Writing Tips - Useful terms in terms in literary & a cultural criticism

 

ALLEGORY

an extended narrative where the characters are frequently representations of abstract qualities in a story that stresses thematic continuity. Thus Mr. Worldly Wiseman in Pilgrim's Progress is a "true" character in the novel while also representing Bunyan's conception of secular humanism. "Mr. Goodwrench" is an allegorical figure used in advertising.

ALLUSION

a reference to what the author expects will be a familiar cultural icon.

AMBIGUITY

an effort by an author to allow, perhaps even to insist upon, multiple meanings.

ANALOGY

a comparison, usually sustained, between two different items. School is like prison.

ANTICLIMAX

an event that distracts from the anticipated climax. In the modern novel the anticlimax may itself be central in the narrative.

APOLOGY

from the Greek, meaning "defense." Less an apology in the sense that we think of the term than an explanation or clarification of the writer's ideas.

ARCHETYPE

Grk.- Original - form. Usually used to define patterns in fiction and poetry where a character or a situation can be said to be modeled after a culturally recognizable form. Employed in psychoanalytic theory following C. J. Jung.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY

a representation of one's own life in narrative form. Ostensibly "non-fiction," yet frequently crafted to establish an argument.

BALLAD

a narrative poem, usually brief and intended to be sung. Greensleeves, Reynardine, Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

BILDUNGSROMAN

(formation + novel) - a novel that traces the development of a character, generally from youth. (Great Expectations; Jane Eyre)

BIOGRAPHY

a representation of another person's life in narrative form.

BLOOMSBURY GROUP

a group of writers/intellectuals including V. Woolf & L. Woolf who lived and met in the Bloomsbury section of London.

CANON

a body of works established as central to a discipline. Now under contention as critics consider the authority (Western/Male/White) that underlies the decision of which works the canon includes.

CHAPBOOK

pamphlets handed out in 17th & 18th London containing ballads, romances, and descriptions of criminals.

CONVENTION

a form or pattern in literature that is familiar to the point of recognizability or predictability (though not so extreme to be a cliché). The inevitable car chase in action movies.

DECONSTRUCTION

a theory in literary criticism that argues for the impossibility of total understanding of texts. Thus the process of criticism itself alters the text and reshapes it for readers in ways that the author may not have anticipated. Works against "totalizing" interpretations.

DICTION

the choice of words/language in a text. Characters and narrators may be marked by the author's choice of diction.

DIDACTIC

an adjective describing works, often for children but not always, that are mean to teach a lesson. Early didactic works had religious aims.

DOPPLEGANGER

(double + image) characters in a work who may represent alter egos of one "self." (Frankenstein; Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde)

THE ENLIGHTENMENT

a period in the eighteenth century characterized by widespread learning and a belief in empiricism and the value of human reason. Humans are seen as social and rational.

EPIGRAPH

a line cited at the beginning of a work (or chapter) that has significance for that work.

EPISTOLARY NOVEL

novels that represent themselves as a collection of letters.

FABLE

a brief narrative, often using animals, that illustrates a moral truth.

FEMINIST CRITICISM

a critical theory devoted to understanding the gender implications of texts. Feminist critics are not looking for exemplary models in narratives, but rather at how narratives articulate feminist (or possibly phallocentric) perspectives in light of cultural attitudes to women, their work, their discourse, etc.

FICTION

an extended narrative, such as a short story or a novel, that tells a story that is, ostensibly, beyond the realm of "fact". Novelists, of course, do play fast and loose with fact (Don DeLillo's Libra).

GENRE

a type or form of literature. Thus genres of the novel would include: romance novels; science fiction; horror; mystery; detective; and so on.

GOTHIC NOVEL

a genre of the novel popular in late 18th and early 19th century England. Gothic novels attempt to create a sense of peril by placing the characters in a situation that has horrific or supernatural overtones.

HERMENEUTICS

a mode of interpretation that links the analysis of a portion of the work to the whole by attempting to see if the mode of analysis has "merit" beyond the original portion to which it was applied.

HERO

most often the central character of a work on whom the reader is expected to focus. Originally heroes were exemplary figures, now we find different kinds of heroes.

HISTORICAL NOVEL

a novel that roots its plot in an historical setting that often has a strong basis in fact.

HUBRIS

an extreme form of confidence or arrogance that defies some kind of natural or supernatural order.

IMAGERY

language used to suggest strong visual cues to the reader.

IRONY

a device whereby the author overtly suggests one perspective but actually expects the reader to infer a second, more critical perspective. Austen uses irony both as a narrator and in the dialogue of her characters.

LINEARITY

used to describe, plots, narratives, and even physical structures (such as books themselves), that are unidirectional. Linearity is often undermined by devices such as flashbacks or, in cinema, by montages.

MEMOIR

a brief autobiographical recollection of various events or periods in the author's life.

METAFICTION

novels that are intensely aware of their own status as novels and which remind the reader that they are both embedded in --and outside of-- a narrative. Many 19th c. novels have metafictional elements. (The most conspicuous metafictional narrative in pop culture are the recent Nike television ads that have Bo Jackson actually step out of a commercial set, through a television, and into a living room. It's important to remember, however, that it remains a fictional narrative.)

METAPHOR

a figure of speech in which a term is used to create a connection between two unlike objects. One might refer to one's professor as an ogre and, to extend the metaphor, refer to the class as a chamber of horrors.

MODERNISM

a term used, most frequently, to describe 20th century literature until perhaps as late as the 2nd world war. In the novel it is often characterized by the introspective quality of its characters or by the psychological focus of the narrator.

MOTIF

a recurring theme --which may be visual or verbal-- in a work (or works) that has significance in terms of our general understanding of the work.

NEW CRITICISM

a form of criticism that emphasizes textual analysis over everything else. Thus the intrinsic quality of a novel as a novel, as opposed to its political, feminist, or ethical implications, would be underscored by these critics.

NEW HISTORICISM

a form of recent criticism that emphasizes the political nature of all works. New Historicism considers the influencing forces that shape not only the work itself but the circumstances that make the authorship of that kind of work possible.

NEW JOURNALISM

a movement in the novel that aligned journalistic reportage with fiction. The works of Capote, Mailer, and, more recently DeLillo might be included here.

NOVEL

a narrative that purports to be fiction and which is usually quite long. There are many genres of the novel and, more important, many novels that deliberately work in all sorts of forms at once.

NOVELLA

conventionally used to refer to a piece of fiction that is brief, but longer than a short story.

OMNISCIENT NARRATOR

a common narrative style, most often in the third person, in which the narrator relates descriptions, conversations, and even insights that could never possibly be gathered by any one individual.

PARABLE

a short, often obscure, tale that is meant to convey a moral truism. The "authority" for parables is the New Testament in which Christ often speaks in this genre. Crucial here is that the reader/listener must make an interpretive move in order to understand the parable.

PASTORAL

a term that describes a fairly conventional vision of peaceful, beautiful nature in which humans (often as shepherds) live idyllic lives. The pastoral vision has, to some extent become clichéd and are used ironically, though it's popular still in environmental rhetoric.

PICARESQUE

a genre of the novel in which the loosely related adventures of a single character (the "picaro" - or rogue) are the substance of the work. (In the novel "Tom Jones" serves as an example, "Bill & Ted" might be the "best" example in film.)

PLOT

the way that the events in a narrative genre are constructed. Plots may be formulaic and familiar or, in more recent fiction, unstructured. As a plot develops, it may begin to suggest a pattern that leads to a fairly predictable dénouement (unknotting) or conclusion.

POINT OF VIEW

the perspective from which an element in a narrative or a set of narratives is provided.

POST-STRUCTURALISM

closely tied to deconstruction (see above) and new historicism, this current critical theory challenges the notion of authority not only in terms of the narrative voice in a text, but in terms of the cultural standards that suggest which texts are "appropriate." The notion of "text", in post-structuralism, is very loose; the suggestion is that we can "read" virtually all communicative acts critically.

PROSE

a term used to describe writing that is not overly marked by rhyme.

PSYCHOANALYTIC CRITICISM

a critical movement that insists on the importance of understanding psychological patterns in the relationship of characters within a work or between the author and a work. Both Freud and Jung are important figures here; more recently Jacques Lacan, who attributes a linguistic primacy to the dream state, has been influential.

PSYCHOLOGICAL NOVEL

a novel in which the "plot", if it may be said to have one, is intensely concerned with the emotions and intellectual concerns of a character or set of characters.

READER-RESPONSE CRITICISM

a mode of criticism that is concerned with the impact of a work upon the reader. The response of a reader may vary from work to work. In this sense the reader plays an active role with respect to the "meaning" of a work because of the reader's own interpretive style, the reader's specific configuration of "attitudes", and the historical context of the act of reading. Nevertheless, this is not a critical "free for all" but is closely linked to authorial direction and structures in the text.

REALISM

a genre of the novel, especially in the 19th c., that attempts to depict events in the world as they really are. Realism thus attempts to avoid predictable or formulaic patterns, although it may have a philosophical or ideological agenda. While Austen and Brontë suggest the beginnings of Realism, the works of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy reflect realism at its height.

RHETORIC

a mode of understanding the way in which language --written or oral-- achieves its effect. Thus rhetorical analysis may help us understand the patterns underlying an ironic narrative, or the qualities that make a Gothic novel frightening.

ROMAN A CLEF

a novel that is a thinly disguised portrayal of real persons or events. With an appropriate "key" (clef), a reader can make the connections and thus understand the full critical or satirical impact of the work.

ROMANTICISM

a period in British literature roughly between 1798 and 1830. Romanticism stresses the importance of nature as a kind of tonic for the mind and suggests that the human spirit is elevated when in contemplation of "nature". Most often associated with the British Romantic poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats), we see its influence in the novel as well.

SATIRE

an attempt to make fun of a particular subject in a way that attempts to use the forms and conventions of that subject against itself. Thus, by mild exaggeration and the use of wit, a serious subject might be lampooned on the basis, say, of taking itself too seriously.

SEMIOTICS

the interpretive study of "signs" in culture. Semiotics emerged from structuralism to recognize that communicative value and meaning can be found in cultural artifacts and practices.

SENSIBILITY

the quality of being sensitive, virtuous, with a penetrating understanding of one's own feelings and those of others. Sensibility was a quality admired in the 18th and nineteenth century but not to excess. Austen tempers sensibility with "sense" in Sense and Sensibility.

SENTIMENTAL NOVEL

novels written to elicit strong emotions, particularly sympathy and compassion, from readers. Common in the 18th century.

STOCK CHARACTER

a character whose pattern of behavior is familiar. Sometimes cliché, such as the melancholy clown or the brooding teenager, stock characters may serve as a foil for other, more complex characters.

STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS

a narrative style that represents the process of thinking that a character is going through. The style often dispenses with a linear flow of narrative to imitate the "actual" process of thought.

STRUCTURALISM

a school of criticism, based on the lectures of Ferdinand de Saussure, that focuses on the structure of language. Structuralism argues that words have no intrinsic meaning with respect to "real objects", but are simply "signifiers" of a concept which is the "signified." Structuralism stresses both the elusiveness of language as a system of communication and the way in which it is itself a cultural artifact.

SYMBOL

taken at the simplest level, a symbol is a "sign" that represents a non-literal meaning that can only be understood in a cultural context. The association of the color blue with the Virgin Mary has, for example, rendered that color significant in the works of novelists such as James Joyce.

SYMBOLIC ACTION

suggests that a work may serve as a kind of rite of passage for the author or perhaps a reader.

TEXTUAL CRITICISM

examines the nature of the text itself and the way in which a text might be altered from its initial stage as a manuscript on through to later editions. Works such as Frankenstein vary significantly from edition to edition.

TRAGEDY

an enormously complex notion in literary history. Tragedy generally traces the actions of a character whose inevitable undoing is usually due to an essential quality of his/her personality.

UTOPIAN LITERATURE

literature that attempts to portray or define an ideal world.

VERISIMILITUDE

an effort to replicate a realistic moment in a literary work. A telephone conversation depicted in the modern novel, might for example, include the "uhh-huhs" of "real" conversations.

VICTORIAN PERIOD

an historical period defined by the ascension of the young Queen Victoria to the throne in 1837 and by her death in 1901. The novel flourished during the Victorian Period; among the novelists of the time were: the Brontës; Dickens; Thackeray; George Eliot; Elizabeth Gaskell; Thomas Hardy; and Anthony Trollope. Victorian culture maintained a veneer of strict propriety, sexual prudishness, and social orderliness.

WILLING SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF

a term coined by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to describe the process by which a reader (or viewer) allows himself/herself to be absorbed into the scenarios established by a text.