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Literary Studies: Creative Reading

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Paul Hetherington

on 12 March 2014

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Transcript of Literary Studies: Creative Reading

Short Prose Fiction
Literary Studies: Creative Reading

Short fiction, or
the short story, is one of those
forms that everybody knows

We tell stories at school,
at work, at home, around
campfires; to friends,
to colleagues, to people
we’ve just met; in Facebook
posts, even in text messages
Short Fiction

What makes a good story?

One of the difficulties with generalising about
short stories is that nobody has ever really agreed about what the essential ingredients of a good short story should be.

Stories are too diverse and many stories break the ‘rules’ that other stories follow

Short Fiction
Here is the American writer, Kurt Vonnegut, on short stories:
Short Stories

Short stories have their origins in oral storytelling traditions and they come in many guises: anecdotes, fables, parables, cautionary tales, adventure stories, ghost stories, humorous stories, romances, flash fiction (sometimes called micro-stories) …

Star Wars as comedy:
Short Stories

Franz Kafka, ‘A Hunger Artist’

Partly a study in human psychology, and the Hunger Artist’s vanity and pride
Partly a study of general human weirdness and perversity
Partly a study of the isolation of the individual and the solitariness of human beings in general
Partly an examination of the strange psychology of individual self denial and suffering
Partly about the pleasure people take in the pain of others
Partly about how people are influenced by changing fashions, even where life and death issues are concerned (i.e. partly about human callousness towards their fellow human beings)

Franz Kafka, ‘A Hunger Artist’

Partly about

-human suspicion and mistrust

-the sheer strangeness and even absurdity of existence:

For he alone knew, what no other initiate knew, how easy it was to fast. It was the easiest thing in the world. He made no secret of this, yet people did not believe him … (p. 285)

-the obsessiveness and dedication of many artists
Franz Kafka, ‘A Hunger Artist’
Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893), writer of short fiction and novels (and some poetry)

Many of the stories reflect on the futility of warfare. Note that the Franco-Prussian war, which France lost, took place between 1870-71 and Maupassant served as a volunteer in the war.

Some things to consider:

The opening of the story: ‘Paris was blockaded, desolate, famished. The sparrows were few, and anything that was to be had was good to eat.’

The way the main characters are depicted: Mr Moriset, a watchmaker (‘idler through circumstances’) and Mr Sauvage (‘who kept a little notion store’: i.e. pins, cotton, ribbons, items for haberdashery, etc). These are ‘ordinary’ people whose chief pleasure is fishing and whose friendship is based on this shared pleasure
Guy de Maupassant, ‘ A Fishing Excursion’
Some commentators have criticised Maupassant for presenting the Prussians as clumsy stereotypes. Do you agree?

Does the casual violence that Maupassant depicts ring true?

Is there nobility in the refusal of the Frenchmen to give up the password?

More generally:

- What is the tone of the story
- How matter-of-fact is the narrative
- How much detail are we given?
- Where does the story get its emotional strength from, given how short it is?
Guy de Maupassant, ‘ A Fishing Excursion’

Richard Brautigan, ‘Homage to the San Francisco YMCA’

As this story develops and ‘the man realized that poetry could not replace plumbing’—and as Brautigan depicts poetry as resisting the man’s attempt to remove it—the story becomes more and more absurd.

Is this an attempt to be funny, or an attempt to suggest that perhaps the subject of this story is mad and its events are all in the invention of someone living in the YMCA?

Or do all of these things apply? Is this story really about language?

How do you read this story?
Richard Brautigan, ‘Homage to the San Francisco YMCA’
Merlinda Bobis’s story is about two sisters in the Phillipines. Tim Winton’s is about two boys in Australia

Winton (b. 1960) is a contemporary Australian writer of novels, short fiction, children’s literature (and other works)

Whereas Bobis’s story begins by emphasising dialogue between the two sisters and in this way foregrounding their sense of connection to one another, Winton’s plunges straight into its first-person narrative

Notice the fairly short (some very short) sentences that Winton employs as he begins his story.

More generally, what kind of voice does he establish for his narrator?:

Biggie and me, we’re feverish with anticipation; we steel ourselves for a season of pandemonium. But after the initial celebrations, nothing really happens, not even summer itself (p. 1)

There is considerable use of colloquial language in this story. Does it help Winton make a fairly immediate connection to his readers?
The story is set in Western Australia and is partly about the transition from school life to working life and from boyhood to adulthood

Broadly speaking it’s a ‘realistic’ story—as is Bobis’s

The boys work fulltime in the meatworks near the coast. The narrator dreams of escape, ‘of pissing off north to find some blue sky’ (p. 2)

He keeps talking about his dream to Biggie and one day, after packing ‘slippery chunks of cow hide into boxes so they can be sold as craybait’ (p. 3), the boys buy a VW Kombi and leave

However, their journey is not what they had imagined
Tim Winton, ‘Big World’

Biggie must have secrets. Everyone dreams of things in private. There must be stuff he doesn’t tell me. I know about the floggings he and his mum get, but I don’t know what he wants deep down. He won’t say. But then I don’t say either. I never tell him about the Skeleton Coast in Africa where ships come aground on surf beaches and lie there broken-bellied until the dunes bury them. And the picture I have of myself in a café on the Piazza San Marco leaving a tip so big that the waiter inhales his moustache. Dreams of the big world beyond. Manila. Monterey. Places in books. In all these years I never let on. But then Biggie’s never there in the picture with me. In those daydreams he doesn’t figure, and maybe I’m guilty about that. (p. 6)

Tim Winton, ‘Big World’

Some issues to consider are:

What does this passage—and the story as a whole—say about the nature of communication between the boys?

How is school life presented, especially in its depiction of Tony Macoli’s bullying of the narrator and in Biggie’s assault on Macoli?

How does the story depict the relationships between the two boys and girls that they meet?

What do you think about the story’s ending, as it summarises the lives of the main characters? Why does Winton do this and is it convincing?
Tim Winton, ‘Big World’

Carson McCullers
Sources: http://kclibrary.lonestar.edu/sad_cafe.htm and http://www.enotes.com/short-story-criticism/ballad-sad-cafe-mccullers-carson

Carson McCullers (1917-1967), an American writer of novels, short fiction, plays, essays and poetry, born in Columbus, Georgia

She is interested in misfits, outcasts, strangeness, connections between people who are unlike one another …

She’s also interested in how various forms of love are expressed between people in unconventional ways

In this story ‘an undersized boy of about twelve’ encounters a a man in a café who is ‘long and pale, with a big nose and faded orange hair’ (p. 147)

This is partly a story about a man telling a boy a story—and in this way it is partly about storytelling itself

The narrative the man tells is in some ways ordinary enough. Yet the quality of his obsession with her is unusual and even strange …
Carson McCullers, ‘A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud’

Kurt Vonnegut, ‘Welcome to the
Monkey House’

Short Prose Fiction
Literary studies: Creative Reading

What makes a good story?

One of the difficulties with generalising
about short stories is that nobody
has ever really agreed about what
the essential ingredients of a
good short story should be

Stories are too diverse
and many stories
break the ‘rules’ that
other stories follow

Short Stories

Today I’m going to discuss a few stories
as a way of further exploring the question of how we read

Franz Kafka, ‘A Hunger Artist’
His best-known works are:

The Trial
(a novel in which the central
character, Joseph K is prosecuted
for an unspecified crime)

The short story ‘The Metamorphosis’
in which the protagonist, Gregor,
turns into a bug or insect (depending
on which translation you read)

Franz Kafka, ‘A Hunger Artist’
Is based to some extent on reality
and the strangeness of human behaviour.

Hunger artists existed in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in various parts of the world, including Europe

Franz Kafka, ‘A Hunger Artist’
Partly a study

-in human psychology and the Hunger Artist’s vanity and pride

-of general human weirdness and perversity

-of the isolation of the individual

-of the strange psychology of individual self denial

-of the pleasure people take in the pain of others

-how people are influenced by changing fashions

Richard Brautigan, ‘Homage to the San Francisco YMCA’
The story relies on what one can call an extended
‘conceit’ (conceit, in this literary sense, means an elaborate figure of speech, often employing unlikely metaphors)

Brautigan’s conceit is, in a literal sense, absurd: poetry cannot function as plumbing.

Notice the use of unusual detail in the story.

Further, this asylum ‘was one of those places that do not look like an insane asylum. It looked like something else with flowers all around it, mostly roses’ (p. 423). Why go into this level of detail?

Notice, too, the use of overstatement or hyperbole. For example: ‘Christopher Columbus’ slight adventure sailing West was merely the shadow of a dismal event in the comparison’ (p. 423)

Merlinda Bobis (b. 1959) is a contemporary Philippine-Australian writer and academic who lives in Australia

Notice how this story plunges straight into its narrative: ‘I am twenty-seven and this is my first time. It’s also my sister’s first time. She’s eighteen’ (p. 53)

Also notice how much dialogue the story employs—an example of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’

The story is set in the Philippines and its characters are poor Philippinos

Their world is one where eating at McDonalds is a luxury that they can barely afford

What does this story say about such things as

-The Philippino society it depicts
-The relationship between the central characters
-Their relationship to society
-The opportunities for the characters in the story to achieve an education, a career, fulfilment, etc
-the relationship between poor Philippinos and institutions such as banks, McDonalds …
-The capacity for these characters to make their own choices and enact their own destinies
Merlinda Bobis, ‘MacDo’
[read passage from ‘Then I met this woman …’ to ‘Now do you follow me?’ on p. 151]

Some questions about this story:

-Why does McCullers set it in a café?
-What function does the various interjections and comments by Leo, who runs the café, have in the story?
-And why is Leo characterised as stingy and bitter, an idea that McCullers insists on: ‘He had a grey face, with slitted eyes, and a pinched nose saddled by faint blue shadows. One of the mill workers signalled for more coffee and Leo poured it. He did not give refills on coffee free. The spinner ate breakfast there every morning, but the better Leo knew his customers the stingier he treated them. He nibbled his own bun as though he grudged it to himself’ (p. 152)
-Why is the significance of the speaker forgetting how his wife looks?
-What is his meditation on the nature of love about?
-Why does McCullers leave the story ‘open’ or unresolved at the end?
Carson McCullers, ‘A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud’
Storytelling (and short fiction) are a vast and hugely valuable part of our literary and cultural heritage

Arguably, storytelling is one of the things human beings are best at and do most naturally–and perhaps storytelling is even built into the structure of human languages

Many stories can be read in a variety of different ways, and the many storytelling traditions and kinds of stories that have been written give you huge scope for a fascinating range of readings

The writers here know that there are always more stories than can ever be written so, if you’re inclined to do so, I would urge you to add to the store
How is the brutality of the war presented. What do the main characters know of the war?

Why does Maupassant present them as innocents?:

‘Prussians! They had never seen one, but they knew that they were all around Paris, invisible and powerful: plundering, devastating, and slaughtering. To their superstitious terror they added a deep hatred for the unknown and victorious people.’ (p. 322)

Guy de Maupassant, ‘ A Fishing Excursion’
Richard Brautigan (1930-1984), American novelist, poet, writer of short fiction

His best-known work is a novel,
Trout Fishing in America

He lived for much of his life in San Francisco

This short story does not attempt to be realistic

Notice its ‘Once upon a time’ opening, like the fairy tales we discussed last week

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), American writer of novels and short fiction

His most famous works are probably
Cat's Cradle

‘Welcome to the Monkey House’ is a futuristic story focusing on the importance of human sexuality in an overpopulated world where sexual pleasure is frowned upon

I urge you to read it and consider what it says about authoritarianism, and various forms of egalitarianism

It is a story that came out of the 1960s, and was part of a time when there was a great deal of interest in counter-cultural issues, and an interest in liberation from what many people saw as conventional and repressive morés

How successfully does this story explore the importance of
the freedom of human sexual expression?

During weeks six and seven you will be required to complete two online postings through the unit’s Moodle site and then upload them to the Moodle site as a single document.

In the lead up to and during the period allocated for this assignment, students are encouraged to discuss unit readings and respond to their peers online through the Moodle site. The idea behind completing two online postings prior to final submission is that everyone has the chance to reflect on and edit their assignments prior to final submission—an important part of polishing written work of this kind.



Please choose two of the following options for your two postings.

Note: Each one of your two Moodle postings should be a critical reflection of between 480 and 520 words (this is a total word count for each separate Moodle posting).

Each one of your two Moodle postings should discuss about two items of reading from the unit as per one of the options below (please do not go under or over the word limits).

Neither of your postings should refer to the same readings that you have used, or will be using, for your in-class oral presentation.

In your Moodle postings you are also encouraged to refer briefly to other texts/sources, either from your own reading or from the unit’s reading list.

Option 1:
Reflect critically on two of the following readings (available on e-Reserve):
• Brautigan, Richard 1983, ‘Homage to the San Francisco YMCA’ in RF Dietrich and Roger H Sundell (eds), The Art of Fiction (4th edition) New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 423-24
• Winton, Tim 2004, ‘Big World’ in The Turning, Sydney: Picador, 1-15
• Vonnegut, Kurt 1998, ‘Welcome to the Monkey House’ in Welcome to the Monkey House, New York: Delta, 30-50
• McCullers, Carson 2008, ‘A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud’ in The Ballad of the Sad Café, London: Penguin, 147-157

Option 2:
Reflect critically on two of the following readings (available on e-Reserve):
• Ford, Mark 2009, ‘A Poet Among Painters’ in Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors (eds), A New Literary History of America, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 814-19
• Amis, Martin 1993, ‘St Lucia’ in Visiting Mrs Nabokov and Other Excursions, London: Jonathan Cape, 69-75
• Sacks, Oliver 1985, ‘The Lost Mariner’ in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, London: Picador, 22-41

Option 3:
Reflect critically on two of the following readings (available on e-Reserve):
• Didion, Joan 1968, ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, New York; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 131-41
• Nin, Anais 1979, The Journals of Anais Nin, Volume 2 1934-1939, London: Quartet Books, 188-90
• Taylor, Irene and Alan (eds) 2000, ‘26 December’ in The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists, Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 630-33

Option 4:
Reflect critically on two of the following readings (available on e-Reserve):
• Barber, David 1995, ‘Autumnal Primer’ in The Spirit Level, Evanston, Illinois: TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University Press, 69
• Larkin, Philip 1988, ‘This Be The Verse’ in Collected Poems, London: Faber and Faber, 180
• Neruda, Pablo 1993, ‘Tonight I Can Write’ in Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair (trans WS Merwin), San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 69-71
• Noonuccal, Oodgeroo (Kath Walker) 1990, ‘No More Boomerang’ in Ken Goodwin and Alan Lawson (eds), The Macmillan Anthology of Australian Literature, South Melbourne: Macmillan, 91 and 95-96
• Wright, Judith 1994, ‘Woman to Man’ in Collected Poems, Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 27

Note: A critical reflection should include a discussion of the significance and import of your chosen readings, and may discuss any number of a wide variety of issues (allowing for the relatively limited number of words you have), such as how the readings are written—including their genre and style—and whether you think they are effective, and why. Please choose what you wish to say in a manner that will allow you to construct a coherent response to your readings and don’t necessarily try to say everything you can think of about each reading. Try to develop an argument in each of your critical reflections. Your own written expression in your reflections should be polished and properly punctuated and will be considered as part of the assessment process.
Assessment criteria (Two Moodle Postings: Critical Reflections): You will be assessed on:
1. Sensitivity of response to the readings you discuss
2. Your willingness to engage with ideas and develop an argument
3. The degree to which your responses demonstrate a familiarity with, and in-depth understanding of the texts you are writing about (and, if relevant, other texts being read in this unit)
4. Evidence of independent thought
5. Structuring of ideas and appropriate use of language.
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