Saturday, 24 February 2007

A Model for Literary Communication

In analogy to the communication model applied in linguistics to face-to-face interaction (sender – message – receiver), literary scholars have come up with a model for literary communication. (For a schematised representation of this model see the animation).

According to this model, literary production and reception obviously require at least two participants: someone who writes a literary text and someone who reads it. The literary text itself functions as message between author and reader. Of course, the term message must not be taken literally. It would be absurd to imagine that an author two hundred years ago, for example, sent a message to me, the present-day reader. However, literary texts are usually created for an audience, and by the same token literary texts only come to life when they are actually received by a readership. That author and reader are spatially and temporally deferred from one another in most cases must of course be kept in mind.

The message is conveyed in a specific material shape, e.g., as a book, a stage script, a screenplay, an audio tape, video or nowadays on the internet or CD-Rom. In other words: The channel or medium through which the literary text is presented can vary significantly. Nevertheless, literary texts depend on certain conventions of both producing and receiving literature. I always apply certain strategies when reading a novel, for example, such as accepting its fictionality or perhaps special uses of language, while I also bring to bear predefined expectations on literary texts. For example, we usually set our 'autopilot' on poetry-reading mode if we see a text which presents itself in the shape of a poem. Likewise, authors follow literary conventions when they create a piece of literature or they deliberately defy these conventions to create something new and innovative. At any rate, there is always some reference to what we might call the code of literary production and reception, i.e., rules for writing and reading texts. A banal and yet extremely important aspect is the fact that author and reader must share a language for communication to work at all. Another part of the literary code would be the way we classify literary texts in terms of genre. Needless to say that literary codes can change over time (as languages and cultures generally do) and that different periods have used different classificatory systems. This is also one of the reasons why literary texts themselves change: They accommodate in some way or another to the existing literary code, even if they ostensibly move away from it.

The context of literary production and reception thus becomes very important. Both readers and authors are situated in a specific place, historical time and cultural context, which of course influence the way they read and write. At the same time, the literary text also refers to the external world either by imitating what can be found there or by creating an alternative world. Reference is a term used in linguistics to denote the relationship between a sign and the object it signifies. While this narrow concept is problematic for literary studies because objects and persons in a story-world, for example, do not strictly speaking refer to ‘real’ objects or people, the concept is useful if one allows for relationships between signs and mental models, concepts, ideas, etc. The reference of a literary text to the world is thus never direct but is always aesthetically mediated, i.e., it is embedded in certain literary conventions and makes use of special linguistic codes. Michael Ondaatje’s bestseller, The English Patient, for example, undoubtedly depicts circumstances and events related to World War II but it does it in such a way as to leave enough room for poetic renditions of the characters’ emotions and experiences.

Literary studies investigate various aspects of the processes shown in the communication model. Thus, one can look at the relationship between author and text or reader and text, one can focus on the text itself or on how it is embedded in its socio-historical and cultural contexts. Scholars have also considered the literary code and what it entails. In sum, one can say that literary studies offer a wide range of topic areas for research activities, and this introductory course can only provide a very first glimpse of what is actually out there. The next section gives a preliminary overview of some of the study areas within literary studies.

Topic Areas of Literary Studies

This online course aims to provide an introduction to the tools for the analysis of literary texts. Like any other academic discipline, literary studies also have a set of clearly defined terms which can be applied when reading and discussing literary texts. These terms are often genre-specific, i.e., they are used particularly in the context of drama or narrative analysis or the analysis of poetic texts. Examples would be 'stage conventions', 'narrative voice' and 'prosody'. There are also a number of terms and analytical categories, however, which can be equally applied to various genres, e.g., 'character', 'setting', 'time', 'plot', etc.

Apart from such analytical tools, students of English literature should be familiar with some other major concepts:

Literary History
Poetics and Genre
Literary Theory

Literary History

Names of literary epochs or periods have mostly been ‘invented’ in retrospect. The underlying assumptions are based on certain common features, not merely of texts but of socio-cultural developments and phases in the history of literary production. In English literature, historians for convenience often use the name of the sovereign in power at a certain time. Thus, they speak about the Elizabethan Age or the Victorian Period. Sometimes, approximately the same period of time can have various names, depending on the perspective adopted by the historian. The Elizabethan Age, for example, is also referred to as the Early Modern Period or the Renaissance. While the term 'Early Modern' focuses on the historical process of modernisation, 'Renaissance' is a term borrowed from art history and captures the idea of the ‘re-birth’ of antiquity in various art forms of the sixteenth century. Labels can also vary across nationalities. While in English, for example, 'Victorian Period' is a widely-used general label for the time between 1832 and the late nineteenth century, scholars of German literature have focused more on people’s attitudes, political developments and modes of writing in their classifications and therefore use different labels to denote shorter time spans of roughly the same period, e.g., Biedermeier, Vormärz, Realismus, Naturalismus. This example shows that labelling a literary period is often at the discretion of the literary historian and largely depends on which aspects a scholar considers important. Nonetheless, even though exact numbers, names and dates vary in books of literary history, one can come up with a general list of periods which underlies common practice (from Abrams 1999: 210):

450-1066 Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) Period
1066-1500 Middle English Period
The Renaissance (or Early Modern Period)
1558-1603 Elizabethan Age
1603-1625 Jacobean Age
1625-1649 Caroline Age
1649-1660 Commonwealth Period (or Puritan Interregnum)
1660-1785 The Neoclassical Period
1660-1700 The Restoration
1700-1745 The Augustan Age (or Age of Pope)
1745-1785 The Age of Sensibility (or Age of Johnson)
1785-1830 The Romantic Period
1832-1901 The Victorian Period

1848-1860 The Pre-Raphaelites
1880-1901 Aestheticism and Decadence
1901-1914 The Edwardian Period
1910-1936 The Georgian Period
1914- The Modern Period
1945- Postmodernism

One must not forget that periods are categories which do not necessarily encompass clearly demarcated time spans. Since literary developments evolve gradually and are often based on the co-existence of diverse movements, periods inevitably also overlap. As their names suggest, periods derive their labels from divergent sources. Frequently, they are analogous to philosophical movements such as the Age of Sensibility. Sometimes periods are named after artistic avantgarde movements which also express the predominant mood of the time, e.g., Aestheticism and Decadence. The Romantic Period derives its name from a genre, the medieval romance or chivalric romance, which was popular at the time and set an example with its fantastic and exaggerated subject matters. Postmodernism is given its name because it succeeds and goes beyond Modernism in terms of literary conventions, philosophical assumptions, etc. No matter which names literary periods are given, they are selected according to shared criteria and features which are considered characteristic of the time. A division into literary periods is useful for our understanding and discussion of connections between literary and socio-historical developments. They help us compare texts within one period and also across periods. Nevertheless, they should not become coathangers for simplistic assumptions or even clichés. Therefore, good books on literary history set out very clearly right from the beginning what their motivating force is and why they arrived at a certain form of periodisation.

One study area which is influenced by historical developments is the area of poetics and genres since the conventions for writing literary texts and for setting up individual genre categories and genre systems depend on their socio-cultural context and thus change over time.

Poetics and Genre

Ever since Aristotle’s Poetics, if not before, scholars have been concerned with classifying literary texts according to predefined categories. The groups or classes of texts have been labelled by means of group-specific names. Thus, Aristotle already divided ancient plays into tragedies and comedies and attributed certain features to each type of drama. The labels we attach to groups of texts with similar or correlated features can be summarised under the heading genre. The three major generic groups are prose fiction, drama and poetry. One must of course bear in mind that genres and genre systems are subject to historical changes and by no means closed categories.

Genres are defined by certain conventions, common recurring features which texts display. These features can be formal or structural or they can relate to themes and topics or forms of presentation. Thus, prose fiction is generally defined by the fact that it is not written in verse like poetry, for example, and that it is narrative while drama normally includes the direct presentation of a scene on stage. If one starts collecting features for each genre, one will soon find exceptions and it becomes clear that the boundaries of genres are blurred. In certain periods, people were not very strict about the limitations of different genres, as can be seen in the following quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Polonius introduces the actors who have just arrived at the Danish court:

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited. (Hamlet, II, 2: 392-396)

Although plays in the Early Modern Period seemingly crossed generic boundaries, the basic major categories are still valid and are used as frames of reference. This is one of the main functions of genres: Genres allow us to talk about groups of texts rather than just listing individual examples. They help us communicate about structural and thematic features and enable us to state similarities as well as differences between texts. We can discuss the diachronic development of genres, i.e., throughout history, and see how the individual historical contexts shaped forms of drama, prose fiction and poetry. Put another way, the concept of genre helps us approach literary texts. Authors usually construct their texts within certain genre conventions. By labelling a text a 'tragedy' for example, they raise certain expectations in readers or spectators. These expectations can then be met or disappointed. Keeping generic features in mind, one should therefore always also look for deviations from standard patterns because this is often where a literary text is particularly innovative and interesting and where interpretations can yield fascinating results.

Over the centuries, analysis has become more and more fine-grained and consequently numerous sub-genres have been identified for each main category. Again, historical developments play an important role. Some sub-genres, like the romance for example, have become less popular, while there is always a possibility for new sub-genres to emerge. The following tree diagram shows prose fiction and some of its sub-genres:

Prose Fiction




Short Story


Historical Novel

Bildungsroman (Novel of Education)

Social Novel

Gothic Novel

Epistolary Novel


The other two main generic groups, poetry and drama, can of course also be subdivided into numerous sub-genres: ballad, sonnet, ode, or comedy, tragedy, satire, tragicomedy, epic theatre, etc. What one ought to bear in mind is that, although genres are defined according to common characteristic features, the allocation of texts to certain genres is still ultimately our decision.

Sometimes, texts pose difficulties because they cannot be classified as belonging to one definite category. Where does one place 'long narratives' such as Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness or Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, for example: novella, novel or short story? For this reason, one also has to be careful not to oversimplify generic terms. In everyday parlance, people often use words like these in an undifferentiated way: “Oh, that accident was so tragic!” or “They had quite a little romance going on”. Nonetheless, generic terms in literary studies are very useful since genres form part of readers' and writers' literary competence at a given time. Literary competence encompasses people's ability to produce and understand literary texts and their knowledge about literary texts in general.

The classification of genres is of course guided by theoretical considerations, and it is not only for this reason that literary theory must hold a place in an introduction.