Things that are never the answer

 when you are asked to write critically about a novel:

  1.  The author is biased.
  2. The author does x, y, and z in order to establish credibility
  3. Certain aspects of the novel can be explained by the fact that the author was trying to make money.

The author of a novel cannot be biased because she is describing something fictional.  Certainly, something like the fictional event could have taken place.  A scientist, for example, may have had the ambition of animating dead flesh.  For all we know, several may have tried this.  Nevertheless, Mary Shelley cannot possibility be biased in telling such a story because she is inventing it. An author creates characters with distinct points of view, and the analysis of this is always worth your critical attention.  But the word “bias” refers to skewed reporting on actual events and thus is not relevant to discussing the ways in which an author unfolds a narrative.  Similarly, authors do not do things like establish various points of view to create greater credibility.  Just like there can be no “bias” in fiction, there is no need to establish credibility because the narrative is not reporting on things that really happened.  Sometimes fiction texts try to establish “verisimilitude”—which means that the events perhaps could have happened—but this is different from credibility.  Now as you may have noticed, these issues are a little different for narratives that we now call novels but that were written before, say, 1760 or thereabouts, when the conventions of fiction were not fully established.  Still, the issues of bias and credibility are nevertheless not really productive for critical analysis.  We will never know whether or not Behn was “biased” in telling the story of Oroonoko’s slave rebellion because we were not there (if it really happened).  All we have is text that represents a series of events.  (Please reread the essay “Representations” by W.J.T. Mitchell in Critical Terms for Literary Study.) It is clear that Behn’s narrator admires the Prince Oroonoko.  This, however, does not make the novel biased, but instead suggests that the author has created a character with a particular (in this case admiring) view of another character.  Why does she do this?  What is the narrative effect?

Finally, it is true that Behn wanted to make money from her novel and that Shakespeare, writing for the stage, wanted to make money from his plays.  So what is wrong with the argument that Behn tells the story of Oroonoko to make money, and that Shakespeare includes Caliban because he is so entertaining?  The answer is: perhaps those statements are correct, but they are not literary criticism.  They do not advance our thinking about the texts in any way.  The problem here is not with your logic, but with the fact that you haven’t yet learned the conventions of the literature classroom. When your instructor asks, “Why does Shakespeare include Caliban in the play?” he is not using the ordinary language of motives (as in, “Why did you call me?”).  What he is really saying is: “offer a critical analysis of Caliban’s function in the play, and/or the aesthetic, cultural, ideological, historical, etc., implications of this figure.” 

Perhaps it would be easier if we always remembered to spell out what we are asking, but unfortunately you won’t be able to count on this. At a certain point, many of you will internalize the lessons above.  If you don’t, please keep them handy for future reference.

 LR, who welcomes other insights about things that are never the answer.

17 responses to “Things that are never the answer

  1. Dave Mazella

    I think the author of this post was biased.

    • Laura Rosenthal

      Well, I wouldn’t know. I found it in an ancient trunk and had to have it translated from the original Italian.

  2. Dave Mazella

    Seriously, though, this is funny because I’ve gotten innumerable papers over the years that talked about an author’s “bias” or “credibility” without any awareness of how these terms might be applied to imaginative works. I’ve always assumed it was a leftover analytic category from their composition classes, which they were struggling to move beyond in their literature courses. But most notions of literary writing require a notion of psychology that is not limited to individual preferences and experiences, and works instead at the level of collective and/or ideological areas of experience.

    Perhaps this kind of writing also reflects their discomfort with the notion of a purely aesthetic choice or decision, and the kinds of factors that might affect those kinds of decisions?

  3. Laura Rosenthal

    I think you’re right about composition class. I also have been witnessing that the issue of “bias” receives much emphasis in high school these days. But I think another issues is that one of the most difficult things to teach is the conventions of a discipline. I find that this is a challenge at both the undergraduate and graduate level, partly because we have so fully absorbed them that we are barely aware of them.

  4. Dave Mazella

    This is one of those cases where we are not simply looking for the reproduction of the convention, but some kind of indication that a set of tacit assumptions and values underlying those conventions is at work, as well.

    What I mean is that novice writers on literature tend to assume that a particular work will have features that correspond to idiosyncratic biographical details of authors’ lives, whereas an experienced writer realizes the role of genre in determining those kinds of details. A satiric writer, for example, doesn’t always have a particular experience with the targets of his satire, or at least a one to one correlation between experience and satiric targets.

    But what I have noticed is how hard it is for novice writers on literature to read works in ways that move beyond the literalist and biographical, and to extend their knowledge beyond the examples they know.

  5. I think it also gives students a feeling of intellectual superiority to “point out” the “bias” or “un-credibility” or “mundane motive” (like making money) of an author.

    • Laura Rosenthal

      This is a really interesting and persuasive account of both responses (“bias” and the author being out to make money). Somehow what we instructors need to do is move students from this kind of competition with the author to appreciation (even if they don’t ever like the book, they will get something out of it if they try to appreciate what’s going on in the text).

  6. Dave Mazella

    @Student: this sounds right to me. So how do students move beyond such defensive kinds of thinking?

    @Laura: Maybe the way to bridge this gap is looking at the “pedagogical content knowledge” specific to teaching literature at the secondary and post-secondary level. I have the feeling that there’s a transition here between the two kinds of teaching that college teachers could learn how to bridge. Take a look, for example, at this piece of research:

    Teacher Understanding of Student Understanding: Revising the Gap between Teacher Conceptions and Students’ Ways with Literature
    Fred L. Hamel
    Research in the Teaching of English

  7. Shayda Hoover

    “Bias” (as in “That author is very bias [sic]”) seems to come up in my composition classes whether I prompt for it or not. I think the word functions as shorthand for a kind of generalized critical posture for readers who are still fairly uneasy about being asked to evaluate (or evaluate positions in) what they read. “A Student” seems to be on target: undermining a writer’s credibility is much easier and safer than producing a sustained critique of the writer’s claims (and as teachers, we shouldn’t be too pious about this either: I still quail when I have to summarize and respond to a complicated argument).

  8. Dave Mazella

    @Shayda: I think calling it “shorthand” is very apt, because it does seem like a placeholder for a student who would like to offer some kind of explanation or critique, but is stuck for words or uneasy about laying out an explicit judgment about something she doesn’t necessarily feel confident about.

    As our political discourse shows, engaging with an opponent’s actual words, arguments, or positions is often too time-consuming to work in ordinary political discussion, so this kind of ad hominem dismissal is far more common than the kinds of (selective) engagement we preach in the academy. (Academic argument is predicated on the notion that some arguments, e.g., “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays,” don’t get engaged)

  9. Laura Rosenthal

    Yes, shorthand is a good was to describe it. Perhaps they are detecting issues like the creation of a character with a particular point of view, but don’t yet have the critical tools to separate out all those various layers.

  10. I like the idea that bias and credibility are shorthands, or I’d say that they’re a kind of entry-level critical thinking. For the most part we’re dealing with students accustomed to a dogmatic fact(oid)-oriented education in which the way to succeed is to reproduce lecture notes for tests. For these kids the cognitive operations of interpretation are a big scary mystery. They think right/wrong, not better/worse. Early on they try to import this dogmatic notion to critical thinking; therefore, anything needing to be interpreted is ‘wrong’ because not strictly factual, and critique is about pinpointing how. At this moment of cognitive transformation and confusion, bias and credibility are easy wands to wave.

    Where do they come from? My History class, of course, where one of the very first things I do is show students how to assess the bias and credibility of historical sources, as a way to enter them into the specific conventions of critical thinking about perspectival knowledge that History trades in – and to intercept their naive inclination to ascribe all knowledge to ‘the book says it’. In my intro classes the students do not know how to distinguish between the editorial headnotes and the historical documents, and they call all books novels, suggesting that the difference between fiction and nonfiction is not clear to them. They’re sort of folk deconstructionists, in other words – I have to teach them how to find the author, so that later they can learn the proper incredulity toward authors.

  11. Dave Mazella

    Hey Carl,

    One of things that your post points out is how domain-specific critical thinking really is: for your beginning history students, the idea of evaluating sources for bias and comparing their credibility comes as a revelation. As you mention, for a student coming from a dogmatic point of view, recognizing the perspectives within which documents are generated feels like an advance.

    But the transfer of this kind of procedure to fiction creates all sorts of problems, because the point of the reading is not to sift out historical fact from idiosyncratic bias; it’s more about what kinds of meanings the literary work generates when it is read and discussed by its successive publics. In my opinion, this irreducibly collective dimension of literary reading is why literary studies finds it hard to do without some version of the unconscious or ideology. We can talk about Swift being “biased” against the English, or the Irish, for that matter, but his goals and purposes have little to do with an objective reportage or the maintenance of credibility.

    But no, students find it hard to see why genres matter. I think they need to read enough works within a genre to recognize how it affects, or should affect, the meanings they construct from the works they read.

  12. Exactly Dave, I really like Laura’s post and the discussion for bringing this all out.

    Doesn’t the bias/credibility kind of assessment enter literary studies in the concept of the unreliable narrator? I think across the board what the students are struggling with is that transposition of judgment into imagined worlds, whether of fiction, the past or both; and then within the puzzle of different worlds working by different rules, sorting out what’s reliable and what’s not. It’s not just literary or historical conventions they don’t get, it’s conventions tout court.

  13. Dave Mazella

    I think in literary studies, the unreliable narrator is treated as a fictional “character” alongside the others, whose motives, perspective, omissions, etc. have to be calculated into our understanding of the information we are receiving from them. An 18c epistolary novel has nothing but unreliable narrators, and most first-person narrators in novels or even autobiography/memoir etc. could also be considered “unreliable,” to the extent that we seek corroboration for their views while we read.

    However, what distinguishes the complexity of an unreliable fictional narrator from that an 18c historical letter writer would be the fact that the novelistic narrator’s motives etc. are ultimately attributable to our sense of the author’s intentions for that character and for the novel as a whole.

    I think your point about conventions is exactly right, but I think teaching students to recognize conventions is one of the most difficult tasks. I remember reading that most constructivist theories of education struggle with this problem, because our predilection as experts is to teach the convention rather than the examples, but that students only truly learn about the convention through the process of assembling the corroborating examples.

  14. Laura Rosenthal

    Interesting that you should raise the issue of the unreliable narrator. I wrote this post in response, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, to a round of papers in my “introduction to the major” course asking them to compare narrative strategies in *Frankenstein* and *Oroonoko.* There were other topics available, but most of them chose this one, and most of them compared the novels in the context of which author showed the most bias and how each author established credibility. So I devoted most of the next class to this issue, and one thing we talked about at length was the difference between the unreliable narrator and an author with a bias. (This is why I work in drafts! I’m looking forward to seeing what the learning outcome was for this.) Both of these novels have multiple narrators (explicit or implied), and the narrators themselves have very particular points of view and stakes in the action, so there are indeed many forms of “unreliability” in both texts. What I want them to see is how authors endow characters with particular points of view that can be analyzed and that shape the way those characters (including narrators) describe the action.

    I think, also, that you’re both right that conventions are among the most difficult things to teach and as Dave wrote, you can’t always teach them successfully just by explaining them. I have actually found this to be an issue at the graduate level as well. I *think* this is an issue because, perhaps more than anything else, you’re just asking them to take your word for it. Conventions are crucial, but they are also arbitrary. When you teach other things you can derive them from the material, but the convensions frame the material.