Literary competence

9 June 2009 at 7:17 AM | Posted in News | 9 Comments

Let us focus for a moment on the notion of “literary competence,” a phrase made famous by Jonathan Culler, although the idea that more educated readers understand literature better than less educated readers (or that literary education is necessary if one is to read literature properly) has been around since the beginning of formal education.

Not very much attention has been given to the place of multilinguistic competence within literary competence. Culler and others, of course, have always talked about language (for example, you need to know the grammar of a language before you can understand a poem in that language), but they have, as far as I know, not talked about knowing the mother tongue of the author if the work is not in the mother tongue. I suggest that it is necessary for critics (as well as for more discriminating readers) to have linguistic competence in the mother tongue of a bilingual or multilingual author in order to fully or properly read a text written in a second or foreign language. That linguistic competence need not be of a very high level (the critic does not need to speak the language, but merely to read it or at least read a dictionary or similar reference work in that language); it should be enough to see how the mother tongue influences (interferes, supports, counterpoints, etc.) the language of the text.

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  1. It is one thing for a reader to understand the mother tongue of a second language writer in order to appreciate the work, and quite another for a critic to have “literary competence” in the mother tongue of the same writer.

    To the extent that the mother language of a second language writer influences the literary tools, nuances, vision, world view, figures of thought, language, and speech of the second language, it would be useful for the critic to pass judgment on the writer’s peculiar use of these tools (as influenced by the mother language) to objectify a thematic experience he is aspiring to pass on to the reader as an aesthetic experience well worth sharing.

    The reader will certainly profit from an “understanding” of the writer’s mother tongue particularly in his use of ethnic material which could become endemic in a second language work. The depth of a reader’s and critic’s appreciation of a second language work (as influenced by the author’s mother tongue) will quite functionally be more significant if the ethnic material from the mother tongue is not only contextually relevant but also structurally necessary in achieving the author’s purpose of “sharing” his vision of an aesthetic experience.

    James Joyce’s The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly will certainly sound with greater aural sense if the reader understood the essential humour (if not irony) behind a lot of Irish colloquy; viz:

    Have you heard of one Humpty Dumpty
    How he fell with a roll and a rumble
    And curled up Like Lord Olofa Crumple
    By the butt of the Magazine Wall,
    (Chorus) Of the Magazine Wall,
    Hump, helmet and all?

    He was one time our King of the Castle
    Now he’s kicked about like a rotten old parsnip
    And from Green street he’ll be sent by order of his Worship
    To the penal jail of Mountjoy!
    (Chorus) To the jail of Mountjoy!
    Jail him and joy.

    Would the reader and the critic see more behind the use of “Lord Olofa Crumple”? “Butt of the Magazine Wall”? “Old parsnip?’ (instead of old carrot head)? “Green street”? “Penal jail of Mountjoy!” Aside from the obvious aural images, would they not enhance the humour behind the cavalier “Jail him and joy”?

    Literary competence is both reader’s and critic’s competence. –ALBERT B. CASUGA

    (See http://ambitsgambit.blogspot.com/

  2. It is one thing for a reader to understand the mother tongue of a second language writer in order to appreciate the work, and quite another for a critic to have “literary competence” in the mother tongue of the same writer.

    To the extent that the mother language of a second language writer influences the literary tools, nuances, vision, world view, figures of thought, language, and speech of the second language, it would be useful for the critic to pass judgment on the writer’s peculiar use of these tools (as influenced by the mother language) to objectify a thematic experience he is aspiring to pass on to the reader as an aesthetic experience well worth sharing.

    The reader will certainly profit from an “understanding” of the writer’s mother tongue particularly in his use of ethnic material which could become endemic in a second language work. The depth of a reader’s and critic’s appreciation of a second language work (as influenced by the author’s mother tongue) will quite functionally be more significant if the ethnic material from the mother tongue is not only contextually relevant but also structurally necessary in achieving the author’s purpose of “sharing” his vision of an aesthetic experience.

    James Joyce’s The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly will certainly sound with greater aural sense if the reader understood the essential humour (if not irony) behind a lot of Irish colloquy; viz:

    Have you heard of one Humpty Dumpty
    How he fell with a roll and a rumble
    And curled up Like Lord Olofa Crumple
    By the butt of the Magazine Wall,
    (Chorus) Of the Magazine Wall,
    Hump, helmet and all?

    He was one time our King of the Castle
    Now he’s kicked about like a rotten old parsnip
    And from Green street he’ll be sent by order of his Worship
    To the penal jail of Mountjoy!
    (Chorus) To the jail of Mountjoy!
    Jail him and joy.

    Would the reader and the critic see more behind the use of “Lord Olofa Crumple”? “Butt of the Magazine Wall”? “Old parsnip?’ (instead of old carrot head)? “Green street”? “Penal jail of Mountjoy!” Aside from the obvious aural images, would they not enhance the humour behind the cavalier “Jail him and joy”?

    Literary competence is both reader’s and critic’s competence. –ALBERT B. CASUGA

    (See http://ambitsgambit.blogspot.com/

  3. It is one thing for a reader to understand the mother tongue of a second language writer in order to appreciate the work, and quite another for a critic to have “literary competence” in the mother tongue of the same writer.

    To the extent that the mother language of a second language writer influences the literary tools, nuances, vision, world view, figures of thought, language, and speech of the second language, it would be useful for the critic to pass judgment on the writer’s peculiar use of these tools (as influenced by the mother language) to objectify a thematic experience he is aspiring to pass on to the reader as an aesthetic experience well worth sharing.

    The reader will certainly profit from an “understanding” of the writer’s mother tongue particularly in his use of ethnic material which could become endemic in a second language work. The depth of a reader’s and critic’s appreciation of a second language work (as influenced by the author’s mother tongue) will quite functionally be more significant if the ethnic material from the mother tongue is not only contextually relevant but also structurally necessary in achieving the author’s purpose of “sharing” his vision of an aesthetic experience.

    James Joyce’s The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly will certainly sound with greater aural sense if the reader understood the essential humour (if not irony) behind a lot of Irish colloquy; viz:

    Have you heard of one Humpty Dumpty
    How he fell with a roll and a rumble
    And curled up Like Lord Olofa Crumple
    By the butt of the Magazine Wall,
    (Chorus) Of the Magazine Wall,
    Hump, helmet and all?

    He was one time our King of the Castle
    Now he’s kicked about like a rotten old parsnip
    And from Green street he’ll be sent by order of his Worship
    To the penal jail of Mountjoy!
    (Chorus) To the jail of Mountjoy!
    Jail him and joy.

    Would the reader and the critic see more behind the use of “Lord Olofa Crumple”? “Butt of the Magazine Wall”? “Old parsnip?’ (instead of old carrot head)? “Green street”? “Penal jail of Mountjoy!” Aside from the obvious aural images, would they not enhance the humour behind the cavalier “Jail him and joy”?

    Literary competence is both reader’s and critic’s competence. –ALBERT B. CASUGA

    (See http://ambitsgambit.blogspot.com/

  4. It seems I take issue with some assumptions of the blog which, by the way, I read after scanning the New York Times internet edition. Here it's the notion of "fully and properly" reading a text in the first or second language of its author. Is the blog eschewing reader-response criticism? Can a literary text ever be "fully" read? When Carlos Bulosan describes his narrative as a "mosaic," was he also aware that mosaic is also the name of a virus that blights abaca plants? His autobiography does describe many blighted lives, strictly a reader-response interpretatiion.

  5. It seems I take issue with some assumptions of the blog which, by the way, I read after scanning the New York Times internet edition. Here it's the notion of "fully and properly" reading a text in the first or second language of its author. Is the blog eschewing reader-response criticism? Can a literary text ever be "fully" read? When Carlos Bulosan describes his narrative as a "mosaic," was he also aware that mosaic is also the name of a virus that blights abaca plants? His autobiography does describe many blighted lives, strictly a reader-response interpretatiion.

  6. It seems I take issue with some assumptions of the blog which, by the way, I read after scanning the New York Times internet edition. Here it's the notion of "fully and properly" reading a text in the first or second language of its author. Is the blog eschewing reader-response criticism? Can a literary text ever be "fully" read? When Carlos Bulosan describes his narrative as a "mosaic," was he also aware that mosaic is also the name of a virus that blights abaca plants? His autobiography does describe many blighted lives, strictly a reader-response interpretatiion.

  7. Notwithstanding the very interesting readings that reader-response criticism has come out with, I happen to situate myself(as a creative writer) squarely on the side of the author (again despite all the "death of the author" talk). Of course, I define "author" the way Foucault defines it, not as my puny self (using only a tiny percentage of my brain) but as my Platonic self (which knows everything, except that I can't remember much).

  8. Notwithstanding the very interesting readings that reader-response criticism has come out with, I happen to situate myself(as a creative writer) squarely on the side of the author (again despite all the "death of the author" talk). Of course, I define "author" the way Foucault defines it, not as my puny self (using only a tiny percentage of my brain) but as my Platonic self (which knows everything, except that I can't remember much).

  9. Notwithstanding the very interesting readings that reader-response criticism has come out with, I happen to situate myself(as a creative writer) squarely on the side of the author (again despite all the "death of the author" talk). Of course, I define "author" the way Foucault defines it, not as my puny self (using only a tiny percentage of my brain) but as my Platonic self (which knows everything, except that I can't remember much).


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