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Harvard professor examines the “what” in writing

By Jess Linde

Section: Arts

April 12, 2013

On April 10, the Mandel Center welcomed Harvard professor and acclaimed literary critic James Wood for the third time that week as a guest lecturer in the Mandel Lectures on the Humanities. In front of an audience consisting mostly of Brandeis faculty and off-campus guests, Wood gave the third lecture in his week-long “Letters to a Young Writer” series, which centers around literary analysis and how to write it. This lecture, titled “What,” addressed the importance of detail in literature and how it can enrich the reader’s personal experience, as well as give insight to the mind of the writer. Wood used examples from various short stories and novels, including works by Chekhov, Tolstoy and Sam Bellow.

Professor Wood performed close readings of these stories eloquently and with extreme detail, focusing on small scenes that at first glance may seem quite irrelevent. For example, in Chekhov’s “The Kiss,” a Russian soldier experiences his first kiss by accident. Later in the story, the soldier is amazed at how short the actual event was, even though he thought he could make a grand story out of it for his colleagues. According to Wood, it is in that short sentence where some of the richest detail lay. In these small levels of human thought and interaction, some of the deepest analysis is found.

Using these small details, Wood made huge inference into the mind of not just the character in “The Kiss” but into the mind of Chekhov himself. Wood repeated this process by analyzing neologisms and terms that could possibly open a wider door into the process and creativity of the writer. Wood argued that while word choice is incredibly important in literature, the most memorable details and words are not always picked after the author debates their use. In his discussions with Sam Bellows about writing, Woods found that many details in Bellows’ work were the “phrases in our heads we keep to ourselves” written down.

Wood also touted childhood details as some of the most “pungent” details of our lives. The things that stay with us can, in writing, often become some of the most powerful statements on the page, according to Wood. Interestingly, this seems to only work in retrospect. Wood himself was a “rather unobservant” child who was “tutored by literature to notice and examine essential details, however small.” He told the audience how the small and strangely-framed details, can also be loaded with meaning. When speaking on the scene in Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” when Anna notices the size of her husband’s ears, Wood said “[the] noticing is in itself noticeable because it tells us something about her, and how she has transformed after meeting Vronsky for the first time.”

After finishing his lecture Wood answered several questions from the audience, and ended asking his listeners to try and notice the “Whatness” of their reading in the future. Investing oneself fully in a work of literature can only heighten the experience, and Wood’s method of analysis is a way to do so. Reading critically opens new pathways into stories and novels. As Wood put it: “great writers see more than just a sentence.”

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