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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Blank is an important theme in the work of [author's name]

I would not write that as the first sentence of a paper. It would be ok for for a highschoolr, bad for an undergraduate, unforgivable for a grad student, and outrageous for a scholar.

9 comments:

Vance Maverick said...

So how would you say "[author] often writes about blank"? It's a modest claim, but on the way to a more interesting one, it seems like a reasonable stepping stone.

Jonathan said...

I wouldn't start off with that kind of banal claim at all. I'd frame it in a different way in the first place. The word theme is almost verboten, but there is also a problem with simply naming the subject-matter, like

"Marriage is an important theme in the work of Jane Austen."

or

"Jane Austen writes frequently about marriage."

I would start instead with something like "The men who are suitable candidates for marriage in the novels of Jane Austen are typically..."

The reader will immediately understand the typical situation that obtains in those novels (if you've read even one chapter of one of them), but is already immersed in it without being condescended to.

Clarissa said...

Oh, I hate the "theme" obsession. It took me months to get my students to stop talking about "themes" of a work of literature. And then several of them wanted to write their final essay listing the themes and explaining why they were important. Brrrrr.

Jonathan said...

This was a the actual first sentence of an article I reviewed for a journal a few years ago. We tell our students that, but who is telling the other professors?

Andrew Shields said...

Thanks for this post, which I will share with my students!

Vance Maverick said...

What would you say to the claim that dogs in Shakespeare are fairly minor, while knife fights in Borges are not?

Jonathan said...

There are only a few knife fights in Borges, but the ones that there are, are ones that readers tend to remember.

So I guess I'd phrase the claim in those paradoxical terms, rather than starting out my essay by saying that the knife occurs as a frequent "theme" in Borges's fictions. Or I'd say violence is a horizon that is always present but rarely reached. A little like Borges's claim that the camel is never mentioned in the Koran, which proves its authenticity. (not true, by the way).

About Shakespeare and dogs, I don't know. Why would you be pointing this out, in an essay? That Shakespeare tended to use them metaphorically, as examples of something base and vile?

Vance Maverick said...

There's a random remark in Empson about Shakespeare obviously not being a dog lover. I take your point about the knife fights (though there are at least four, I think, in the stories). If I were to reach for an even more frequent example, I would probably be touching on genre (adultery in Cheever, guns in Hammett) rather than "theme". Innocents abroad in James? Anyway, point taken.

Jonathan said...

I'd say there are motifs: repeated narrative figures, let's say. If the word theme still meant motif that would be ok, but it has migrated toward the meaning "subject matter." A motif has to be recognizable, like when the police roust a bar in a police movie.