W.F. Garrett-Petts’ second edition of Writing About Literature: A Guide for the Student Critic is exactly what the title proposes: a manual to help undergraduate students to write more critically informed essays on literature. Although there is quite a lot of such supposed guides available both in book form and on the internet, most of them fall short of addressing the real issues behind the composition of essays, being no more than lists of formulae and tips on academic writing.
The author’s comment right on the introduction of the book definitely rings a bell for me and my literature and language students. He points out that the ‘great irony of our field’ is that students ‘spend a great deal of time discussing literature’ whereas ‘relatively little direct instruction is offered in how to write about literature (Garrett-Petts, 2013, p. xiii). Last term I tried to minimize the problem by introducing a writing tutorial done via our VLE right in the first week of the course; however, reading his book made me realise that there are still aspects that need to be addressed and that are missing in the course.
Particularly relevant is the concept of the four contexts for learning or the four critical stances proposed by the author and which serve as a framework for writing a critical response to texts: the social, institutional, textual and field stances (pp.1-11). First, the social stance is taken when students compare and discuss with other students their personal reactions to the text, their notes on vocabulary, metaphors, themes and issues raised by their reading. The institutional stance requires students to learn the series of writing conventions we adopt in academic writing, such as what constitute evidence, and attitude and tone expected by the department. The textual stance requires students to become familiar with the tools of trade in literary criticism, such as the features of an academic essay, the organization of a paper, the use of quotations and the field vocabulary. Finally, the field stance means that students have to learn how to think critically about literature by adopting a critical approach to their analysis.
The writer adopts throughout the book a quite clear and didactic approach to writing and carefully maps the terrain of literary criticism scaffolding the writing process so that students can have a solid basis to start with. The proposed six common places of literary criticism (pp.51-57) and his summary of the critical approaches to text (pp.57-68) could be considered reductionist and boarding oversimplification but for dazzled undergraduate students they can prove to be quite helpful and a clear starting point for future explorations. This is especially true for international students who may come from academic cultures that have a different approach to literary academic writing.
Clear examples and samples of students writing based on a sample text provided in the book help readers to see how the theory and the strategies suggested are put into practice. The section on poetry at the end is not as well-developed as the one on prose analysis but insightful nonetheless. A glossary and suggestions for further reading at the end can also prove useful to students wishing to go further in their understanding of academic writing in the field of literary studies.
All in all, I found the book a welcome addition to the field and I will definitely review the writing tutorial I offer to my students next term and incorporate to it some of its ideas and tasks.
Garrett-Petts, W. F. (2013) Writing About Literature: A Guide for the Student Critic. London: Broadview Press.