How to Read Literature Like a Professor

How to Read Literature Like a Professor Themes

Creative Imagination

Foster describes the process of reading as the engagement of one creative imagination with another. The terms "creative imagination" appear to suggest a freethinking approach that knows no boundaries - the reality, as the author argues, is in fact quite different. In employing our creative imaginations we work within the parameters set out in the text, to freely inquire about the possible meanings and associations related to the images, characters, and events. Our affective response to a writing synthesizes this process - we respond or relate to certain aspects of the writing and it is in trying to understand the meaning that such features hold for us, whilst also attempting to discover the possible meanings the writer had in mind whilst writing the piece, that we allow literature to harness our capacity for creative imagination.

Memory, symbolism and pattern are features of literary analysis that can help maximize this potential.. Foster is keen to point out the interconnectedness of all literary works (see intertextuality below) a characteristic that the reader can quickly use to his/her advantage as he/she peruses a range of texts. Symbolism is also inherent to literature - the key notion that the language and writing contained in the work actually stands in for something else. These can take several shapes and forms - metaphor, analogy, signified/signifier - but they all ultimately allude to the fact that more often than not in literature there is more than what meets the eye. Foster describes awareness of literary symbolism as "a predisposition to seeing things as existing in themselves while simultaneously also representing something else." Understanding patterns that run through literary works helps tie all these characteristics together, and prepares the reader to be much more conscious of what he/she is reading. In discerning patterns we understand the elements that characterize a certain storyline, character or events, paving the way for a far more engaged imagination.

Foster puts this succinctly when he states, "Much of what we think about literature, we feel first. Having instincts, though, doesn't automatically mean they work at their highest level...The more you exercise the symbolic imagination, the better and quicker it works" (P 106-107 Chapter 12, Is That A Symbol?).


Intertextuality refers to connections that often lie between works of literature. An intertextual literary analysis focuses on the complex interrelationship between a text and other texts as central to the interpretation and understanding of the work in question. A basic premise of literature is that each literary work builds upon another - a fact aptly voiced by T.S Eliot, whom the author quotes as describing new works of literature as adding to and altering an order of monuments which already stand.

Intertextuality is believed to enrich the reading experience, bringing in multiple layers of meaning which the reader may not have been conscious of. Dialogue between different texts allow the reader to make comparisons and draw parallels which shifts the focus above and beyond what is overtly presented in a particular literary piece.


The use of parody typically presents a character or thing (or place) in a humorous light. The mode in which parody is employed can take on varying forms - the effect can range from amusing to ridiculous. Parody is also used to refer to cases where the writing is a (deliberately) poor or feeble imitation of someone or something. Often however, parody means to provide entertainment or amusement for the reader through mimicry.

Foster describes how parody can be used when a literary work contains references to another (the intertextual dialogue). Foster cites John Fowles as an example - the author in parodies the writing of his predecessor, Henry James and the Victorian novel tradition in his work, "The French Lieutenant's Woman." Foster also explains Salman Rushdie's novel, "The Satanic Verses" in terms of parody describing how, "When Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses (1988), he caused his characters to parody (in order to show their wickedness, among other things) certain events and persons from the Koran and the life of the Prophet" (p 52-53). See 'Interlude' and Chapter 7, '...Or the Bible.'

Form and Structural Analysis

Foster devotes an entire chapter to Sonnet (Chapter 4, If It's Square, It's a Sonnet) to illustrate the significance of form to a literary work, particularly poetry. He points out that scholars and critics often study form because it is so deliberate - the crafting of a poem under a certain rhyme scheme or structure is careful work, and is usually carried out for certain desired effect. The physicality of the literary piece, then, comes to have as much significance as the text and content itself.

A sonnet is a poem of fourteen lines written in iambic pentameter using a number of rhyme schemes. Typically this scheme tends to be around 10 syllables per line. A student of literature is often encouraged to look at the parts where the line or syllable breaks of or transitions to another - how this affects the sentence, and what it might mean for the author to choose to place a certain word or imagery in a certain place.

Closely associated with sonnet is iambic pentameter - a line of verse with five metrical feet, each consisting of one short (or unstressed) syllable followed by one long (or stressed) syllable.

The example provided by Foster is Christina Rossetti's "An Echo From Willow Wood" and in analyzing the poem he explains how the rhyme scheme "reinforces the basic concept...The beauty of this poem, lies, in part, in the tension between the small package and the large emotional and narrative scene it contains...The vessel, the sonnet form, actually becomes part of the meaning of the poem" (p 27).

Scriptural and Biblical Interpretation

Many works of literature - from premodern to Victorian to postmodernist texts - draw on Biblical or scriptural imagery. Foster describes the prevalence of Christian imagery and direct or indirect biblical quotations in poetry, novels and short stories to emphasize the importance of reading literature through such lens. Of course the inclusion of such imagery and reference is independent of the religiosity of the author in question - as Foster points out, "since the preponderance of cultural influences has come down to us from European early settlers, and since these settlers inflicted their values on the "benighted" cultures they encountered...those inflicted values have gained ascendancy" (p 117).

Biblical or Christian imagery in a work of literature inevitably alludes to certain values but the values do not have to be inherently religious. They are often more pertinent in revealing some aspect of the society presented in the literature, and achieves this in various ways whether by commenting on gender roles, the individual's role in society, or humankind's relation to nature. Biblical references thus might suggest continuation of the tradition (or aspects of the tradition)

Reader-Response Literary Theory

In literary theory, the reader-response analysis focuses on the reader's interaction with the text in question. Such an approach pays attention to the reader's experience of the literary work, and believes that it is the reader that 'completes' a meaning of the text through his/her own interpretation. The reading process is thus considered as significant in shedding light on the meaning of the work as the writing itself.

Although not explicitly acknowledging this particular approach in literary analysis, Foster implicitly stresses its importance in his work. The author says, for instance, "We tend to give writers all the credit, but reading is also an event of the imagination; our creativity, our inventiveness, encounters that of the writer and in that meeting we puzzle out what she means, what we understand her to mean, what uses we can put her writing to." (p 107, Chapter 12: Is That A Symbol? Also see 'Creative Imagination' above.)


The use of irony in literature is defined as,

"a technique of indicating, as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated."

and in contemporary writing as,

" a manner of organizing a workso as to give full expression to contradictory or complementary impulses, attitudes, etc., especially as a means of indicating detachment from a subject, theme, or emotion" (

If an author is writing in the ironic mode, the reader should take care to understand that another, possibly alternative meaning, underlies the writing or description. For Foster, irony involves "a deflection from expectation," and also says, "...irony works because the audience understands something that eludes one or more of the characters." (Chapter 26, Is He Serious? And Other Ironies). Thus it is all the more significant for the reader to be cautious in his/her interpretation of the literary work. Irony as a literary tool is especially prevalent in modernist and postmodern literature.