THOMAS C. FOSTER - "Reading is an act of the imagination

An Interview

Thomas C. Foster

"Reading is an act of the imagination"

I would say that it is essential for every bookworm to read Thomas C. Foster's entertaining guide How to Read Literature Like a Professor. As I study English literature at my university this book has been an insightful guide to the hidden meanings between the lines of all my favourite books. And therefore I felt that I need to ask Thomas Foster some questions both about the book and the process of writing it, as well as about his new upcoming book Reading the Silver Screen. He was so kind to give me more than detailed answers which I'm sharing with you below.

1)What was the first impulse to put on paper your knowledge about literature and make reading more understandable to people?

My initial impulse was to try to explain this mystery of figurative language-symbol, metaphor, imagery-to lay readers, who have found it all baffling in school, where they suspected their instructors were making it all up. It all began with a silly comment a student once made about how a couple of them were collecting "the sayings of Dr. Tom," by which he meant these things like "every trip is a quest" of "when people eat or drink together, it's communion" that I said from time to time in class. I laughed it off but a few years on, I wondered if maybe there was something in it, so I started noodling around with the idea. My target audience, strangely enough given how things have turned out, was actually more mature audiences. At the University of Michigan - Flint, our undergraduates have an average age of twenty-six or seven, which means a lot of them are much older. And often those older students are inveterate readers, but they feel that they've been missing something. What they told me about the missing element wound up guiding the writing of the book.

The book does not exhaust the possibilities of figurative meaning. What I hope that it does instead is give readers the confidence to attack new situations they may encounter in their readings.

2)In your book How to Read Literature Like a Professor you discuss many topics from marks on character's body to weather, and metaphorical and physical blindness. How did you pick the themes/topics for each chapter? Do you feel like there is still more to discuss?

The chapter subjects demanded that I write about them. Mostly, they came from teaching literature for a lot of years and running into the same situations-and the same student confusion-again and again. The first discussion of substance is about quests because in class we kept running into characters going on journeys. The same for eating or drinking together, weather and seasons, sight and blindness, the whole lot. And no, the book does not exhaust the possibilities of figurative meaning. What I hope that it does instead is give readers the confidence to attack new situations they may encounter in their readings. Here's an example. In the book, I don't directly address the matter of barriers and what they might suggest in a work. After reading what is there, however, I would expect that my readers, upon encountering a bunch of doors (open and closed), fences, walls, and locked gates in a work might just consider that the book or movie is making a statement about access or lack thereof. In fact, in my forthcoming book, Reading the Silver Screen, I make this point about barriers in Casablanca. It's not the greatest insight ever, but it is the kind of thing where, once you notice, it gives more meat to your sense of the film.

3)Did you do any research for your book, How to Read Literature Like a Professor? Or did you use mainly your own reading experience?

The research was front-loaded for that one. One of my specialty areas in grad school, along with modern and contemporary British and American literature, was literary theory and criticism. So I have a lot of criticism rattling around in my brain. For this book, I mainly relied on Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism along with work by T. S. Eliot, Robert Graves, Joseph Campbell-the myth and symbolism crowd, I guess. But a lot of the book is based on my own reading experience, conversations with colleagues, especially with Professor Fred Svoboda, a Hemingway specialist and long-time carpool buddy. We would compare notes on student reactions to books and our comments about them, and a lot of the book grew out of those. That's research, right? Only at seventy miles an hour.

4)You give to your reader a lot of literature examples (summing them up in the end of the book in the reading list). But what is your favourite book? Do you have one or more or one for each season (of the year/of your life)?

Okay, please bear in that I'm a twentieth-century guy, so I incline in that direction. I suppose the book I like best is John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman. Oddly, one of the things I like about it-it is a mid-twentieth novel that addresses social and literary conventions of the mid-nineteenth-is that it makes me rethink the Victorian novel. Plus, it's very funny and fiendishly clever into the bargain. There are a lot of books that I really admire and, now that I'm retired, I miss teaching: Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway, Song of Solomon, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, even Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman. I love the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Eavan Boland (you may detect an Irish theme), Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, and Wallace Stevens. Your seasonal question is interesting. I always read at least a bit of Stevens in May, for wholly personal reasons. For years, I taught a May-June course in American modernist poetry, and Stevens got his week in mid to late May, so he just feels right to me then, even if the poem is "The Auroras of Autumn."

[Reviews] drive me nuts, and from what I can read or hear, they do that to most writers. Too anxiety-inducing, even when good.

5)What is your favourite part of writing a book? The primary impulse? The whole process? Reading the reviews?

We can begin by ruling out reviews. They drive me nuts, and from what I can read or hear, they do that to most writers. Too anxiety-inducing, even when good. And if they are bad, that's a week-long funk in the making.

Otherwise, I enjoy the whole process. I like two parts above all the rest. The first is the initial drafting. Part of that is discovering what I want to say, which can be pretty surprising. Another is trying to make myself laugh, which is always a goal. If I think something's funny, chances are readers will, too. After all, reading this shouldn't be an ordeal. The second part that's a lot of fun is coming up with chapter titles. My book titles are really boring. Seriously, How to Read Literature Like a Professor? Come on! And then a follow-up that merely replaces "Literature" with "Novels." Or Twenty-five Books that Shaped America. Not exactly scintillating. The publisher's reps like them because they're very descriptive, which makes it easier when dealing with bookstores. So I take my revenge with chapter titles. I reach for humor and have no problem with being corny there. Take my chapter on submersion in water, "If She Comes Up, It's Baptism." That's pretty funny, according to readers. No need to mention what it is if she doesn't, of course, which would just be a downer. Or "It's My Chapter and I'll Cry if I Want To." When in doubt, use a corny song title from the old days. My favorite of all time, I think, is my chapter from Twenty-five Books on Moby-Dick: "I've Been Workin' on the Whale-Road." It's not everyday I get the chance to meld an American song with an Old English kenning (those compound words for things the Anglo-Saxons didn't have another word for or just wanted an extra word for poetic usage, like "whale-road" for "sea"). I still smile when I see it.

6)As I study English literature at my university, time to time I'm a little bit surprised what people can make out of a book. How the answers can be completely different, even opposite! My professors always say that in literature, there is no wrong answer. What do you think of it?

I can't go that far, but we're probably talking differences in kind. An assertion that ignores or deliberately counters the text can be wrong: "At the end of The Great Gatsby, Gatsby is still alive." Please note that this is an illustration of a point and not an actual assertion that I'm making. But as long as an interpretation takes into account what the text (not the author, but the text itself) actually says, then pretty much any statement is potentially valid. That gives us fairly wide latitude, and it sometimes gets elided to something like "no wrong answers" by either speakers or listeners. I always told my students that as long as they could back it up with the text-and that I couldn't refute it as a possibility with the text - they were good to go.

What all this implies is that reading is an act of the imagination. We have no trouble according that status to writing, but we have down the years refused it to reading. But reading unimaginatively is a dull activity.

What all this implies is that reading is an act of the imagination.

7)Sometimes I find it a little bit funny when we discuss in my tutorials one tiny tiny line of a very short poem for an hour, trying to figure out what the poet was trying to say by the use of these specific words. Don't you think that sometimes 'an apple' is an apple and nothing else? As well as, sometimes we can never be sure about the true meaning of certain books and plays (Shakespeare is a great example!)?

Ezra Pound said that a poem needs to work for the person "for whom a hawk is just a hawk," by which he meant that the literal level of the poem needs to make sense. That may seem to be a stretch to some who have read The Cantos, but we'll leave that for another day. As to your main point, I don't think that when we worry a line or a word choice nearly to death, we're actually trying to find the "true" meaning. We can never reach back into the poet's mind to discover that meaning. This is obviously true of Shakespeare or Wordsworth or any of the long-dead. But it is equally true of living writers. Even when we can interview them, their answers about the meaning of this or that word or line is rarely satisfactory. Rather, I think that what we're looking for in that seminar or tutorial is something like the "best available meaning" in terms of consensus for this group. Even then, we rarely reach anything like consensus, because each of us is bringing a distinct point of view and set of experiences to bear on that reading. Also, we do well to remember that this is an intellectual exercise on the order of the medieval discussions of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. No one really cared about the final number but instead about how the various minds involved in the discussion processed the question.

8)You are about to release a new book, Reading the Silver Screen, discussing the art of movie making and its symbolics. What is, from your point of view, the main difference between movies and books (in terms of the impact on its audience/reader)?

Congratulations! You are the first person to ask that question. I hope there will be many more once the book is released and the interviews begin. My main argument is that film is a distinct branch of literature-yes, literature-with a specialized language. Most folks outside film studies classes have historically misunderstood that point, seeing movies as either mere entertainment or as a degraded version of fiction or drama. A movie will always seem an inferior novel if we judge it by those standards. But the language of novels-or poetry or nonfiction or plays-is words, and the text itself is static, fixed on the page. In film, by contrast, the language is visual and auditory, and the text itself-the movie-moves. Yes, words are a part of that language, but only as spoken and then as a part of a larger language that relies chiefly on images that shift and change-that move-moment to moment. Think of it this way: you can have (and we have had) movies without sound, or at least without audible speech, but if you have recorded speech without those moving images, it's not a movie. It sounds simple-minded put like that, but it is undeniably true.

The second element that is distinct in movies is the presence of the camera lens, which selects which action we see and which we do not. That's different from stage plays, where all the action is available to us at one time. If you have six people on the stage at once, any audience member may be focusing on a different actor or group of actors from the one the playwright hopes we'll notice. In film, if six people are involved in a scene, the director can guarantee that we don't focus on the wrong persons by keeping them out of the frame of an individual shot. They're such dictators! That ability to select and exclude makes movies more like fiction in being essentially narrative in nature and yet like drama in relying on actors and staging to convey story.

So, film has actors doing things and it has words being spoken and lying behind the action, but it is different from plays in being essentially selective and narrative. At the same time, it is different from written fiction in having a moving text. These are a couple of reasons why adapted novels or plays are often so unsatisfactory: when we move from one medium to another, we shouldn't expect a smooth fit. Film is its own thing, a literary form as individual as the novel or the epic or the lyric poem.

There. I've probably saved you the trouble of reading the book. Please don't tell my publisher.

(About Thomas C. Foster:  a professor of English at the University of Michigan - Flint, where he teaches contemporary fiction, drama, and poetry. He lives in Michigan.)