I have previously put up posts with detailed information on intellectual and book essays–see the links and table of contents in the first column/post of this website. These posts will also appear under categories and tags for Harvard, Princeton and other University names, as well as under the essay about books, the essay about an intellectual experience and under a couple of the Common Application prompt topics.
In this post, I will be looking specifically at one area of genre literature and even more specifically at one series of books as an example of how to go about addressing the book or intellectual experience essay. The first lesson is this: don’t just read the novel(s). You will need to find give the novel(s) a wider context and meaning. The way to do this is to gain a wider perspective and put it to use to express something about yourself as well as about the books that are the stated subject of your essay–as I will show in this post.
Writing About Books
The genres of literature which I will discuss here include Dystopian, Near Future and Science Fiction. See this link for more information on those. You might also want to see my entry last year in which I established a system for categorizing novels and gave specific suggestions for writing about the novel categories. (This link is a protected sample, available in full to subscribers and clients)
Let’s start with this assumption: an essay about well-written genre fiction can be every bit as good an essay about so-called serious or literary fiction. For many of you, an essay about a supposedly pop novel will actually be better because you won’t feel trapped by the need to be as serious and weighty as you would in writing about, say, Crime and Punishment or Middlemarch. It can be very difficult to write about greatness, especially when it takes the form of classic novels.
I enjoy reading the serious literary fiction of both Dostoevsky and Mary Anne Evans, but I equally enjoy reading a work of genre lit like Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union or Jonathan Letham’s Gun, With Occasional Music, and if you understand how to frame novels like these last two, you can write an essay that is effective and interesting. These aren’t highbrow works of realism–the Yiddish Policeman’s Union is set in a parallel-universe Alaska and features a detective investigating the death of a possible Messiah, while Gun is set in a near future Bay Area with a detective following a trail of criminality through a world populated by genetically manipulated creatures, including an evolved kangaroo-thug named Joey–but these novels have a lot to say about what we are now and where we are going.
Let me explain by way of example and provide further arguments for genre lit as a subject of a good application essay. It’s all about the context and the archetypes, people.
Fantasy literature in its various guises has become the best-selling narrative form in the world. In fact, the last two decades have seen half a dozen trilogies or series that have been extremely popular. I have little expertise on strigoi or other of the blood-seeking living dead, so I will skip the vampire stuff to focus on near-future dystopian lit. One of the best written and most popular examples is Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.
The Hunger Games is interesting in many ways–it features a nightmarish, near-future setting, it is a cautionary tale, and it is an archetypal forbidden romance. You can find elements of The Hunger Games in literature ranging from Norse epics up through Shakespeare’s plays and Orwell’s 1984, and on through American culture, in novels like The Great Gatsby and in movies like Rebel Without A Cause.
Due its popularity, there are rich resources and conversations available for The Hunger Games, many of them by journalists and academics who provide detailed and well-written analyses of different aspects of HG and of the genres into which Collins’ series fits. I will give you a set of annotated links as we move on in this post, where you can find everything from character analysis to social commentary–these links often discuss more than just HG . Some of them are excellent examples of what an intellectual experience essay can be, albeit at much greater length than your typical college app essay.
First up is an excellent piece analyzing recent “young adult” dystopian lit, by Laura Miller, Salon’s book editor, who has been a heavy hitter in the book world for years. She compares The Hunger Games to similar works past and present, and she makes the kinds of connections you will want to make in an intellectual experience or book essay. Miller provides fine-grained analysis based on specific quotes from HG and other novels, and she uses this to support a broader set of arguments about both HG and some of the other recently popular dystopian “Young Adult” lit; here is an example from Miller’s article:
. . . dystopian stories for adults and children have essentially the same purpose—to warn us about the dangers of some current trend. That’s certainly true of books like “1984” and “Brave New World”; they detail the consequences of political authoritarianism and feckless hedonism. This is what will happen if we don’t turn back now, they scold, and scolding makes sense when your readers have a shot at getting their hands on the wheel.
Children, however, don’t run the world, and teen-agers, especially, feel the sting of this. “The Hunger Games” could be taken as an indictment of reality TV, but only someone insensitive to the emotional tenor of the story could regard social criticism as the real point of Collins’s novel. “The Hunger Games” is not an argument. It operates like a fable or a myth, a story in which outlandish and extravagant figures and events serve as conduits for universal experiences. Dystopian fiction may be the only genre written for children that’s routinely less didactic than its adult counterpart. It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader. “The success of ‘Uglies,’ ” Westerfeld once wrote in his blog, “is partly thanks to high school being a dystopia.
Of course, this is only one way to look at The Hunger Games, but it’s persuasive, and it doesn’t exclude other readings–you can read HG as an analogue for the competitive viciousness to be found in(at least some) American high schools, or you could read it as a warning to today’s increasingly oligarchical America about the dangers of powerful elites. Or it could be about the dangers and seductions of consumer culture–Katniss seems to get a real kick out of some of the perks of the Games, while claiming to hate all of it . . . or HG could be read as a more traditional, science fiction cautionary tale about the dangers of the technologies we already possess. After all, something ugly happens to America on the way to Panem.
Even if you have not read any of the The Hunger Games, I would strongly recommend that you read the rest of this analysis by Miller, in the New Yorker’s Critic At Large feature here.
I’m going to be writing more specifically about the Archetypal Criticism of literature soon, but as another example of how to analyze characters and meaning, I offer a link to an article a New York Times article which is also focused on Hunger Games, but which gives you another set of ideas about what an archetypal analysis can offer as you grapple with an essay on a book or series of books. So go here for an archetypal discussion of dystopian film,centered on Suzanne Collins’ characters (this post is specifically about film, but you can “read” a film in much the same way you can read a novel, and similar themes can be developed in each form–which is one reason why so many films are adapted from novels. Need I mention that a good film is an intellectual experience?).
Lest I give you the impression that the NY Times isn’t giving the written word adequate attention, also have a look at this link, in which John Green also points out how a number of futuristic tales are really about the here and now.
Part of the requirement for the genre of literature called Realism is that it be an imitation of real life, that it hold up a mirror to the world; in contrast, a widely held view of fantasy holds that it is simply a form of make-believe, and so it is often thought not to reflect much about the “real” world, much less to be “serious.” However, if you’ve read much fantasy or even if you’ve only read the material I’ve linked so far, you should be reaching the conclusion that, while science fiction and fantasy by definition are not “realistic,” they do indeed hold up a critical mirror to the here and now.
Let me offer another example, a New York Times opinion piece looking at the current rage for dystopian lit as a phenomenon that is linked to much of the “Tiger Mother” style self-help lit out there, the idea being that economic competition and the ferocious struggle for the admission to the right schools lies behind everything from the Hunger Games to Bringing Up Bébé. (This could also be a good subject for the Common Application’s essay on an issue of national importance, if you think about it–have a look at the NY Times article Hunger Games Parenting to see what I mean. It’s a pretty persuasive take on where we are as a nation and what this kind of lit is really about though, as with the links above, there is more than one way to interpret any of this stuff–which is why it makes such a great essay topic.)
And finally, I’d like to recommend this blog post by Stanley Fish, one or our great literary and cultural critics, in which he links The Hunger Games to the ancient literary form known as The Pastoral and its beautiful but melancholy momento mori.
What I am hoping you realize at this point is that it is legitimate to develop your understanding of whatever you are reading by looking at what other people have to say, especially if those other people have some expertise and genuine insight. You can, indeed, access rich and diverse discussions of literature online, as well as cute kitten pictures, and looking to sources like those I cited above can be helpful to you as you set about creating a book or intellectual experience essay. The idea is to read critically in order to shape your own views, sometimes with the help of and sometimes by resisting what other readers and critics say. Just be sure to use my examples and anything else you find as inspiration only, though a short quote won’t hurt if you give it context and it makes sense in your essay.
In addition to blogging about archetypal readings of books in upcoming posts, I will also be discussing further the role of form, of genre, in shaping meaning. Stay tuned and come back soon (a word of warning, however: some of my upcoming posts will only be fully available to subscribers and clients.)