A General Study Guide:
An Agenda of Curiosity for reading fiction

In any discipline (medicine, law, historical investigation, science, engineering, business management, car repair), the mark of competence is something more than being able to answer questions posed by experts.  More fundamentally, it involves knowing what to be curious about in the first place, and what to do with what shows up in the light of that curiosity.  The same is true for skill in reading literature.  This is something more than passively registering the explicit facts of a story, and being able to recall them upon command.  But it is more, too, than being able to respond to "set tasks."  Fundamentally it involves being able to take stock of what you find in a situation in a way that makes it tell you what you need to find out about it.  It is an art of questioning.   

Expertise in law, business, medicine, etc., is not so much "knowledge of facts."  Of course, we can't do without loads of information, and often of a specialist sort.  But that information is far from enough.  Most essentially, expertise in these fields is a matter of activity -- of practice.  We speak of the "practice of law," and of "medical practitioners."   Encyclopedias and data bases cannot practice law or medicine.  Neither can a human mind that has simply memorized the contents of these.  (It is nothing more than a less permanent, less reliable, and less public repository of information than these are in the first place.)  Competence in these professions is a matter of being able to do things.  And the things you most fundamentally have to do are to figure out what's going on beyond what's evident to the inexperienced eye, to decide whether and how to intervene so as to get an outcome that you want, and then to go do that (or direct someone else to do it).

It's a matter of making the appropriate moves as the occasion demands.  We pick up these moves by "practice," too.  "Practice" in this sense is also an activity, but here it a matter of rehearsal -- of trying things out, refining and repeating them, making them "second nature, i.e.,  habits.  But what, as practicers -- not yet practitioners -- do we rehearse?  We rehearse the moves that practitioners have settled on as effective for the job at hand (law, medicine, watching a football game).

Where do we find these?  Mostly by watching practitioners going about their business, seeing the kinds of things they do, figuring out what the point of these is, and noticing what they had to be able to do in order to be able to do these things.  It's just like what goes on out on the playground:  if we want to know how to shoot a jump shot, or dribble, or cut off a drive to the basket, we watch the moves of the guys who do these, and rip them off for ourselves.  (There's no patent on these!)  Of course coaching helps.  Experienced practitioners who have reflected on what has worked for them and others can give "pointers."  These are of two sorts.  A coach can describe the move, explicitly put it on display ("do a demonstration"), and comment upon the demonstration.  A coach can also watch the novice try out the moves and point out where and why it may not be coming off, or how it might be refined, and made more efficient or powerful.  In both cases activity is the core of the transaction:  the coach makes the moves; the novice makes the moves.

The "general study guide" for fiction is not a demonstration of the moves.  It is a description of some of (the most essential) moves, together with some explanation of the assumptions behind them, and the point of doing them.  The moves are types of questions ("specific sorts of curiosities") that are part of the standing repertoire of skillful readers.  Roughly they fall into two sorts:  "What?" questions and "So what:?" questions.  A "so what?" question takes off from the answer to a "what?" question or a previous "so what?" question, and asks "Why is that important?"  What sorts of "what?", then, are practiced readers alert to?  And what sorts of importance do they look for once they see?

In your first reading, concentrate on getting your bearings in terms of the standard initial repertoire of questions.

1) What is the setting of the action narrated?

Note that in imagining where the action might be taking place, it can often be useful to know something about the author's life.  Stories in anthologies are often outfitted with a biographical sketch of the author.  Make it a habit to read these, when present, before jumping into the story.

(2) Who is the protagonist -- the central agent (or, less commonly, patient) in the story's main action?

So what?  How does the characterization of the protagonist point some ways to the story's overall theme?

(3) What is the relation between the narrator and protagonist?  



In your initial reading, that is, you'll want to get clear upon the exact nature the author's choice of narrative point of view.)  But you can also start speculating as to the possible functions of this choice.  (See below, under "follow-up readings.")

(3) What is the situation the protagonist is in?

(4) What values seem to be pre-eminent with the main characters?  What are their priorities? 

(5) Does the protagonist change in important ways in the course of his/her experiences?  (That is, is the protagonist static, or dynamic, in the special sense in which these terms are used in discussing literature and film?)

Use your follow-up readings to pursue questions raised by the specific answers you've gotten to the standard initial questions, and to explore the implications of additional structural details you'll have picked up on your first time through.  

That is:  you want to move from questions in the nature of "what?" to questions of the type "if that, then so what?")

Put another way:  you want to explore possible connections among the answers you've come up with to your initial questions in these different categories.  Sooner or later the things we notice ought to start paying off in sharpening our sense of theme -- our sense of why the story is just how it is.

(1) How does the social and cultural setting of the story determine the assumptions of the characters as they consider the choices with with they are confronted?

In effect this is amounts to a particular way of wondering how setting might be a factor in the plot.  But framing our curiosity here in terms of character is likely to be more probing, since, in short stories, action stems from character ("character creates action").

(a) Do they see their choices differently than we do?   And are the motives at work in determining the choices they ultimately make in these situations different from those that might have affected our own decision, if we were to imagine facing the same choice?  If so, how do we account for this?

(b) What thematically important issues might this discrepancy be inviting readers to consider?

(c) How might we most responsibly (fairly) assess the responsibility of the agents for their choices?

So much for "Does setting affect the action in any important respects?"  Consider, too:

"Does the setting reflect the action in any possibly meaningful ways?  

(d) That is, does it function symbolically, to illuminate the nature or significance of some elements of the action?

(2) Why is the story shaped just as it is by the point of view the author has settled on for narrating it?  Here are a couple of specific lines along which we might come to appreciate what is at stake in the author's particular choice, in a particular story, of point of view.

(a) What games does the author's choice of point of view allow him or her to invite the reader to play?  That is:  what are we made curious about that we are required to rely on inference, rather than narrative guarantee, to get answers upon?

Why might the author be inviting us to engage our curiosities in precisely these ways?  

What does this way of setting up our "wish to know" eventually get us to notice that might be thematically important?

The idea here is this:  when we make a discovery, we experience a kind of "flash."  The peculiar satisfaction that comes with the act of discovery comes to attach, secondarily, and at least temporarily, to what is discovered.  That which I discover now carries a kind of "charge":  it is "loaded" in a way that it would not have been if I had not arrived at it by way of discovery (for example, if I had come by it as a "given").  It's as if what I have come to know is highlighted beyond what it would have been had I simply been told it outright.  But when something is being emphasized in a work of art, the question is automatically on the table, "To what end?"  So we should ask:  "Why is this fact that I have discovered, by some trail of inferential unpacking of implications, so important that the author arranged for this kind of emphasis to fall upon it?

(b) Here's another line of "follow-up" curiosity in respect of point of view:

Once we have an exact grasp of the type of "window" on the action the author has settled on for shaping our access, as readers, to the story, we want to press (and continue to return to) a "so what?" question: 

(3) (4) (5) To what degree are we invited to identify and sympathize with the protagonist, in dealing with the situation in which he or she is involved?  To what degree are we invited to look at the protagonist with a critical or even disapproving eye?  Are we invited to be torn in our sympathies?  That is:  is the story calculated to arouse a conflict of inclinations in us?

To what possibly thematically important issues is our reflective attention drawn to by engaging our feelings in these precise ways?

Of course we want to be honest and precise about our feelings. 

We may be inclined at first to say we were "depressed" by (say) the ending.  But is that all we felt?  Are other feelings (more positive, perhaps) at work as well?  Might these be worth exploring in more detail?  Or we may be immediately drawn to a character for a variety of (good) reasons.  But is that all we feel?  Can we detect any misgivings at work, however slight?  Might these be worth getting clearer about?

And we want to be open to the possibility that our feelings might undergo important changes as we get clearer about the fuller implications of the situation the story confronts us with.

What specific thematic issues does the plot type the story instantiates enable the author to get on the table?

Recall what we said above (in connection with point of view) about how indirection (refusal to be explicit) can function, in the end, as a strategy for allocating emphasis.  This is not of course confined to issues authors highlight by playing point-of-view games with the reader.  It is an entirely general point, and we should exploit it when we notice any sort of device at work whose function is to prompt us to pursue implications.  So: 

(6) If we have noticed any motifs at work in the story during our initial reading, we'll want now to start exploring their possible connotations.  

What issues do these motifs implicitly or explicitly draw our attention to?  What might the author's point be in doing this? 

(7) If we have tuned in to any foils at work in the story, we'll want in our subsequent readings to refine our sense of exactly what is at stake in these.

What categories do these systematic contrasts bring into relief?  And how do these hook up, in their implications, with other issues and ideas we've detected at work in the story, and with the feelings the story arouses in us as we further reflect upon it?

(8) Are there any objects or actions (e.g., gestures) or situations that the story presents that invite being taken symbolically, in addition to whatever role they may play as realistic facts within the story's action?

Something comes to symbolize something else by virtue of some relationships of likeness or association (or both) between the signifying thing (object, action, situation) and the signified. What issues might attach in turn to the relationships that connect the symbolic element with what it seems to point to?  And what might the role of these issues be in the story's overall theme?

If you are reading a story in an anthology, it may be that the editor has followed it up with a set of questions.  It is well not to look at these until you have read through the story once.

But also make it a habit to consider these questions carefully after your first reading.  For each question:

Skillful reading is more than being able to answer questions appropriate for the story you're reading.  Even more fundamentally, it requires that we catch on to what questions the story is expecting us to raise.  A crucial way in which we pick up the art of tuning in to the questions different kinds of stories are calculated to get us to be curious about is to try to "think behind" questions we see experienced readers pursuing.

A useful angle to take towards the questions your editor may have provided is to try to relate them to the various agendas of curiosity described above. Where can you figure that the editor was bringing to bear, as part of his or her habitual curiosity with stories, some or another version of the questions proposed above?  How, that is, are the questions you find in the anthology customized versions (adapted to the particular facts and features of the story they are specifically about) of the questions that make up this "all purpose" study guide?



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   Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

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  This page last updated 26 August 2002.