While it is important to understand how the culture that led to the creation of a particular work differs from the culture in which you are reading that work, you should understand that a work is a particular author’s personal, creative, artistic representation of reality. Even when basing a story on a fictional event, authors leave out certain details, change the timeline, combine characters into composites, invent scenes, etc. All this is in the service of artistic truth, but it may stray far from the verifiable facts. Nobody wants to read stories about boring, ordinary people, so all literature is a distortion of some sort. Few farm women are married to husbands who are so cold that they strangle songbirds and send their otherwise meek and quiet wives into homicidal rages. It is therefore dangerous to use a fictional account of one incident to support an argument about what life was “really” like. —Representations of Reality (American Lit II (EL 267))
I’m introducing my lit students to the concept of the close reading. While they have several low-risk tries to get it right, I do recognize that students often have difficulty moving beyond plot summary and character analysis, which was good enough to get them through high school.
What else is there to write about?
It’s not so much “what” but “how”. We spent some time in my Video Gaming course discussing the concept of the “close playing,” and the principle is really the same. Look carefully at the specific choices that the artist made while creating the artifact. Consider the artifact not as a window on reality, and not as a mirror to examine your own emotional responses, but rather as a thing to look at.