See It In Writing and Basic Principle

See It In Writing<

For literature courses, writing assignments will usually ask you to make an argument about the form and content of one or two specific works of literature.

Imagine you’ve received the following paper prompt for a 5-6 page paper in an introductory literature class. Which of the following claims is the best one for this assignment?

Write a paper about how gender is represented in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Be specific and provide ample evidence from the novel. Outside research should not be necessary.

  1. Gender and masculinity is an important theme in Mrs. Dalloway.
  2. Even though Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith seem trapped and defined by their gender-specific roles, the conscious doubling of Clarissa and Septimus over the course of Mrs. Dalloway in fact challenges gender binaries.

If you picked claim #2, you agree with most readers that this is the more appropriate claim for this prompt. Claim #2 offers a debatable conclusion: some classmates might disagree about the effect that the doubling creates and instead argue that gender binaries are reinforced by the novel’s depiction of Clarissa and Septimus.

If you thought claim #1 was lacking, you probably noticed that it doesn’t particularly need a supporting argument. Since the prompt asks you to write about gender in Mrs. Dalloway, you can assume that gender is an important aspect of the book for the purposes of this class. Claim #2, by contrast, extends the general classroom conversation about gender to examine a specific conclusion about how gender works in the text.

Now take a look at these two claims and choose the better claim:

  1. More than any other novel written during the period, Mrs. Dalloway changed the way the post-World War I novel represented gender and forever altered literary stylings.
  2. By presenting Septimus Smith’s suicide as a genuinely brave action, the text undermines cultural ideas about militarized masculinity.

If you picked claim #4, you agree with most readers that this is the more appropriate claim for this prompt. This claim could form the basis of an effective essay because it doesn’t require evidence from beyond the novel; your argument would grow out of close readings of the novel. Furthermore, like claim #2, this claim offers an arguable conclusion: another reader could reasonably interpret Septimus’s suicide and its relation to gender differently.

Claim #3 does present a debatable conclusion, but a paper based on it would require a significant amount of outside research. In order to prove claim #3, you would have to compare the representation of gender in Mrs. Dalloway to a number of other post-WWI texts, which goes beyond the scope of this assignment.

In a Nutshell<

When you’re writing a paper for a literature class, think about the conversations your class has been having: what information does everyone accept about the text and what issues are up for debate? Those debatable issues are a good source for strong claims. That’s because the best claims for introductory literature papers are contestable<, or, not self-evidently true within the classroom community; they extend the conversation beyond what you have discussed in class, and you should be able to imagine a classmate disagreeing with your point. In a literature class, effective claims can also be argued by pointing to evidence from the text; they are supportable< by what literature teachers call close reading, or analyzing the relationship between the text’s form and content. By relying on textual evidence, supportable claims avoid merely describing a reader’s opinion about the value of the text.

The Basic Principle<

Even readers who care deeply about your topic might not be interested in your argument unless it makes a claim that they think is worth reading. If your claim seems like a description or summary of what you’ve read, readers will wonder why you bother to argue for it. It won’t be contestable. If it can’t be supported with evidence, readers will see it as just an opinion, no matter how intriguing it may be. It won’t be supportable. Most readers want to see thoughtful, well-supported arguments instead of just personal opinions or descriptions. Strong claims are both contestable and supportable.

Contestable claims make arguments that readers can disagree with—and so are not self-evidently true.

  • A claim is contestable when it does not merely describe or summarize the text, but rather offers a conclusion that is up for debate and so needs to be proven.
  • Contestable claims present arguments about issues that are debatable within the community for which you’re writing—in this case, your introductory literature class. Think about what kinds of claims your peers who know the text and your classroom discussions about the text might disagree with.
  • Things that are not contestable within a graduate seminar may be up for debate in your introductory literature class; your essay should not attempt a major innovation to the field of literary studies, but rather should continue a classroom conversation. You might, for example, extend the conversation to new texts or textual elements, argue for one side of a classroom debate, or work out the details of a class discussion’s tentative thesis.

Supportable claims can be argued by pointing to evidence within the literary text.

  • A claim is supportable when it is not simply an opinion. Opinions (like “Owing to its experimental narrative style, Mrs. Dalloway portrays the twists and turns of the human psyche more effectively than Portrait of a Lady”) make evaluative judgments based on personal preference and priorities rather than careful attention to the text’s priorities and effects. Because judgments about works’ quality or effectiveness are often based in personal, not disciplinary, values, they cannot be argued among members of a disciplinary community. To avoid opinions, you should develop your claim from close reading that produces concrete evidence about the meaning of the text.
  • An appropriate claim can be supported by textual evidence within the parameters of the assignment. For example, a claim for the above assignment on gender and Mrs. Dalloway that claims the work’s style accurately represents female psychology would require evidence from psychology, not evidence from the text, and so would not meet the assignment’s criteria. Likewise, a claim about Mrs. Dalloway’s importance within the literary canon might work for a 20-page research paper, but you couldn’t argue it effectively in, say, a 4-page response paper. The 4-page response paper calls for a more targeted conclusion about, perhaps, the surprising significance of a single encounter within a single episode of Mrs. Dalloway.

In other words, your claims should lead readers to think: “That could be true, but you’ll have to prove it” rather than “That’s obvious” or “There’s no way you can actually prove that.”

With these terms in mind, imagine that you are writing a 5-6 page paper that focuses on the character of Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Which of the following claims is the best one for this paper?

  1. While changes in narrative perspective throughout the novel make it difficult to point to a stable, unified character, Molly’s concluding monologue in “Penelope” resolves many of the ambiguities that prior episodes create.
  2. The novel takes on the perspective of numerous characters, but Molly Bloom is the female character who receives the most extensive narrative attention.
  3. James Joyce’s characterization of Molly Bloom as voluptuous and promiscuous reveals his romantic preferences, and his relationship with Nora Barnacle shares many characteristics with the Blooms’ marriage.
  1. While changes in narrative perspective throughout the novel make it difficult to point to a stable, unified character, Molly’s concluding monologue in “Penelope” resolves many of the ambiguities that prior episodes create.

If you picked claim #1, you agree with most readers that this is the most appropriate claim for this prompt. This claim could form the basis of an effective essay because another reader could reasonably interpret the novel’s treatment of Molly’s character differently. In other words, this claim is contestable; there’s something to argue for here. Furthermore, it doesn’t require evidence from beyond the novel; your argument would be supportable with close readings of the text.

  1. The novel takes on the perspective of numerous characters, but Molly Bloom is the female character who receives the most extensive narrative attention.

If you think this claim is lacking, you’ve probably noticed that it doesn’t particularly need a supporting argument. Most people who have read the novel would agree with this claim, so it doesn’t meet the criteria for contestability. The evidence needed to prove this claim would consist solely of plot summary and not the kind of close reading expected in a literary essay.

  1. James Joyce’s characterization of Molly Bloom as voluptuous and promiscuous reveals his romantic preferences, and his relationship with Nora Barnacle shares many characteristics with the Blooms’ marriage.

If you think this claim is lacking, you’ve probably noticed that a paper based on this claim would focus on issues from outside the text itself. In a literature class, your claims and evidence should be supportable with evidence from the text in question, rather than with biographical details about the author, as in this example, or with any other extraneous information.

Now imagine that you are writing a 10-12 page paper that focuses on the character of Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses for an assignment about formal innovation in the novel. With the extended page length, you’ll be able to demonstrate a broader, and perhaps more complicated point. But you’ll still want to make sure that your claim is supportable based upon the evidence in the text, fulfills the terms of the assignment, and is contestable. Which of the following claims is the best one for this paper?

  1. Molly Bloom’s long, unpunctuated monologue in “Penelope” immerses the reader in her consciousness. By seeing into Molly’s character, readers react to Molly’s infidelity by deciding that her decision to cheat on her husband is not a result of her admittedly difficult situation, but of a tragic flaw in her character.
  2. Molly Bloom’s concluding soliloquy emphasizes how Molly’s identity has been shaped by her marriage to, and infidelity towards, Leopold.
  3. Throughout Ulysses, Joyce’s use of lengthy prose narration paradoxically resonates with parallel instances of compressed epic imagery in Homer’s Odyssey and reveals that a Penelope-like terseness and restraint underlies Molly’s voluble thinking.
  1. Molly Bloom’s long, unpunctuated monologue in “Penelope” immerses the reader in her consciousness. By seeing into Molly’s character, readers react to Molly’s infidelity by deciding that her decision to cheat on her husband is not a result of her admittedly difficult situation, but of a tragic flaw in her character.

If you think this claim is lacking, you’ve probably noticed that a paper based on it would rely heavily on reader-response analysis. This prompt is therefore not contestable within the context of an introductory literature class because making this claim would require an advanced student’s knowledge of reader-response theory, of Joyce’s intended audience, and of the history of his novel’s reception. It is also not supportable within the parameters of the assignment: adequately proving the claim would require a much longer essay. Also, a lot of the essay would need to be devoted to the audience, not to the formal innovations that the assignment asks students to emphasize.

  1. Molly Bloom’s concluding soliloquy emphasizes how Molly’s identity has been shaped by her marriage to, and infidelity towards, Leopold.

This claim is, broadly speaking, contestable: other students may disagree about what Molly’s concluding soliloquy says about her character. But you’ve probably noticed that it doesn’t address the concerns of the assignment: it is an argument about character, not about stylistic innovation. It is not supportable within the parameters of the assignment because the argument, as articulated, would only need to address a single feature of one chapter. It might only take a few pages to defend adequately.

  1. Throughout Ulysses, Joyce’s use of lengthy prose narration is paralleled by instances of compressed epic imagery in Homer’s Odyssey, which in “Penelope” reveal the terseness and restraint underlying Molly’s voluble thinking.

If you picked claim #3, you agree with most readers that this claim is the most appropriate for the assignment. The essay it forecasts is adequately contestable in that it raises debatable questions about the relationship between Homer and Joyce that would interest a class on the form of Ulysses. It is also supportable in terms of the topic and scope of the essay: the evidence it needs will rely heavily on matters of style, and 10-12 pages is enough to compare two works’ treatment of a single theme (here, the formal characteristics of episodes that connect Penelope to Molly).