Margaret Atwood: English lessons teach us to miss the true meaning of literature

Every time I teach a college literature class, I have to budget time in the syllabus to help my students unlearn the way they learned to read in high school. Atwood does a great job explaining the role a reader plays in constructing the meanings they find in a literary text.

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-12-46-57-pmIt’s all the fault of how we were taught in high school, in which the teacher had the benefit of the finished book and would draw a diagram on the blackboard. It gives you the idea that the writer always had that diagram and was just translating it into this unnecessary amount of language. The inference is: What was the poet trying to say? Poor lamb, he couldn’t just blurt it out. He had to fancy it all up. He really had a speaking problem…. I’m not a Platonist. I don’t think the meaning exists somewhere up here and then is translated down into all this verbiage. I believe the meaning emerges out of the language and that the reader is the musician of the text. —Quartz

5 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood: English lessons teach us to miss the true meaning of literature

  1. When I do the reprogramming, I emphasize that I am not faulting high school English teachers. Their workday involves engaging 150 teens who would rather be somewhere else. By contrast, I typically teach small seminars full of students who have chosen (one way or another) to be in my class. My expectations differ from what a HS teacher would rightly encourage and reward. Having said that, as a homeschool parent, I just ask my kids to read, and read more; we talk about what they read, rather than filling out study sheets or looking at charts.

    • Upon mature reflection (ie, it’s 5pm here, and I’ve had way too much coffee), I didn’t entirely support Atwood’s castigation of “what was the author trying to say?” That is not very far removed from my standard “what meaning is the author trying to convey?” One has to encourage them to start delving somehow. I regularly encounter students here who are told they need to “write in more detail,” but have no idea how to go about it, because they believe the words on the page (and therefore the plot) is all there is.

      • I might say something like “How does the author’s use of literary devices contribute to the author’s accomplishment?” That gives students a lifeline — they can look for foreshadowing, or a reversal, or an unreliable narrator, or what have you — but they are not just pointing to the device and writing a thesis like “There is flower imagery in The Scarlet Letter,” they would ideally be hunting for evidence to assemble into an argument like “Hawthorne connects Pearl to the natural world in order to condition us to accept her moral viewpoint, in order to surprise the reader when both Pearl and the natural world align against Hester and Dimmesdale’s plan to escape together.” That’s a pretty complex argument for a beginner to make, and it can only come from the kind of delving you mention.

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