AP Lit Discussion: How to Read Lit Like a Professor: Now Where Have I Seen Her Before?

Here’s an exerpt from the “Now Where Have I Seen Her Before” chapter of Foster’s How to Read Lit. Before our next class, read the rest of the chapter from your text. I know, I know, we haven’t visited Foster in a while. I miss him. I think several of you do as well.

T. S. Eliot said that when a new work is created, it is set among the monuments, adding to and altering the order. That always sounds to me a bit too much like a graveyard. To me, literature is something much more alive. More like a barrel of eels. When a writer creates a new eel, it wriggles its way into the barrel, muscles a path into the great teeming mass from which it came in the first place. It’s a new eel, but it shares its eelness with all those other eels that are in the barrel or have ever been in the barrel. Now, if that simile doesn’t put you off reading entirely, you know you’re serious.
But the point is this: stories grow out of other stories, poems out of other poems. And they don’t have to stick to genre. Poems can learn from plays, songs from novels. Sometimes influence is direct and obvious, as when the twentieth-century American writer T. Coraghessan Boyle writes “The Overcoat II,” a postmodern reworking of the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s classic story “The Overcoat,” or when William Trevor updates James Joyce’s “Two Gallants” with “Two More Gallants,” or when John Gardner reworks the medieval Beowulf into his little postmodern masterpiece Grendel. Other times, it’s less direct and more subtle. It may be vague, the shape of a novel generally reminding readers of some earlier novel, or a modern-day miser recalling Scrooge. And of course there’s the Bible: among its many other functions, it too is part of the one big story. A female character may remind us of Scarlett O’Hara or Ophelia or even, say, Pocahontas. These similarities — and they may be straight or ironic or comic or tragic — begin to reveal themselves to readers after much practice of reading.
All this resembling other literature is all well and good, but what does it mean for our reading?

What say you folks to that last question? What examples from your reading experience might you cite that support Foster’s assertions above? Are you more of a Foster or more of an Eliot when it comes to literature?

Highlight and respond above to the specific moments that prompt your thinking — comment upon one another’s commentary and let’s give our first experience with Medium a proper work out.

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