Writing about Literature
The Research Essay
Types and Functions of Secondary Sources
Whenever we write an essay about literature, we engage in a conversation with other readers about the meaning and significance of a particular work (or works). Effective argumentation always depends on imagining how other readers are likely to respond to, and interpret, the literary text. However, almost all texts and authors are the subject of actual public conversations, often extending over many years and involving numerous scholarly readers. A research essay can be an opportunity to investigate this conversation and to contribute to it. In this case, your secondary sources will be works in which literary scholars analyze a specific text or an author’s body of work.
Each literary work is significantly shaped by, and speaks to, its author’s unique experience and outlook, as well as the events and debates of the era in which the author lived. So a research assignment can be an opportunity to learn more about a particular author, about that author’s canon, or about the place and time in which the author lived and worked. The goal of the essay will be to show how context informs text or vice versa. Secondary sources for this sort of research essay will be biographies of the author, essays or letters by the author, and/or historical works of some kind.
Generally speaking, three types of secondary sources are used in essays about literature: literary criticism, biography, and history. The goal of a particular essay and the kinds of questions it raises will determine which kind of sources you use.
In practice, however, many secondary sources cross these boundaries. Biographies of a particular author often offer literary critical interpretations of that author’s work; works of literary criticism sometimes make use of historical or biographical information; and so on. And you, too, may want or need to draw on more than one kind of source in a single essay. Your instructor will probably give you guidance about what kinds of sources and research topics or questions are appropriate. So make sure that you have a clear sense of the assignment before you get started.
Unless your instructor indicates otherwise, your argument should be the focus of your essay, and secondary sources should be just that—secondary. They should merely serve as tools that you use to deepen and enrich your argument about the literary text. They shouldn’t substitute for it. Your essay should never simply repeat or report on what other people have already said.
Thus even though secondary sources are important to the development of your research essay, they should not be the source of your ideas. Instead, as one popular guide to writing suggests,* they are sources of:
- opinion (or debatable claims)—other readers’ views and interpretations of the text, author, or topic, which "you support, criticize, or develop";
- information—facts (which "you interpret") about the author’s life; the text’s composition, publication, or reception; the era during, or about which, the author wrote; or the literary movement of which the author was a part;
- concept—general terms or theoretical frameworks that you borrow and apply to your author or text.
* Gordon Harvey, Writing with Sources (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998) 1.
Again, any one source will likely offer more than one of these things. For example, Stephen Gould Axelrod’s "Jealous Gods" provides Axelrod’s opinion on (or interpretation of) Sylvia Plath’s "Daddy"; information about the status of the domestic poem in the 1950s; and concepts drawn from Freud’s theories of psychological development.
Nonetheless, the distinction between opinion (debatable claim) and information (factual statement) is crucial. As you read a source, you must discriminate between the two. And when drawing upon sources in your essay, remember that an opinion about a text, no matter how well informed, isn’t the same as evidence. Only facts can serve that function. Suppose, for example, that you are writing an essay on "Daddy." You claim that the speaker adopts two voices, that of her child self and that of her adult self—an opinion also set forth in Axelrod’s "Jealous Gods." You cannot prove this claim to be true by merely saying that Axelrod makes the same claim. Like any debatable claim, this one must be backed up with evidence from the primary text.
In this situation, however, you must indicate that a source has made the same claim that you do in order to:
- give the source credit for having this idea or stating this opinion before you did (see Using Sources Responsibly);
- encourage readers to see you as a knowledgeable and trustworthy writer, one who has taken the time to explore, digest, and fairly represent others’ opinions;
- demonstrate that your opinion isn’t merely idiosyncratic because another informed, even "expert," reader agrees with you.
Were you to disagree with the source’s opinion, you would need to acknowledge that disagreement in order to demonstrate the originality of your own interpretation, while also (again) encouraging readers to see you as a knowledgeable, careful, trustworthy writer.
You will need to cite sources throughout your essay whenever you make (1) a claim that complements or contradicts the opinion-claim of a source, or (2) a claim that requires secondary-source information or concepts. In essays that draw upon literary critical sources, those sources may prove especially helpful when articulating motive (see Source-Related Motives).
TIP: In addition to being secondary sources of the type you might use in a research essay, many of the pieces excerpted in the "Critical Contexts" chapters draw on other secondary sources. Look over these pieces to see what kinds of sources professional literary critics use and how they use them. For example, Lawrence R. Rodgers’s essay on "A Rose for Emily" makes use of information garnered from biographies of Faulkner, applies to the story concepts taken from another literary critic’s argument about detective fiction, and refers to other critics’ opinions about the story in order to suggest the distinctiveness and value of his own.