Monday, September 1, 2014

Doom, Despair and Literary Analysis

 Tomorrow is the first day of the Fall 2014 semester of community college, the start of my last year before (hopefully) going off to "real" college…and (cue ominous music) the first day of English 2: Critical Analysis and Intermediate Composition!

In case the imaginary ominous music didn't tip you off, this is Bad News. On the Doom Scale of 1-10, 1 being least doom-y (a butterfly), and 10 being most doom-y (college applications, SATs, incomprehensible programming assignments), it ranks about a 15, higher than calculus, printer malfunctions, and spiders combined. For comparison, English 1 was about a 7, and only because, like English 2, it was an accelerated online class and I'd never done one before. Doom, I thought. Doom, despair and bad grades!

But English 1 was surprisingly doomless. We had readings, yes, and discussed them, but they were nonfiction, our final project was a research paper, and we wrote like I imagine engineers do: gathering information, discussing it, and summarizing it in double-spaced MLA-formatted papers. Analysis was straightforward: Author A uses more personal anecdotes than Author B, who cites more scientific studies. My greatest enemy was MS Word, which insisted on moving page numbers from the right to the left, and periodically hiding my cursor.

English 2 (cue the doom drums), is all about Literary Analysis. That means reading fiction (and not the popular kind either, but the dense, classic kind), producing a conclusion about "grand, overarching themes" or "a metaphor for the human condition", and writing an essay on said conclusion. I have no problem with reading, and few problems with writing. The real problem, to use a simile because metaphors are confusing, is that for me, producing a conclusion is like trying to pull chickens' teeth. (Chickens do not have teeth.)

While I understand what happens in a story, I tend to struggle with why. Why does Character A do Stupid Thing B instead of Smart Thing C? Why does he say "I know I shouldn't" and then do it anyway? Why does Character D do something blatantly illegal, and why doesn't Character E put a stop to it? Where do they get these dumb ideas, and how are we supposed to understand their motives if they never explain them properly?* If there was less subtext, and more actual text, I would have no problem; it would all be cause-and-effect. "Ever since Bob's girlfriend had left him for Bill, relations had been strained between the two men." (Several chapters later:) "Bob cackled as his flock of trained pigeons made a precision strike on Bill's new car." That makes sense: Bill stole Bob's girlfriend, therefore Bob is happy when Bill is not. Doom comes when that first sentence is left out: the cause is left unexplained, hidden in subtle clues of the characters' expression and speech, in subtext and metaphor, in things only English majors understand.

I like reading and writing. I love going to the library, immersing myself in a good book, and trying to write my own, somewhat-less-good stories. I'm happy to learn about symbolism and metaphor and allegory, and I can understand someone else's analysis, but I can't write my own without help. I need someone to pull out all those subtle cues, explain the why and help link the metaphor to the story. After that, I can do the rest, I think. I hope, because otherwise…
Can you tell I'm obsessed with the word "doom"?

*A proper explanation does not rely on subtext, metaphor, something said 200 pages ago, or the assumption that "everyone already knows". What if instruction manuals were written like that? "The great beast lies still in the pale light of dawn, waiting for its master to free it from endless hibernation." (Translation: "Your car doesn't go by itself.")