Wednesday, April 30, 2008

total effect and literature

A bit more on a similar topic from Flannery O'Connor (Mystery and Manners: --- Total Effect and the Eighth Grade). She is writing about a couple of cases where books, specifically Steinbeck's East of Eden and Hersey's A Bell for Adono, were assigned in 8th and 9th grade, and parents objected, and a teacher was subsequently dismissed, and Hersey wrote to the state school superintendent to protest. (This was in 1963, by the way). The issue of whether it is to be parents or teachers who decide what schoolchildren should read is not her main concern, though. The whole article is at the second link above.

This is the part that reminded me a bit of what I was writing about yesterday:

The total effect of a novel depends not only on its innate impact, but upon the experience, literary and otherwise, with which it is approached..... the fact that these works (she is talking about the English novels of the 18th and 19th centuries) do not present him (the student) with the realities of his own time is all to the good. He is surrounded by the realities of his own time, and he has no perspective whatever from which to view them. Like the college student who wrote in her paper on Lincoln that he went to the movies and got shot, many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday; their studies began with the present and dipped backward occasionally when it seemed necessary or unavoidable.
She defines the term "total effect" as:

that principle followed in legal cases by which a book is judged not for isolated parts but by the final effect of the whole book upon the general reader.

I think the term "total effect" is still used today. First, here is an English lesson plan version which seems a bit reductionistic and overly subjective to me. Don't you think?

Firstly, we are affected by literature -- we love it, hate it, or
are indifferent. This is the total effect.

"Meaning" is the total effect -- the sum of all of the parts is
what it "means" to you. A work may have made a didactic point or
not but you responded to it.

Here is one I like somewhat better --from Writing an Analysis of Literature
Assume everything is significant. In good literature, nothing should be an accident. Each word, each character, each thought, each incident should make a contribution to the total effect the author is trying for. The contribution is sometimes obvious and direct: the author casually mentions that a car is nine years old because later on the car will break down. At other times, the contribution is indirect: the author spends a paragraph describing a glowing fireplace in order to establish a homey mood that fits in with the story's central idea -- the joys of family life. As you think about the material you are going to analyze, as you brood about what you are going to say and how you are going to say it, keep in mind that nothing is beneath your notice. Assume that everything serves a purpose and that you have not reached a full understanding of the story, poem, or play until you clearly see the purpose that everything serves.
Finally, an essay on Literature and Science by Matthew Arnold. He starts with Plato and proceeds to a defense of the value of Greek literature with very brief and respectful excursions into the territory of Darwin, Faraday, and Ruskin. What could be better! But here is what he says about "total effect":

Fit details strictly combined, in view of a large general result nobly conceived; that is just the beautiful symmetria prisca of the Greeks, and it is just where we English fail, where all our art fails. Striking ideas we have, and well-executed details we have; but that high symmetry which, with satisfying and delightful effect, combines them, we seldom or never have. The glorious beauty of the Acropolis at Athens did not come from single fine things stuck about on that hill, a statue here, a gateway there;—no, it arose from all things being perfectly combined for a supreme total effect.
I think I've diverged a bit from the original point, with these various definitions of "total effect". But Flannery O'Connor's point was that the principle of total effect could and ought to be conceived more broadly than when talking about the education of a child. Part of the total effect of a book is going to be what the student (of any age) brings to it. So I am staying to my point after all -- that it is the context and backdrop of the child's reading that affects his perspective on the new ones that come his way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks. More interesting things to read and contemplate. I suspect it relates to the question of teachers choosing books because it seems to me that a good teacher (or curriculum) will make connections between different books so that the "total effect" is also not confined to one particular book but encompasses the context in which it is discussed. Thus issues that might be considered problematic in one might be addressed in such a way as to generate discussion contrasting that representation with one in another novel. (nothing excuses bad teaching; I am taking the best case)