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James Joyce’s Guitar Chord in the 1915 Ottocaro Weiss Photo

What guitar chord is James Joyce playing in this photo?

The original photo, taken by Ottocaro Weiss, in 1915, is housed in Cornell’s James Joyce collection, in an exhibit in a glass closet titled “Poetry and Music.” I first saw the photo of Joyce playing the guitar years ago in the Ellmann biography, and I cut it out and pinned it over my desk somewhere, but I’ve since lost that copy.

Fingers to stray on Joyce’s guitar again after its restoration,” an article by Terence Killeen in the March 22, 2012 Irish Times, discusses the restoration of Joyce’s guitar and contains a fascinating video clip of the luthier at work on the guitar. Gary Southwell, the luthier, guesses, based on the finger wear on the fretboard, that Joyce probably was not a “fantastic” guitarist because the wear suggests mostly first position, standard chord forms: “He wasn’t all over the fingerboard.”

Can we tell from the photograph what guitar chord Joyce is fingering? Assuming his index finger holds the root note, then he’s playing a 1-b5 on the bass strings. If the root is an F, then he’s playing an F-B. But his ring finger appears to be positioned directly over the second fret, so it’s hard to tell if he’s fingering a D or a Db. But anyway a closer look suggests that his index finger is not on the 6th low E string, but on the 5th string, playing a Bb note, the middle finger then (still a flat 5) playing an E note, and the ring finger playing a Db note. But I can’t tell what frets he’s fingering, and at first glance, I assumed he was fingering an Em7 chord (guitar spelling: E, B, E, G, D, E = 1, 5, 1, b3, b7, 1).

In any case, Killeen, in the video, seems to say that Joyce is not actually playing the guitar in the photo. I’m not sure why he thinks not. Joyce looks relaxed in the photo, leaning a bit back and away, probably the better to see his left hand fingering, given his poor eyesight. The thumb of his right hand is hidden behind his palm, but it could certainly be plucking the 6th, 5th, or 4th string. Maybe he was not playing the guitar during the photo because he had to hold still for the photographer. But he’s clearly fingering a chord. Or is he? Again, his index and ring fingers appear to be hovering directly over the frets, not slightly behind them.

I recently acquired a hardback copy of “Giacomo Joyce” (Viking Press, reset and reissued May, 1968), introduction and notes by Richard Ellmann, and was surprised and delighted to find the Weiss photo of Joyce and his guitar used as a frontispiece, spread across two pages.

Perhaps the chord Joyce is fingering in the Weiss photo is from Finnegans Wake, a pun-chord, a humorous play on notes.

Follow up 8 Sep 13: Check out guitarist Gerald Garcia’s Joyce guitar analysis (read through post and scroll through comments section).

James Joyce on Writing: “write dangerously”

“The important thing is not what we write,” Joyce tells Arthur Power in Conversations with James Joyce, “but how we write, and in my opinion the modern writer must be an adventurer above all, willing to take every risk, and be prepared to founder in his effort if need be. In other words we must write dangerously” (95).

Though I’ve several books written by people who knew Joyce, I’d never read Power’s book. Menand mentioned it in his “Silence, Exile, Punning: James Joyce’s chance encounters” (New Yorker, 2 July 2012), and I was able to find a cheap copy. [Menand’s title is itself a kind of pun on something Stephen tells his friend Cranly toward the end of Joyce’s first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: “And I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning” (247)].

Menand questions whether what we read in Power’s book are the actual words of Joyce or the “gist” of a conversation that took place decades prior to the book’s publication. Would Menand have the same complaint if Richard Ellmann, Joyce’s highly regarded biographer, was the one recalling the conversations? It seems Menand thinks Power belongs, if he should be mentioned at all, in a footnote somewhere, his “renown” based on a single book, and while I agree with Menand that Power misread Joyce’s comment regarding the birth of a grandson, I don’t think Power should be dismissed based on Menand’s “gist” complaint. [An argument ensues, as Gordon Bowker, whose new biography Menand is reviewing, responds, timely, for the question of the journalistic practice of approximating quotes is in the air].

And Arthur Power was a journalist of sorts, an art critic, but he seems to have had skill and talent enough to closely observe and record [he said he wrote daily in his notebook, so the conversations were fresh in his mind when he recorded them], and we certainly have no reason to think that he had motive to misquote Joyce. In any case, Power’s book is full of pearls, and whether the gems contain the exact words of Joyce or simply the “gist,” I found them worth reflection.

But that business I quoted above, Joyce saying, “The important thing is not what we write…,” does he qualify that with this: “A writer’s purpose is to describe the life of his day, and I chose Dublin because it is the focal point of the Ireland of today, its heart-beat you may say, and to ignore that would be affectation” (97). In other words, Joyce seems to be saying that what we do write should come from what we know, what we have experienced.

There’s no doubt Joyce had a sense of humor, and could be an acerbic wit. An illustration of humor: “Yes, said Joyce, I met him [Proust] once at a literary dinner and when we were introduced all he said to me was: ‘Do you like truffles?’ ‘Yes’, I replied, ‘I am very fond of truffles.’ And that was the only conversation which took place between the two most famous writers of their time, remarked Joyce – who seemed to be highly amused at the incident” (79). And an example of Joyce’s acerbic wit: upon hearing of the sad suicide of the socially bumbling and difficult and “irritating” portrait painter, Patrick Tuohy, Joyce had hired to paint his father and later his immediate family, Joyce said, “I am not surprised. He nearly made me commit suicide too” (105).

But reading Power’s book I found my focus going to Joyce’s comments on writing: “A book should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality” (95). Joyce seems to have preferred emotion over intellect. I suppose it takes an intellectual giant to argue this: “I know when I was writing Ulysses I tried to give the colour and tone of Dublin with my words; the drab, yet glistening atmosphere of Dublin, its hallucinatory vapours, its tattered confusion, the atmosphere of its bars, its social immobility – they could only be conveyed by the texture of my words. Thought and plot are not so important as some would make them out to be. The object of any work of art is the transference of emotion; talent is the gift of conveying that emotion” (98).

Joyce employed humor in his writing: “In Ulysses I tried to keep close to fact. There is humour of course, for though man’s position in this world is fundamentally tragic it can also be seen as humorous. The disparity of what he wants to be and what he is, is no doubt laughable, so much so that a comedian has only to come on to the stage and trip and everyone roars with laughter” (99). Joyce says, “Out of this marriage, this forced marriage of the spirit and matter, humour is created, for Ulysses is fundamentally a humorous work” (89). As for who is to say what any writing “fundamentally” is, Joyce clarifies, for critic, writer, and reader at once: “Though people may read more into Ulysses than I ever intended, who is to say that they are wrong: do any of us know what we are creating?…Which of us can control our scribblings? They are the script of one’s personality like your voice or your walk” (89).

An example of good writing Joyce found in Hemingway’s short story “A Clean Well Lighted Place”: “He [Hemingway] has reduced the veil between literature and life, said Joyce, which is what every writer strives to do…It is masterly…I think it is one of the best short stories ever written; there is bite there.” Yet Joyce’s enthusiasm at the time for Hemingway is tempered and foreshadows so much of what was to come, both for Hemingway and for literature in general: “I admit to his merit, of course, that he is very much of our time. But in my opinion he is too much of our time, in fact his writing is now more the work of a journalist than that of a literary man” (107).

But by literary man Joyce wasn’t referring to the PhD, the academic, the professional scholar, whose polite conversations transpire in private behind the rood screen of the contemporary paywall, but to something more real and immediate and accessible to all: “What is really imaginative is the contrary to what is concise and clear…Most lives are made up like the modern painter’s themes, of jugs, and pots and plates, back-streets and blowsy living-rooms inhabited by blowsy women, and of a thousand daily sordid incidents which seep into our minds no matter how we strive to keep them out. These are the furniture of our life” (75).

Power, Arthur. Conversations with James Joyce. The University of Chicago Press. 1974. Phoenix edition 1982. Edited with Foreword by Clive Hart. Reprint. Originally published London: Millington, 1974.

Lilliput Press eBook (Feb. 2012) at Barnes and Noble.

Janet Groth’s The Receptionist: A Reflection

The receptionist receives. Receives what? An education, a memoir. One purpose of a memoir, a narrative of memory, might be to raise eyebrows, for it’s a tool to talk back, to reflect not only on what was taken in but to evaluate and tell on the givers, the repellers, those who dismiss, to give back some sass. One may also be received, received into, into the club; but not in Janet Groth’s case. Miss Groth, to use the New Yorker office convention of the time, was the receptionist on the writer’s floor for a little over two decades, and, never having been promoted or published or even encouraged, finally left, graduating on her own terms, storing the education for a later memoir, much later – 30 years later. Groth’s memoir has already been discussed by those in the know, but here’s a view from a different coast.

Why was Miss Groth never given “a better job” (224) at the magazine? She offers four possibilities: 1, nepotism; 2, lack of Ivy League connections; 3, lack of submissions (only three in twenty-one years, an output Joe Mitchell would however have understood); and 4, she was kept a receptionist because she was a kept receptionist – she was good and that’s where they wanted her. None of these explanations by themselves sound all that convincing, but maybe all taken together they amount to a decision deferred that becomes the dream deferred. And receptionist, in the world of business, is a feminine noun, while what’s needed to push the business forward is a masculine verb.

For a memoir to be successful, the main character must be a dynamic character; she must change from the beginning to the end. Throwing her change into relief are all the static characters she receives over time, characters that don’t change, but that remain their dismissive selves throughout, and the photos of static characters are rarely charming or lovely, and may even offer unflattering profiles.

When I think of memoir, of the self-important profile it proclaims, I also think of P. G. Wodehouse’s “Heavy Weather,” wherein “…the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, brother of the Earl of Emsworth and as sprightly an old gentleman as was ever thrown out of a Victorian music-hall, was engaged in writing the recollections of his colourful career as a man about town in the nineties, the shock to the many now highly respectable members of the governing classes who in their hot youth had shared it was severe. All over the country decorous Dukes and steady Viscounts, who had once sown wild oats in the society of the young Galahad, sat quivering in their slippers at the thought of what long-cuboarded skeletons those Reminiscences might disclose.”

Not to worry in the Wodehouse world, for Galahad has already sent a note to his publisher:  “Dear Sir, Enclosed find cheque for the advance you paid me on those Reminiscences of mine. I have been thinking it over, and have decided not to publish them after all.” But what then develops is indeed a bit of nepotism in the publishing world as the memoir in question becomes a pig to nobble, even as there are real pigs to nobble as the plot unfolds.

We don’t know what Groth has held back, of course, but she wants to persuade us she’s told most of the story. That story is not only about a receptionist, but about an existential (she confides she once wanted to be a female Camus) question: shall we be defined by the roles received from our parents, where we come from, or from our employers, our tribe or our set, or will we, like Huckleberry Finn, “light out for the territory” and define for ourself what it means to be ourself, refusing to receive any other’s limiting or corralled view of us? Yet what of the receptionist who can’t stop receiving? Who will tell her memoir?

The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker,” by Janet Groth. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012. 229 pages.

Related Posts: Women Under the Glass Ceiling: Parity and Power in the Pipeline

The Glass Guitar Ceiling: Rolling Stone’s “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time”

 

Coelho & Doyle on Joyce

Every person alive has a story, but some don’t have voices. But there are many ways to tell a story, and stories can be told without words. Still, for the story to emerge, the storyteller must develop some kind of voice, allowing others access to their text – again, even if the text is without words. But some persons with voices remain unaware of their story, even as their story is read or enjoyed or devoured and repeated by others. Still others may be aware of their stories and have voices but choose not to share. Can all these stories be told, and who will tell these stories, using what voice?

I am moved this morning to tell this story as a consequence of a Twitter “interaction”: “Well, about Coelho, what can we say?” For I had re-tweeted a tweet calling attention to a Guardian Books post quoting the Brazilian writer Paul Coelho: “One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.” The same article refers to a previous Guardian article, an interview with the Irish writer Roddy Doyle, who said: “You know people are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books ever written but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it.”

I think part of Roddy’s point, in the context of the interview, was to bemoan all the attention Joyce has received over the years, possibly to the neglect of other Irish writers just as deserving of readers’ attention. But both Coelho’s and Doyle’s criticism of Ulysses is grounded in their literary values – they think that for a literary work to have value, the reader should be moved, changed, brought to tears or laughter, that we should leave the theatre wanting to change our lives or somebody else’s life. For a story to be good, the Coelho-Doyle argument goes, the voice must be immediately recognizable, accessible, and force feelings to surface in the audience. And since Ulysses, for most readers, probably doesn’t do that, it’s not a good book, and since it’s nevertheless received so much recognition and so many writers have tried to use Joyce’s voice, it’s been harmful because it’s diminished the development of other voices, voices that might have reached readers and transformed their lives.

I’m reminded of the barbershop on Center Street in El Segundo, where I once dropped in to get a haircut. It was a one chair shop, and someone else was in the chair, so I had to wait, and while I waited, I listened in on what amounted to a lesson in art criticism. The barber had hung on the wall a painting of a mountain lake. “And I have a photograph of that very spot,” the barber said. “And if I hang both of them side by side, I defy you to tell me which one is the photograph and which one is the painting.”

Related Posts: Where Winston Churchill meets Roddy Doyle; or, the Library is not a Zoo. The Elite and the Effete: From Access to Egress.

“Penina’s Letters” at The Boulevard

A short excerpt from Chapter Two, “The Truth of Things,” from Penina’s Letters, a novel in progress, is now up at The Boulevard, a publication of the Hawthorne Fellows at the Attic Institute: A Haven for Writers.

Click here to read “The Truth of Things.”

I’m a Hawthorne Fellow at the Attic Institute for the period April though August, working on a novel, Penina’s Letters. For information on the Hawthorne Fellows, click on the Attic door below. They are accepting applications now for the next Fellows period, Oct. through Feb., 2012-13.

Related Post: “Penina’s Letters”: Hawthorne Fellows at The Attic Institute

Frank Delaney, whose novel The Last Storyteller, just out in February, I reviewed back on Feb. 27, was featured in a Trib Local interview this morning, and what he had to say about blogging, I want to celebrate, “fur and feathers” and all. One of the questions asked of Delaney was, “How strong is the pulse of literary fiction, criticism and serious examination of literature in the 21st century? Who are today’s shining literary lights?”

Delaney replied: “Great question! People have been saying for generations, ‘Oh, the novel is dead.’ Well, it ain’t – nor is that wonderful American invention, creative nonfiction, nor is biography, nor is political writing. And as well as the books, the commentariat is alive and well. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that it’s healthier than ever, because we now have this wonderful new creature, the Literary Blogger. I’m a massive fan of this gorgeous animal, with all its fur and feathers – for a number of reasons. My main complaint about the general direction of literary criticism over the last century has been – and Joyce is a case in point – that it tended, in its lofty tone and often impenetrable language (not to mention occasional vendetta behavior), to be antidemocratic, to keep certain areas of literature to itself, whereas my own passion is for as many people as possible to be reading as widely as possible. The Literary Bloggers have no axes to grind, they’re not protecting their reputations, they don’t fear being sneered at by other critics, they’re reading what they want to read, writing what they want to write, and they don’t want to keep what they enjoy to themselves. They want to share. They want to expand the constituency of reading. They want to hail and applaud good writing. To my mind this is a very significant development – uneven, I grant, here and there, but, dammit, not as uneven as the generations of formal literary critics, and the blogging intention is so good and so worthy of loud vocal support that you can call it truly a new and, to my mind, incomparably welcome development in the world of reading and writing.”

Reference: Librarian’s Shelf by Lisa Guidarini – An Interview with Ireland’s Pre-eminent Storyteller Frank Delaney, March 16, 2012, by Virginia Freyre, Algonquin Area Public Library.

A Literary Thanksgiving Feast

"Hard Times for These Times," Charles Dickens (1854). Drawing: "Mr. Harthouse Dining at the Bounderbys'."

On a big platter in the middle of the full table sits the fat novel, its dust jacket a cracking bronze, peeling at the edges, its pages sliced and curling, its story stuffed with, well, stuffing: characters mixed with plot in a warm, moist setting, everyone talking at once, voices waxing, then waning, then waxing again, still louder.

A bowl of essays is passed around the table; there’s plenty for everyone. There’s a new dish, something called “creative non-fiction.” I try some, but find it’s not so new, after all, for isn’t all writing creative? And anyway why would we want to read writing that is not creative?

“Pass the poems, please,” someone at the other end of the table says. Poems are like olives. Some have pits, putting your teeth at risk; others are pitted, hollow. Some poems are saltier than others, and may be filled with white almonds or cherry red pimento peppers. If you squeeze a poem you get cooking oil.  And like olive oil, the oil from poems might be extra-virgin, refined, or not potable.

A gravy bowl of APA-style sauce spills across the tablecloth and an argument ensues as to who is at fault, an argument of causation. “Why is that nasty stuff even on the table?” someone asks. A short scene flashes into a drama that quickly subsides with a denouement of dessert: The Emperor of Ice Cream appears with chocolate covered couplets.

But that’s not all, for then Sestina rolls in a six-layered, short story torte. It’s a literary feast, and in these hard times, we are thankful, at least, for literature.

Addendum: My sister Barb’s comment reminded me that I neglected to include beverages in the literary feast post, and I suggested she pick up a six pack of Ballads and maybe a couple of bottles of Memoir. Limericks might be served for pre-meal cocktails, unfermented satire for those who like less bite, but large jugs of stream of consciousness should be kept full and within reach, for readers will surely be thirsty.

Update, Nov. 24: Thanks to Berfrois for joining us at the table!

Targeting the Philistines: The Diversion of Literature and Disease of Criticism

How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts arrived, but is somewhat disappointing. By John Sutherland, retired from University College London, the book is a commercial cut and paste job. But that’s OK; it’s actually a bit of fun, its structure designed as if for on-line consumption, a mosaic approach combining linear language with magazine layout. The only thing missing might be JPEG photo inserts or cartoon drawings. It is pedantic while attempting to appeal to the anti-pedantic in its use of sarcasm, but the rib-poking, jargoned-filled references might create a confusing tone. We are unsure what the author’s attitude toward his subject is, but picture a historic, bronze statue in an old city park. None of the current locals can name or explain the statue. The statue is covered with graffiti equally obscure. And there’s Sutherland, standing on a soapbox like a street corner preacher, explaining to passersby how bronze statues are made. No one is listening, but that’s of no importance, because the age of statues has ended.

Written using a desktop publishing platform, the page layouts contain text boxes, multiple font sizes and styles, and copious but short references but no consistent citation method. A timeline across the bottom of the first pages of each chapter is interesting. There is a glossary, which is useful, but, as it turns out, it’s a glossary to a glossary, for that’s what the book is, a glossary, each chapter devoted to a single literary concept, though most are arguably little more than literary terms that are each reduced to a single, pithy takeaway statement called in the text “the condensed idea.” There are two Jeopardy-like quizzes, with answers following the glossary, textbook style.

The book is not about how literature works, but about how literary criticism works. The note-like introduction offers an apology. Eliot and Lawrence help support the deferential claim that criticism should be left to those who create literature. “What would one not give for Shakespeare’s view on his own drama?,” Sutherland asks. This is silly, for if we want to know Shakespeare’s view on his own drama, all we need do is read Shakespeare’s drama. It’s a Uriah Heepian humility Sutherland invokes, but the attitude explains why critics like Harold Bloom and James Wood might be more effective. Wood’s recent book, How Fiction Works, is literature compared to Sutherland’s book, and there’s irony in the comparable titles, Sutherland apparently cribbing an idea from Wood. But the ideas are not new, and the critics are passing them back and forth wrapped in different packaging.

A comparison between Sutherland and Wood illustrates two very different approaches. For example, Sutherland uses Robinson Crusoe’s “two shoes that were not fellows” to explain what he calls “Solidity of Specification” (the title of chapter 29, and by which he means, simply put, attention to detail; but he gets the term, he tells us, from Henry James, and comments that it’s the only time James uses the term in all of his writing – yes, because Henry James wasn’t in the business of writing text books, of creating terms that would find a home in the Canon of the Glossary). But Wood has already referenced the same two shoes Crusoe finds on the beach. But Wood does so indirectly, by quoting at length J. M. Coetzee’s discussion of the Defoe Crusoe shoe passage in Elizabeth Costello, a work of fiction. Wood’s book is deeper, for he immerses the reader in the discussion, while what we get in Sutherland is primarily definitions, terms, pithy sayings, stand alone quotes. One senses a complex love for literature from Wood and Bloom, even as the expression of that love exposes them to the occasional purple pathos, while Sutherland, who values Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as the best poem ever, may like the idea of literature more than literature itself. Literature can be a diversion or a disease; the criticism will follow suit.

At the end of Sutherland, we have to listen to yet another eulogy for the book. All is not well in the literary world. The philistines are crowding at the gate, and there’s a multitude of them. There is too much to read, most of it inferior work. Paper is disappearing; the book in your hands is as dead as a doornail. Perhaps the philistines are the target market for How Literature Works, but literature is not dead, while talking about it appears also to be a pastime still alive and kicking.

How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts, by John Sutherland, Oxford University Press, 205 pages, $14.95, paperback.

How Literary Critics Think

Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why (2000), James Wood’s How Fiction Works (2008), Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (1980), which he proposed to subtitle “How to be a Good Reader,” are all books about how critics think. Oxford University Press has announced John Sutherland’s “How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts,” due out in March, 2011. We’ve put our order in, never tiring of the How books; in fact, we’re thinking of writing our own: How Literary Critics Think. Of course, slim chance, for as Laura Miller discusses in a Salon interview with Louis Bayard (“Who Killed the Literary Critic,” May 22, 2008), “at a certain point there’s nothing left to dismantle.” Bayard observes “So the only critics left to evaluate most contemporary fiction are journalists, ranging in seriousness from someone like Wood to your average newspaper freelancer who mostly delivers plot summary. There are no critical movements evident today.” Blogging certainly doesn’t count; in any case, Laura says, “I’m not really a reader of blogs.” Sure, and professional literary critics probably don’t watch television, either. Yet Barnard notes that he’s “learned things from Amazon reviews, from letters pages, from literary blogs, from all sorts of non-traditional outlets. The quality of writing is certainly variable, but then so is the quality of traditional journalism.”

Ah, but what about the How school of literary criticism? The how of something is the scientific part. Nabokov puts it this way: “There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter…To the storyteller we turn for entertainment…to the teacher…for moral education but also for direct knowledge, for simple facts….” And to the enchanter we go “…to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.” This last part Nabokov calls “the intuition of science.” Can literature be taught as a science? Certainly it can, and it may be the only way to teach it. Northrop Frye, in his instructive and influential essay “The Archetypes of Literature,” said, “Art, like nature, is the subject of a systematic study, and has to be distinguished from the study itself, which is criticism. It is therefore impossible to ‘learn literature’: one learns about it in a certain way, but what one learns, transitively, is the criticism of literature. Similarly, the difficulty often felt in ‘teaching literature’ arises from the fact that it cannot be done: the criticism is all that can be directly taught.”

Yes, but that bit about nature: Nabokov says, “Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives…The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.” So the professional critic clues us in on which writers are the most deceitful?

The reader speaks, ignoring the sign “Silence in the Library,” and the amateur spirit in literary criticism is born. Why kill this amateur spirit? Because ( more agreement between Miller and Bayard) “talent is inequitably distributed in all art forms… great critics are even rarer than great novelists or poets, and I wonder if that’s because criticism itself is held in such low esteem…McDonald mentions that one of academia’s last havens for evaluative criticism has been the creative-writing class, and he suggests that universities should offer more in the way of ‘creative criticism’ classes, teaching the craft of interpreting other people’s works. All the same, I’m skeptical this would reverse the current state of affairs. People will only value literary criticism to the extent they value literature.”

Any true experience of reading literature is an experience that calls for a reflective response, and this response can be made without a conscious understanding of how figurative language and connotative meanings (and the often resulting ambiguity) inform how literature works. We might even argue that the less conscious one is of how these things work, the more primal the reading experience. Yet one can see the merging of the effects of literature on cultural, societal, and individual development (of course these effects might also be considered only a reflection of changes already occurring in culture, society, and the individual, changes that become, in turn, the subject of literature – note the latest effort to change Twain’s Huck Finn). In any case, literature as cultural value is key to the interest of adult readers, which is why if we want to read Langston Hughes in a book (since we can’t very well still read him in a newspaper), we will end up wanting to know something about the Harlem Renaissance.

Reading literature can be a perplexing experience. We want to understand the meaning of a story, poem, or play, and when we don’t “get it,” we feel disappointed. But the idea that a work of literature “means” something is part of the problem. Flannery O’Connor once put this problem this way: “…something has gone wrong in the process when, for so many students [readers], the story becomes simply a problem to be solved….” Rene Char put the problem this way: “No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.” Yet, we can learn to ask the right questions of literature, questions that don’t scare the bird off, and we can through the discussion of these questions discover how literature works. That’s what the general interest reader wants after the reflective response, the discovery of how literature works, for that discovery enables more enjoyable reading and helps us better understand the influence of literature on culture, society, and the individual.