At some point in time, it is important for every college student to step back and consider the reasons why he or she chose his or her major. Chances are, if someone does not have any concrete answers for this question, that student is not well-suited for his or her field of study. Although English is not my major concentration, it is my minor, and for good reason: I am majoring in Creative Writing. The pair of concentrations go hand in hand since they are basically the inverse of each other. One who cannot read well is probably not able to write well, and vice versa. The study of literature is crucial to my college education because I want to become a novelist; because by studying literature in college, I can understand the difference between careless commercial fiction written in slapdash haste and true literary art; and because I believe that literature is the medium best suited for the conveyance of ideas.
Reading and analyzing literature is absolutely necessary for anyone who wants to become a writer. My Introductory to Narrative Fiction teacher, Ted Sanders, used a basketball analogy to explain this. He said that during the 1990’s, he became obsessed with watching professional basketball on television, particularly the Chicago Bulls and “His Airness” Michael Jordan. After watching enough basketball and listening to the commentators’ analysis, he learned proper basketball theory and technique. He added that one day while playing basketball, he was able to visualize which players should move to which place in any given situation. Even though he and his teammates were not actually athletic enough to correctly perform the techniques themselves, Ted knew what should have theoretically happened. He proposed to my class that the same applies for reading and writing. In order to know how writing works, one must read frequently and understand authors’ techniques.
Just as some basketball players serve as better examples of correct basketball technique than others, some authors serve as better examples of sound writing techniques than others. In other words, defining only excellent works as “literature” and excluding inferior is justified. Studying true literature is crucial for would-be writers because it is much safer to take notes from the well-rounded literary masters than the authors that use flashy-yet-insubstantial gimmicks. Many authors make a mockery of the craft by producing as much feel-good garbage as they can in order to make money. A majority of said commercial writers shamelessly scrape together a few hundred pages of plot-based drivel without regard for description, imagery, character development, symbolism, and/or transcending universal meaning, and call it a book. To them, predictable one-dimensional characters are the rule, and all of their stories must end neatly and happily-ever-after. The sad thing is that the general public eats it up. How else could paperback romance writers make a living? In reading the classics of English and American literature, I am trying my best learn the difference between excellence and fluff. Hopefully, I will be able to not only envision how a story should, in theory, be written, but also be able to elevate my own writing to the status of literature.
Furthermore, the study of literature is important because the written word is arguably the most effective method of spreading ideas. Although there are ideas expressed in movies, television shows, and radio broadcasts, people do not often use these media sources for anything besides their entertainment value. In addition, the lessons learned from those three media sources are harder to access and remember. On the radio, as soon as the words have left the broadcaster’s mouth, they vanish into nothingness. There are no images by which to remember a radio show because one can only listen to it and not see it. At least in movies and TV, audiences can hear and see what is happening. On TV, however, unless you recorded the program or subscribe to TiVo, the words are gone as soon as someone on TV speaks them, and audiences will not be able to see or hear it unless the network shows a re-run or puts out a Season DVD. Movies are slightly better than television because a viewer can rewind and watch any scene again at any time. Yet with literature, one does not need to take the effort to find their remote and rewind at all. All a reader must do to access the information again is to look at the page in front of them and re-read. The words in a book are printed on its pages forever; no one will ever have to worry about any cassettes or discs becoming too scratched and damaged to read.
Audiences of radio, TV, and movies are not forced to be creative. In fact, they are encouraged to be quite the opposite. A show’s writers, actors, and directors have done all the thinking for the viewers. One does not have to guess how Kramer looks and sounds when he extols the virtues of fresh fruit-market mangos over tasteless supermarket fruit to Jerry in Seinfeld: he or she can look at the screen and listen to the sound emitting from the speakers. In the case of many TV shows, thematic music, sound effects, and laugh tracks tell the audience how it should feel. As a result, people tend to casually observe radio, TV, and movies without really thinking.
When reading a book, however, one is forced to use his or her brain. Readers must imagine how characters look and sound, the narrator’s tone and register, and the setting’s appearance. They pay more attention while reading because they must think, which puts them in a good position to contemplate a piece of literature’s meaning. People do not usually just set down a book after reading it and forget it, unlike how they would turn off a TV and move on with their everyday lives; they ask themselves retrospective questions about the piece. These questions could include, but are certainly not limited to: What overall meaning does the author want me to derive from this book? Why did it end that way? Do I agree with the ideas the author is trying to communicate, or was his or her writing weak and meritless? By studying literature, I hope to learn from other authors’ techniques how to generate writing that will keep my readers pondering days, months, and years after they first read the text.