Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Rev. ed.

NY: Harper, 2014.

In the decade since this book was published, it has become a favorite of college and even enlightened high school teachers of English and American literature. And that’s fine, . . . if you want to teach young readers to ignore the story and instead only analyze the author’s use of symbolism and codes.

Yes, we all know “there’s only one story” — that all writing is connected, that there’s no such thing as a truly original piece of fiction. Every novel, short story, stage play, film, and poem has its roots in earlier work. That’s been the case since the second caveman heard the first one tell about hunting a mammoth and decided to work up his own version. And Foster does have a number of useful things to say about deliberate themes and sources by various authors — and not just Dickens and Shakespeare and Twain and Lawrence and Faulkner, either, but Tim O’Brien and Toni Morrison and Anita Brookner. (And he could have mentioned the “Fisher King” trilogy by Tim Powers, among others, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t waste his time with mere science fiction or fantasy.)

The problem, though, is that Foster maintains that all authors deliberately salt all their works with sly symbols referencing the great authors of an earlier day, and that identifying and explicating these references is the principal reason – perhaps the only justifiable reason — for reading fiction in the first place. Plot and character are secondary considerations, and there’s apparently no point at all in simply enjoying the story. And if an author — someone like Lawrence Block, say — doesn’t bother to follow this regimen, why, he’s clearly not worth spending your time on.

I spent a long career as a public librarian and I’ve likely read even more books than Professor Foster. I’m not naïve about what I read, nor am I exclusionary. I enjoy Dickens and Nabokov and Flaubert, but I also read contemporary novels, as well as tons of mysteries and science fiction and graphic novels. And I write semi-analytical reviews of all of them. I’m not particularly concerned with ferreting out the hidden ur-roots of a novel, only with whether I’m enjoying reading the story and (if it’s Brookner or Murakami) marveling at the use of the language. So I don’t object to Foster’s method, per se. I only object to his rather arrogant contention that there are no alternatives.

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Published in: on 12 July 2015 at 5:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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