The Kind of Essay I'm Looking For

First off, there is no one model or formula for a good literary critical essay. You each have your own voice and style, and can look for ways to use the papers you write to express yourself as well as analyse literature. Other teachers will have different expectations, and in other classes you may be given different kinds of writing assignments. But I think the kind of essay I'm asking you to write will have the strengths that all good analytical or expository writing has.

To me, the best place to begin an essay is with your own reading experience. Try to find something in a text that really interested, perplexed, aggravated, excited or confused you -- whether it's part of the plot, the role of a character, a pattern of images or thematic concerns, the style, or whatever. If you start with something that genuinely interests you, then you've got two reasons to write the paper: to get a grade, sure, but also to explore the issue and reach a conclusion about it that satisfies your own intellectual curiosity.

Before you can start writing the essay, you should turn the topic into an argument. The topic is the subject you're writing about. The argument commits your essay to a particular point -- it's what you are trying to say, what you want your reader to see, about the meaning of the subject. The importance of the law in The Pioneers is a topic. That in Pioneers the law may have the power to judge Natty as a criminal but the novel, in its depiction of Natty on trial, ultimately indicts and convicts the law itself as unjust -- that's an argument. One way to know you've got an argument is if you can see how people could argue about what you want to say. No one could disagree with the idea that the law is important in The Pioneers, but there wouldn't be much point in writing a whole essay just to say that. You could, however, disagree with what I've just said about the law being shown as guiltier than Natty (a good essay could be written, for instance, arguing that although the reader's sympathies are with Natty in the courtroom, the novel ultimately shows that Judge Temple is right when he says that it's the laws that remove man from the condition of savages -- just look what happens when Natty breaks jail: forest fire, threat of civil war, etc. -- and that Natty himself consents to the authority of the law when he winds up voluntarily going back into the jail until he is pardoned by the Governor).

I think it's more fun to write an essay when you've committed yourself to an argument -- you're not just filling pages, but you're building a case, proving how right your idea is. And I think it's easier to know how to shape and organize such an essay too -- because you can plan it around the idea of making your point persuasive, leading your reader to your own idea or conclusion, planning each paragraph as a step in that one direction. And thinking of the paper as an argument helps you know where the boundaries of your discussion are too -- if something isn't directly relevant to the larger conclusion you want your reader to reach, then it doesn't belong in this paper.

You figure out what you want to say by looking closely at what the text itself says or suggests about the issue that you're interested in, so once you've identified your subject, you should next go back to the text, looking carefully at the passages and episodes and chapters where the issue is prominent. The most persuasive essays are the ones that can cite and discuss good textual evidence to explain, develop and support their ideas. To me, a good essay is going to have quotations in every paragraph, is going to continuously show how its ideas arise from the text itself. What I'm looking for is not an intrepretation I personally agree with, but rather a well-developed, well-supported conclusion of your own, a paper that shows me how the text does support its conclusion.

When I write an essay I don't usually know "what I think" until I see "what I write" -- by which I mean that it's usually only as I write a first draft that my interpretation comes into focus. That means I usually have to throw away most of the first draft and begin again, because the whole essay has to be focused on developing that interpretation to a conclusion, and it's not until I have a clear idea of the conclusion that I really know where to start from, what to go to next, &c. That may not be true for you, but you should make sure that before you begin writing you could tell someone else, in twenty-five words or less, not just the general topic of your essay (say, the presentation of the law in Cooper's novel), but the specific point you're going to argue (say, "I'm going to show my reader that the way the novel dramatizes Natty's arrest, trial and conviction shows how the forms of the law destroy the spirit of justice, or what Natty refers to as "what's right between man and man"). By the way, once you know that -- the specific argument you're trying to prove -- then you know what title to put on your essay: you want a title that points to your particular argument. How about "Judging Judge Temple's Law"?

There are abstract terms for the basic strengths I'm trying to describe -- focus, coherence, etc. But to sum them up more concretely, and I hope clearly: I think good literary analyses have a point and stick to it, that they develop an idea to a conclusion -- or ask and answer a specific interpretive question, that they make good and consistent use of examples from the text to develop and support their ideas, that they give the writer and the reader (i.e. you and me) the chance to go deeply into some one aspect of what a text means.

"Oh no I've said too much,
I haven't said enough."
          ---- R.E.M, Losing My Religion

I hope by now you know your own interest and my expectations, but it might help if I go on to add the kinds of papers I'm not looking for:

  • A comparison paper. If you're really interested in looking at how two of the texts treat a particular issue, you can organize the paper that way -- just make sure your focus is particularly tight. You already know how much there is to say about any one passage. Five to seven pages isn't much to talk about a whole novel. The problem with most comparisons is that they don't give you time to get to the bottom of an issue. If you really want to compare two texts, okay -- but unless you've got a comparison that really interests you, my advice would be to stick with one of the novels we've read.

  • A research paper. Some topics might require you to do primary research in Alderman, but I don't want you to look up or rely on published critics' ideas about the text you're interested in. I can find out what other critics have said; only you can tell me what you think.

  • A paper about "American literature," or any other huge, vague topic. Keep your focus on what you can really discuss and support in 5-7 pages. As I hope you already know, there's plenty to say about a novel -- and by "limiting" yourself to that, you're actually opening up the chance to really see and say a lot more than big generalizations can express.