The Response-to-Literature Essay
by Owen Fourie
~ Part One ~
Whenever I have given this exercise to students, I have found that some have difficulty in distinguishing between a response-to-literature essay and a summary essay.
Know the difference
Let’s say that you have finished reading a novel. You are given two assignments on that one novel–it’s a bad dream, so don’t worry. In the first assignment, you are required to give a summary; in the second, you have to write a response.
For the first exercise, you will summarize the plot in your own words.
If you go to the post “How Do I Write a Summary Essay?” you will see what you need to do.
For the second exercise, you are offering a critique–your criticism–of the novel.
This does not mean that the response essay is entirely without a synopsis of the work. It should give a brief summary, particularly where it provides the background to the point or the idea that is the focus of your response.
Although some instructors prefer it, such summarizing need not stand as a distinct part of the essay. It can be woven into your analysis to appear as needed for the background to a specific point that you are making as you develop your critique.
While a summary essay will show your comprehension of the novel and its plot, the response essay should demonstrate your critical analysis of the literary work.
Be a prepared student
Whether you are writing a summary essay or a response essay, the prepared student is one who is in the habit of making notes while reading literature. Use webs, charts, diagrams, maps, and tables for your notes. If you do this, you will find it a lot easier to handle your assignment.
If you do this as part of your routine, even if no assignment is given at the end of the reading, you will build up a valuable personal-development resource. You will be enhancing your study skills and equipping yourself to handle projects in any area of life.
Choose your focal point
In a response essay, there are several areas that could receive your attention. Some that you could write about are
- the author’s style;
- the author’s purpose in writing this particular work;
- the background issues that prompted the writing: historical, social, economic, and political issues;
- the characterization;
- the symbolism used by the author;
- the effectiveness of any foreshadowing in the story;
- the figurative devices used by the author to tell the story and to bring out its deeper meaning: simile, metaphor, alliteration, hyperbole, and so forth;
- a comparison between this novel and other novels by the same author;
- a comparison between this novel and other novels by other authors in the same genre.
It is wise to choose only one of these aspects and to focus on that point by creating a thesis statement and supporting it thoroughly throughout your essay.
If you are reviewing a non-fiction work that is dealing with a practical issue, you may wish to consider whether the author’s thesis has contributed usefully to the debate and to the resolution of the problem.
In the particular area that you have chosen to be your focal point, you must ask certain questions:
- In this matter, let’s say the background issues that prompted the writing, has the author succeeded or failed?
- Are there weaknesses or strengths in the the author’s treatment of these issues?
- Is there clarity or is it lacking?
- Does it bring enlightenment about similar issues today?
- Could the author have handled the matter more effectively?
- Are there other works of the author where this particular point receives better (or worse) treatment?
- Are there other writers in the same genre who have perhaps handled this point in a better way?
By asking such questions and doing whatever research is necessary to get the answers, you will be able to develop a critical response to literature. Obviously, you can do this only if you have read the work with attention to its detail and as you have grasped its message. The more you are able to read of the author’s other works and also of publications in the same genre by other authors, the better equipped you should be to give an acceptable, intellectual response.
Your response is not meant to be merely a description of how you feel about the novel. You can include that element, of course, but it forms only a small part of your overall response.
In my opinion, the response-to-literature essay is not a beginner’s exercise. It is for students who have had exposure to the writings of several authors in various genres and more than one work of each of those authors.
Response essays do not deal only with literature. Assignments may also be given to respond to plays and movies, but in this post and its sequel we are concerned only with literature.
In Part Two of this article, we’ll give attention to the introduction, the body, and the conclusion of the response-to-literature essay, and we’ll also consider a point about paragraphing.
What is your experience with writing response-to-literature essays? Do you have any useful insights? What are your particular struggles? How has the difference between summary essays and response essays been explained to you? At what point in your academic career were you first required to write a response-to-literature essay? Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.
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