“The Scream” (1893) by Edvard Munch.
First things first: no, you are not an idiot.
The modernist literary movement tossed realism out the window and replaced it with sensory impressions and stream-of-consciousness narration in an attempt to “make it new,” as Ezra Pound put it. After all, post-WWI life could not be expressed through the old traditional forms. The result was a way of writing that confuses many readers and terrifies university students the second they see The Wasteland on their reading list, and with good reason: modernist literature is difficult. It is often dense, fragmented, full of obscure allusions, and thus asks more from the reader than your average novel. Tackling a modernist work demands commitment, patience, and attention, but if you are willing to put in the work, you can discover a whole new
world way of writing unlike anything you have ever seen before.
As someone who took a very long time to come to appreciate the movement (we’re talking years here), I know how daunting a book like To The Lighthouse can be. That’s why I have put together a list of five simple tips to get you going.
The horror of any student: the research question and/or proposal. Oh, the hours I have spent struggling with this deceptively simple task… It seems so easy. All you need to do is come up with a question you want to answer and explain how you plan to go about it. How difficult can it be? Very, as it turns out.
By popular demand, I have put together a list of 5 very basic tips to help you distill your disconnected thoughts (“something about Christopher Isherwood”) into a coherent concept (“how the architecture of the main character’s house reflects his struggle as a gay man living in 1950′s America in Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man, how the interpretation in Tom Ford’s film adaptation differs, and why this matters”).
(Note: these tips are specific to students of literature, but the basic principles apply to other fields as well, especially within the humanities.)
Poetry and I have had a rocky journey. For the longest time I didn’t read or like poetry at all, with the exception of the occasional Robert Frost. I was convinced that it was all unnecessarily vague, overly abstract, artsy fartsy nonsense, and that the whole form just wasn’t for me. Why struggle to make sense of these scraps of pretentiousness when you can spend that time reading a novel instead?
Then in my first year of university I decided to volunteer for a poetry festival (one of my better life decisions). Watching all these poets perform their work made me realise the wide variety that is out there and the effect a good reading can have on an audience. I bought a collection of poems at the festival and began reading it on the bus ride home. Then I asked my mother if I could borrow her poetry anthology. Then I bought the collected works of W.H. Auden. And the following year, I volunteered for the poetry festival again.
You too may think that poetry is not for you or maybe you want to try but you find the whole thing a bit intimidating. I have put together a list of tips to help you across the first couple of hurdles, and you can take it from there. You can do it. Trust me.
The Cobbe portrait.
It is practically impossible to say or write anything about literature without at one point running into Shakespeare. He is (mis)quoted by everyone, his characters are a much-used point of reference, and his plays continue to inspire other works of art to this day. The Bard is everywhere, to both the delight and horror of literature students all over the world. These days, the name Shakespeare has become synonymous with high culture, complex works that can only be deciphered by the scholarly elite… And yet most highschool students are expected to read at least one of his plays in school and make sense of it.
I think the #1 thing that keeps some people from getting into Shakespeare is the language: it’s a whole different vocabulary to get used to. When you’re not familiar with early modern writing, his plays can look quite daunting on paper and when you try to read the opening monologue, you instantly start to panick (“oh God, I don’t know what any of these words mean and here I thought I was pretty good at English what is happening“).
So what is the best way to tackle a Shakespeare play?
By the time I (hopefully eventually) graduate I will have written one BA thesis and two MA theses, so I like to consider myself a bit of an expert on this process. This final project is where even the most academically gifted of students suddenly find themselves stumbling. Everything depends on you and your ability to just sit down and write. It’s probably best to accept the fact that you will have a nervous breakdown at some point now and embrace it.
To take some of the pressure off, here are ten tips to make the process a bit easier on yourself.
Here we go.
“The Yellow Books” (Vincent van Gogh, 1887).
When I was a teenager, I had put one book on the reading list for my Dutch lit exam that I didn’t understand at all, thinking that I might be able to get away with it. However, because my teacher had a sixth sense for that sort of thing, I got a question on it on my exam. Of course. He asked me what my first impressions were and I decided to just tell him about how much I had struggled with it. I told him that I’d tried to make a diagram of all the different characters, but it ended up looking like a messy spiderweb because there were so many of them and they were all related to each other somehow (“I mean, how am I supposed to keep track of all that?”). To my great surprise, he laughed, said “fair enough,” and moved on to the next book. Teachers love it when you show you tried.
But in case you want to do a little better than that, here are five tips that will get you through your exams!
(Seriously though, showing that you tried is half the battle.)