They're wrong but this is why the perception arose and school literature does mess up sometimes". Would you be okay with it if I linked to your post in there? (Might take some time before I schedule it for the blog, though.)

    P.S.: Your "range of right" teacher sounds awesome. I don't even want to look some of my literature teachers in the eye.

    1. The blue curtains picture used to make me laugh, but SURPRISE it turns out that I was wrong. It's a good thing we can change our minds, though—I enjoy some things more having noticed the patterns therein.

      That sounds like a super cool post, and I'd love to read it, which basically means if you forget to schedule it then I will be sad. But I don't know when it will be so it is also a surprise. :D Feel free to link to me. (Don't really know how to accept it because if I'm like, "it's a free Internet" then it sounds like I don't approve but you get to do whatever you want and I can't find other clever words to say, "Sure! Thanks for thinking to do such a nice thing!")

      P.S.: She is awesome, and not just because we have the same first name. Your situation sounds saddening... I'd love to have my lit teacher again because she is very good at what she does. :)

  5. Well said! The saying has always bothered me as BOTH an English teacher and a writer, so I'm glad to see a good analysis of it.

    1. Thanks! I didn't actually write this thinking about teachers, but I realize that it could actually sound rather demoralizing. :( Thanks for reading, and glad you enjoyed it!


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