College English / Literature: Lecture One

Short stories are just one type of literature. Literary writing includes all writing that is meant to entertain. Since we've defined entertainment as anything that provokes our emotions, we can say that if something you read "gets a rise" out of you, it can be classified as literary. The thing to keep in mind is that there is literature...and then there's Literature. In other words, everything that entertains you is literature, but it's not necessarily good literature.

So? What's Good?
I'm glad you asked me that. The approach we're taking in this class defines good literature in a very specific way. This definition is the same one that most teachers of literature use, so you won't go wrong if you use it in other literature classes...if you ever take one.

The first element of good literature is defined in your textbook: "it provides a concentrated, imaginative vision of the world." (What does that mean?) Let's take that apart. First, it's concentrated. Well, so is some orange juice. And the meaning is the same. When orange juice is concentrated, the water has been removed; three cans of water and you're back to juice. Yes?

The meaning of concentrated is the same here. It means that everything that's not essential has been taken out. For example, when was the last time you saw someone in a movie actually using the rest room? Not often, right? That's because it's usually not essential. (Did you see Lethal Weapon II? There's a scene where Danny Glover is sitting on a commode and can't get up because a bomb, wired to it, will go off if he does. In that instance, the use of the commode is essential It was done that way primarily for the humorous effect--I guess you could truly call that "toilet humor.") So that's what concentrated means. Only the essential stuff is left in. But who decides what's essential? Well, that's where the imaginative part comes in.

The second half of the definition involves imagination. Whose? The writer's. The writer's imagination is what decides. It's the writer's view of things that we're getting in literature. It's his or her "view" that we're being shown. So it has to be the writer's choice, deciding what to leave out or put in .

The Short Story as an Introduction to Literature
We decided to start our study of literature with the short story for a number of reasons. First, it's probably the most accessible. Everyone has had some exposure to storytelling. Telling stories is certainly more common than reciting poems or reading novels. So everyone is likely to be familiar with the concept of "story."

And second, short stories are nice and compact. They are usually organized around one idea or theme. (More on that later.) And they lend themselves to analysis pretty easily.

A Central Idea is Central to the Story, not the Writer
Have you ever seen a sculpture? Something carved out of marble, for instance? Michelangelo (not the Turtle, the artist) said that when he looked at a block of marble, he could see the sculpture inside of it. All he had to do was chip away the excess stuff.

Well, that's what we mean by a central idea. It's what the artists "sees" before he or she begins to create the work of art. Your textbook says it's "what an author wants to convey about some aspect of life," and that definition is all right as long as you remember one important thing (or maybe two important things.) If you ask a lot of writers what they want to convey about some aspect of life, they may not be able to answer you, even AFTER the story is written. Just as there are some painters who begin to paint without having a definite idea before they begin, so do a lot of writers. The convenient thing for writers is that they can go back and make changes. Once the sculpture has chipped a piece of granite away it can't be modified.'s my point. (Never thought I'd get to it, did you?) When we talk about the Central Idea we're talking about something that's IN THE STORY. Whether the writer had this idea in mind when he or she began to write is irrelevant. In fact, much to the chagrin of many artists, nobody much cares what they think once their art has been created. (Bummer, huh.)

Finding the Central Idea
The main objective in this class is for you to learn how to find a story's central idea. So...before you go any further in this class, I want you to read The Star, by Arthur Clarke. It's at the end of the first chapter of your textbook. And as you read it, see if you can come up with a sentence which says what the story is all about. Not a summary of the plot (The story is about a monk on a space ship that visits a dead planet. won't work.) and not a moral (The story is about why people shouldn't doubt the things that God does, won't work either.). Instead, what you are looking for is what your textbook calls "the implied comment on the subject of the story." If the subject of the story is "a monk who doubts his faith" then what is the attitude the story conveys about that subject.

I think I've given you enough clues. Read the story now and then come back and read the rest of this lecture.

A Central Idea is not a Moral
So...what did you think of that story? Did you follow the events? At the heart of the story is an idea Arthur Clarke propounded in an essay which is included in one of the Comp I textbooks: Aims & Modes in the Writing Process. In that essay, titled The Star of the Magi, Arthur Clarke, a noted scientist as well as a writer of fiction, writes:

This is Arthur Clarke's scientific theory concerning the star the wise men followed at Christmas time. In his short story, he has taken that idea and produced a fictional tale of a monk aboard a space ship who lands on a planet which was destroyed by the Supernova of his theory.

Now...listen...the mistake a lot of students make when they read a story, especially one like this which has religious overtones, is that they presume there's some kind of moral or lesson in it. But if you look carefully, you will not find any such lesson. The story, like the essay, ends with a question: "What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?" There's no answer here, no solution. All we're left with is the monk who must return to earth confused and with doubt. What has caused that doubt? Science...the monk is also a scientist and Clarke is using that dichotomy (look it up if you don't know what it means) to present us with a problem that many people must face--what to do when presented with conflicting ideas. How do you deal with it when your religion tells you one thing, but logic or science tells you another?

But notice!! There's no answer! That's my point. Most of the stories you read, simply tell you (as Walter Cronkite used to say) "That's the way it is." That's the way the author sees it. So, for The Star your central idea statement might read like this:

Your textbook says that "through that central idea...the story can give us insight into ourselves and increase our awareness of part of our world." if you're lucky, that's exactly what will happen when you read a story. Some of the stories will help you to realize, at the very least, that you're not alone, that other people suffer the same kind of doubts, fears, and sorrow and joy as you. You'll see something in the story that you can relate to and maybe learn from, but that does NOT mean that the story was meant to teach you anything. Most of the time, a story only SHOWS you something, a tiny piece of life as it is lived by some people. And even then, unlike science, the way it shows you is through fiction.

And that's another conundrum. (Look that one up too, kids.)

Questions? For answers, send an e-mail to Dr. Write.

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