A Note on the Forms of Literary Argument

Most written literary arguments exist as non-fiction prose essays focused primarily on establishing the validity (logical correctness), truth (factual correctness), and significance (importance for some person or group) of some literary matter. The matter may be an aspect of a literary work (say an element of form or content), a whole work, a logically selected group of works, or a feature shared among works (say a common symbol or shared authorial attitude). In all cases, literary argument, like all good communication, should be created with an explicit audience and purpose in mind. In addition, like all good argument, literary argument should have a clear, even if unstated, thesis. The most common form of literary argument is the argumentative essay in non-fiction prose.

Occasionally people are moved to attempt literary argument in other forms. Alternative forms sometimes allow one to produce extraordinarily powerful and memorable literary argument, as Alexander Pope did in his long work in heroic couplets called "Essay on Criticism." When Pope wrote, "True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest, / What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well Exprest," the reinforcement of his critical thesis by its simultaneous enactment helped make the work great and helped convince his readers of the validity, truth, and significance of his argument. A similar success is Scott McCloud's excellent theoretical book on comics called Understanding Comics, which is written in the form of a comic book. Sometimes, rather than having the form of the argument reinforce its content by enactment, it does so by contrast. The merry rhythms of Lewis Carroll's "A-sitting On A Gate" in chapter VIII of Through the Looking-Glass contrast with the somber self-absorption of the principal poem to which it alludes, William Wordsworth's famous "Resolution and Independence," and by his carefree tone Carroll implicitly parodies the egocentrism of Wordsworth's Romantic attitudes. In short, adopting a form other than non-fiction prose for literary argument is entirely possible and can be very powerful.

Nonetheless, while one can present outstanding literary arguments in forms other than the non-fiction prose essay, the rarity of successful attempts to do so suggests the substantial difficulty implicit in that choice. If Pope's poem were dull as verse, that fact itself would tarnish his abstract points. If McCloud's drawing were sloppy, it would blunt the felt precision of his thinking. If Carroll's poem were truly nonsensical, it would sap his critical authority. In other words, using a form other than non-fiction prose for literary argument simultaneously gives the critic extra tools and imposes on the critics extra obligations. To succeed, the work must be both good criticism and good in its chosen form.

Because the excitement of working in a new form can be very productive, I do not forbid it as a choice for students in my classes. However, the difficulty of working in a new form at the same time that one is trying to do good literary criticism is very substantial indeed. Therefore, I do not allow my students to do so without explicit permission granted after a satisfactory face-to-face conversation between me (or another instructor in the course where appropriate) about why the student wants to attempt this, what the student has in mind, and why the work and its result are likely to be better for the student than following a traditional path. Also, because it is important to hone one's skills as an argumentative essayist, I do not allow individual students to make this non-traditional choice often. Still, sometimes a student will be allowed and will elect to follow the non-traditional path. In that case, as with Pope's "Essay," the result will be judged both as literary argument and by the standards appropriate to the chosen form. This is a tough task, but those who would like to take it on are invited to come talk about it. And to those who go forward, I wish all success.

Copyright ©2005 Eric S. Rabkin
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