Writing, Theory, and Russians. Oh my!
Despite loving books and stories, there is one aspect of writing--or, at least, studying creative writing--that I don't like doing is having to take certain classes that will make me a better writer, but I don’t enjoy. At all.
Take literary theory, for example.
I have always been a “read for fun” kind of girl, not a “read in depth.” I once tried to read Anna Karenina by Tolstoy because I thought that, as a lover of books, I should try to read books beyond romance novels, YA fantasies, and fun travel memoirs. I wanted to be able to say I was serious reader. I’ve read Tolstoy! One of the greatest writers of all time! I wanted to say.
I didn’t finish it. I even tried to watch the recent film starring Kiera Knightly, who I love. I still couldn’t finish it. I just don’t like the story. It’s just too drawn out. And depressing. I mean, I’m sure that’s what makes it good, and I know the general idea of the story is compelling, but it just didn’t engross me. Reading it took a lot of work.
It doesn’t help that I simply don’t like having to analyze stories that deeply. I mean, I don’t mind having a general discussion about books I’ve read, like I do with book club, but if I have to start digging between the lines to search for meaning that may or may not be there, I get frustrated.
Can’t I just READ the damn book?
And literary theory is everything I hate about “not reading for fun.” For my Lit Theory class online, this week’s question is, “What is meaning?” We will also be looking at literary movements, including Russian Formalism (again, the Russians have come back to haunt my reading habits!)
Granted, Tolstoy wasn’t a Russian Formalist. He actually died before that form of criticism was “officially” established. To try and grasp the idea of it, I headed to OxfordReference.com to try and find out more about it. Here’s what it had to tell me:
“A school of literary theory and analysis that emerged in Russia around 1915, devoting itself to the study of literariness, i.e. the sum of ‘devices’ that distinguish literary language from ordinary language. In reaction against the vagueness of previous literary theories, it attempted a scientific description of literature (especially poetry) as a special use of language with observable features. This meant deliberately disregarding the contents of literary works, and thus inviting strong disapproval from Marxist critics, for whom formalism was a term of reproach.
“...Along with ‘literariness’, the most important concept of the school was that of defamiliarization: instead of seeing literature as a ‘reflection’ of the world, Victor Shklovsky and his Formalist followers saw it as a linguistic dislocation, or a ‘making strange’.
“...Rediscovered in the West in the 1960s, the work of the Russian Formalists has had an important influence on structuralist theories of literature, and on some of the more recent varieties of Marxist literary criticism.”
Oh god. On the website, that was a big block of text, so I broke it apart into smaller paragraphs. And I don’t think I understood it any better. “Leariness”...? “Linguistic dislocation”...? “Making strange”...? Thanks, people from the ‘60s. Now I’m required to take a class that teaches Russian Formalism. Ugh.
My teacher explained that Russian Formalism looked at the form and shape of a work, and the interactions of its elements such as rhyme, meter, stanzas, metaphor and symbol, they argued that this process uncovers the literariness of literature: the underlying principles that give literature meaning.
Okay, that helped some, but what is literariness of literature?
Luckily, my teacher explained that too: “Literary language is unusual, and it can take familiar words and images, and 'defamiliarize' or 'estrange' them. The use of literary devices like rhyme and symbolism helps to create an intellectual distance between the reader and the text or object.”
Ah. So that’s what “linguistic dislocation” and “making strange” means. Still, Russian Formalism is just one of many forms of literary theory I’ll be studying this term. As I read an overview of the class, I thought, This is going to be a long 8 weeks…
My teacher even spoke of the challenges this class will have: “I want to warn you all at the outset that the material in this course can be challenging--there are a lot of theories, and there are a lot of applications of those theories. In short, there is a lot of information being conveyed in this class, and it can be intimidating. We will work through it all, so I encourage you to be patient with the class and with yourselves. At the end, you will find yourselves in possession of a range of tools to use as you are analyzing texts and approaching your readings.”
So, I’m trying to remain positive. Maybe by the end of class, I’ll be able to see if I can deconstruct my own work, to see how my use of literary devices could potentially stand with readers. That’ll make me better writer, right? It’s just more tools to add to my writing tool belt.
I still want to cry, but I’ll take it one theory and week at a time.