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Writing about Literature

A Guide for the Student Critic


W.F. Garrett-Petts


Peterborough (Ontario): Broadview Press, 2013 (Second Edition).

Paperback. xxv+173 p. ISBN 978-1551117430. CDN$ 24.95


Reviewed by Alice Braun

Université Paris Ouest Nanterre la Défense



In the introduction to the second edition of his book Writing about Literature : A Guide for the Student Critic, W.F. Garrett-Petts defines what he aims to achieve and what he intends his book to be: “A cross between a rhetoric and a casebook, this text provides clear, practical advice on accessible models for understanding and writing critical essays on literature—on prose fiction in particular.” [xviii]. At first, we appear to be reading what is just another literature handbook for undergraduates, but the author starts from the original premise that critical essay writing should be considered a type of professional writing in its own right. Teachers in the field, he explains, often take the “‘sink or swim attitude’ toward explicit writing instruction” [xiv] and prefer to focus their classes on the reading of literary texts, leaving students to fend for themselves and devise their own method through trial and error. Yet Garret-Petts’s purpose is not simply to give general writing guidelines for literary students. In addition, he intends to bridge the gap between literature and composition instruction [xi], by inviting the student critic to place him-/herself within the field of literary criticism, in order to gain a full understanding of the expectations and norms of essay writing. In his own words, students need to learn how to join the “critical conversation”.

Therefore, his book aims at providing the reader with both theoretical landmarks as well as practical advice, among other things, on how to move one’s essay from the C- to the A-range, which will register positively with English students reading the book. In order to ground his instructions in concrete literature, the first chapters of the book, which are all concerned with prose fiction criticism, centre around Stephen Crane’s short story, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”. One of Garrett-Petts’ most useful contributions is a list of different contexts for learning that the student needs to consider when writing a critical essay. On page 6, he expands on the definition of each of these contexts and identifies a social stance, which is concerned with interaction with instructors and peers; an institutional stance, which encourages students to find out about the conventions of academic writing; a textual stance, calling the students’ attention to the type of writing they are studying; and a field stance, which corresponds to the knowledge one acquires about how to think critically about literature [5-10]. These four different positions the student is supposed to consider alternatively help him/her understand that one does not write English papers in a void, but that, as a specific type of writing, writing about literature is grounded in a tradition and must obey a particular set of rules. Concretely, this means that before he/she starts to write an essay, the student must ground him-/herself firmly in the position of a literary critic, which means looking up previous research on the topic, as well as assuming a scholarly tone and form which is most suited to the readership (first the instructor, then the rest of the class, then eventually members of a research group). By inviting students to write within the field of literary criticism, the author encourages them to consider their papers as potential contributions to the body of existing research on a given topic. This development is followed by an interview with prominent literary critic Harold Kolb, who takes the reader through the process of writing an essay on the Crane story. The author of the book then invites us to analyse how the four different stances of literary criticism are illustrated in Kolb’s demonstration. Although one may question whether a first-year English paper is expected to be equal in quality to the academic essay of a seasoned critic, this interview is aimed at making the English student feel part of a particular field, with its own inspirational figures and role models.

After giving four examples of introductions to papers ranging from weak to excellent, the author then gives the reader some elements of literary criticism, in order for the student to identify his/her “field stance”. Yet this development arguably comes across as a case of ‘too little, too late’. The author gives us a list of “the six common places of literary criticism”, that is “Contemptus mundi”, “Complexity”, “Appearance / reality”, “Everywhereness”, “Paradigm” and “Paradox” [51-57], from which he then draws out three major cultural approaches: formalism, reader-response criticism and cultural criticism [59-67]. Each of these major approaches is illustrated with actual examples of literary currents, such as New Criticism, Deconstruction or Marxist criticism. This systematised approach is not as successful here, as it gives us an overview of literary criticism that is at once too superficial and devoid of any historical context. While the idea is to give students a set of tools that they can pick and choose from as they define their position in the field, the tools do not enjoy the same currency, and cannot be used in a completely decontextualised manner. These developments are interspersed with useful boxes of practical advice aimed at helping the student make use of all the tools and build a concrete method. The first part ends with a series of model essays which span across a range of approaches, in order for students to form an idea of the variety of interpretations and methods that is at their disposal.

            As opposed to a rather detailed first part focusing on prose fiction, the chapter devoted to poetry feels more like an afterthought than a section in its own right. The author once again starts from an actual poem by a contemporary Canadian poet and gives the reader another set of items to consider, in order to “enter into the poem”: “sound”, “emotion”, “stance”, “structure”, “language” and “theme” [109-111]. The choice of an interview, not with another scholar, but with the author of the poem (albeit a teacher himself) can be called into question, as it is based on an assumption of author intentionality, which the author of the book himself warns his reader against. Although the intentions of this section are the same as in the section dedicated to prose, not as much effort is put here into the task of helping students devise a critical method specific to poetry. The author does draw up a list of technical vocabulary, but the development is too short, and sometimes plainly repetitive. Although it follows the same steps (a literary work, an interview, examples of essays, practical recommendations) and the same method as the first section, this second section seems to have been written somewhat hurriedly, with less attention to detail.

            As the book ends on a few pages of testimonies from literary critics and a short glossary, we are reminded of the original assumption of the book, which is that students must learn critical writing as if it were any other form of professional writing. This is probably the book’s most interesting and successful contribution, and could have been made into a lengthier thesis. The book does succeed in some of its endeavours, mainly in giving English students a sound analytical method, and in helping them envision themselves as part of an actual scientific field with its own set of norms. Yet one can only regret what is missing from the book, and especially a more in-depth analysis of the history of literary criticism and of the different ways the various existing critical approaches can be put to use specifically. One wonders why the poetry section is so short, and why the genre of drama is not even mentioned anywhere in the book, especially since the field of English studies is so heavily dominated by Shakespeare. Was it an editorial choice? Should the author have been given more space to expand on his ideas and perfect his method? Although Writing about Literature is a useful contribution to English studies, it still begs for more material.


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