Literary Lexicon

-in alphabetical order, a working dictionary of craft & critical theory terms for intellectual reference and amusement

the aura of a work of art– Walter Benjamin’s idea that certain pieces emanate a uniqueness and singularity that generates an artistic aura.

automatic writing– the act of writing through trance when the writer serves as medium for otherworldly spirits. William Butler Yeats’ wife, George Hyde Lees claimed to be possessed by automatic writing. Also defined The Guardian “John Gray on humanity’s quest for immortality” published January 8, 2011, where Gray defines automatic writing as “texts produced without conscious awareness in which another mind seems to be guiding the pen, which became a vehicle for unresolved personal loss and secret love.”

bricoleur and bricolage – from French meaning fiddler or tinkler, often referring to visual arts; to construct from various items and resources available at hand. Claude Leví-Strauss made this idea popular in cultural criticism and Miguel Syjuco described his writing process for Ilustrado as a bricolage, which would make him a bricoleur, meaning one who practices the art of bricolage.

chrestomathy– a compendium of specific passages cited from literary works to assist an individual in the learning of a foreign language. See Amitav Gosh’s example from the first work, Sea of Poppies, which is part of his Ibis trilogy.

committed detachment – from The Writer’s Chronicle, Volume 42, Number 3, “Out of the Margins: The Expanding Role of Creative Writing in Today’s College Curriculum” by Chad Davidson and Gregory Fraser. They define this kind of detachment as a task where they “ask students to commit to the process of unfolding language, following stray associations, and discovering-rather than imparting–meaning. Put simply, we strive to break the attachment student writers often have to their first efforts on the page. It may be more fruitful to dwell, to ‘improvise,’ to let the work surprise.” Davidson and Fraser compare committed detachment to Keat’s negative capability.

concord fictions – a term coined by critic Frank Kermode, in his The Sense of an Ending, 1967, and explained by Wolfgang Iser in his “The Significance of Fictionalizing” in Anthropoetics III no. 2 (Fall 1997/Winter 1998) published by UC Irvine: “This is the point at which literary fictions diverge from the fictions of our ordinary world. The latter are assumptions, hypotheses, presuppositions and, more often than not, the basis of world views, and may be said to complement reality. Frank Kermode calls them “concord fictions”(13) because they close off something which by its very nature is open.”

controlling metaphor– a metaphor that dominates or organizes a project.

critical subsidy- indirect endorsement and therefore direct publicity of an artist via critical condemnation.

delayed decoding- Defined in Conrad in the Nineteenth Century by Ian P. Watt: “Conrad often used delayed decoding in his earlier works. It served mainly to put the reader in the position of being an immediate witness in each step of the process whereby the semantic gap between the sensations aroused in the individual by an object or event, and their actual cause or meaning, was closed in his consciousness. Since this technique is based on the pretence that the reader’s understanding is limited to the consciousness of the fictional observer, it is not that Conrad’s use of delayed decoding should reach its climax in the Marlowe stories.”

docu-fictionthe filmic relative to literary journalism, this is a neologism referring to the cinematographic mix of documentary and fiction.

fourth wall– originally a theatrical term referencing the imaginary and invisible wall between the stage and the audience as an extension of the proscenium above the stage. This wall reinforces the suspension of disbelief audiences must have in order to believe they are witnessing a slice of reality.  Denis Diderot emphasized this concept in regards to realism which highlighted the boundary between audience and players. The fourth wall is broken when a character or actor addresses the audience, and the fictional work recognizes its own meta-fictional existence.

einfulhen– when you try to become what you’re studying as if to see, know, and understand the object from the inside out.

epiclets– James Joyce termed his stories in Dubliners as epic lets, or short narrative pieces, Colleen Jaurretche examines this in text, Beckett, Joyce, and the Art of the Narrative.

estrangement effect- coined and made famous by Bertolt Brecht and defined by Gerhard P. Knapp, University of Utahin the article Verfremdungseffekt in the Literary Encyclopedia (German Verfremdung = making strange something that is known or familiar) is commonly, if not very accurately, translated as “alienation effect”. Perhaps more appropriate, although less frequently encountered, are the translations “distancing” or “estrangement effect”. Verfremdungseffekt applies to the function of any theatrical device or technique designed to dispel the audience’s notion that “reality” is directly represented or enacted on stage.

free in-direct style– Defined by the Oxford Companion to English Literature: a way of narrating characters’ thoughts or utterances that combines some of the features of third-person report with some features of first-person direct speech, allowing a flexible and sometimes ironic overlapping of internal and external perspectives. Free indirect style (a translation of French style indirecte libre) dispenses with tag-phrases (‘she thought’, etc.), and adopts the idiom of the character’s own thoughts, including indicators of time and place, as She’d leave here tomorrow, rather than ‘She decided to leave that place the next day’. The device was exploited by some 19th-cent. novelists such as Austen and Flaubert , and has been widely adopted thereafter.

fondle the details- from Nabakov’s quote: “A good reader must fondle the details. A good writer makes details to fondle.”

fractured fairytale- defined in The New Yorker article “Saved from Drowning; Barthelme reconsidered” by Louis Menand (The Critics, 2/23/2009). A term used on The Rocky and Bulwinkle Show “for a modernized and mildly surrealized adult version of an already Disney-sized story.”

hamartia– From Wikipedia:

a term developed by Aristotle in his work Poetics. The term can simply be seen as a character’s flaw or error. The word hamartia is rooted in the notion of missing the mark (hamartanein) and covers a broad spectrum that includes accident and mistake, as well as wrongdoing, error, or sin. In Nicomachean Ethics, hamartia is described by Aristotle as one of the three kinds of injuries that a person can commit against another person. Hamartia is an injury committed in ignorance (when the person affected or the results are not what the agent supposed they were).

heteronym– words with identical spellings but that carry different meanings. Fernando Pessoa, a writer and poet from Portugal, expanded on this concept and invented the literary notion where one or more fictional characters use varying writing styles. Heteronyms, in this sense, differ from pseudonyms, which are stand ins for the writer, whereas heteronyms hail from various backgrounds, carry different biographies and physiques. Syma Tarig in his article “Fernando Pessoa and the multiple faces we show on the net” published in The Guardian on December 4, 2005 writes:

25,000 pages of manuscript discovered after he died were writings by nearly 80 people, or “heteronyms“, created in Pessoa’s lifetime. These were literary alter egos that all had differing views on the big subjects: life, death, modern tedium; and the conflict between rational thought and human emotions.Each heteronym was given a biography, psychology, politics, religion, even physical description, and the main characters were interconnected.

hauntology– defined in The Guardian’s ”Hauntology–a not so new critical manifestation” by Andrew Gallix, published June 17, 2011:

In the original French, ‘hauntology’ sounds almost identical to “ontology”, a concept it haunts by replacing – in the words of Colin Davis – “the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present, nor absent, neither dead nor alive”.

Further defined by the Berkeley Art Museum’s exhibit Hauntology,

essentially the logic of the ghost, is a concept as ephemeral and abstract as the term implies. Since it was first used by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in a 1993 lecture delivered at UC Riverside concerning the state of Marxist thought in the post-Communist era, the term hauntology has been widely discussed in philosophical and political circles, as well as becoming a major influence in the development of various sub-genres of electronic music.

…for Derrida himself, hauntology is a philosophy of history that upsets the easy progression of time by proposing that the present is simultaneously haunted by the past and the future. Specifically, Derrida suggests that the specter of Marxist utopianism haunts the present, capitalist society, in what he describes as “the persistence of a present past.” The notion of hauntology also can be seen as describing the fluidity of identity among individuals, marking the dynamic and inevitable shades of influence that link one person’s experience to another’s, both in the present and over time.

…In the fifteen years since Derrida first used this term, hauntology, and the related term, hauntological, have been adopted by the British music critic Simon Reynolds who describes as it “an uneasy mixture of the ancient and the modern.”

iceberg principal- see “theory of omission.”

imposter syndrome- a terminal condition most writers suffer from where they believe they will never be a “real writer” no matter how accomplishments.

kunstlërroman– part of the Bildungsroman genre, specifically concerning an artist’s maturation in light of bourgeois values and expectations. Joyce’s Portrait of An Artist is the classic example of such a narrative as well as Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther and Miguel Syjuco’s recent work, Ilustrado.

lays bare the device– an old Russian formalist phrase referring to when an author reveals the literary medium, meaning the device employed, to draw attention to the illusion and critique both illusion and medium. In other words, defined in Theory of Prose by Viktor Borisovich Shklovskii and Benjamin Sher as “consciousness of form through its violation.” Exemplary texts: Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy

le mot juste– from Flaubert, meaning the exact word or phrasing. Though some may dismiss this idea as pure pretension, writers know that a carefully chosen word stabs meaning like a dagger to the heart.

leit motif– (from Wikipedia) a recurring musical theme, associated with a particular person, place, or idea. The word has also been used by extension to mean any sort of recurring theme, whether in music, literature, or the life of a fictional character or a real person.

lyric documentary- coined by American photographer, Walker Evans. From the NY Times Art Review “Main Street Postcards as Muse” by Roberta Smith, 5, February, 2009. “He defined the term as a celebration of fact subtly modulated by an artist’s innate style, and as a rejection of Alfred Stieglitz’s photographs, which he considered strained and called “decadent lyric.” Evans cites work, such as Leonardo Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings and the writings by Henry James, as well as his own photos, as examples of lyric documentary.

lyric network– defined in Pablo Medina’s article “The Cosmic Poetry of Octavio Paz” (The Writer’s Chronicle, February 2009) “The poetic moment stands outside of sequence; it is sustained by a network of associations, imposed on language by intellectual fury and emotional determination, or, if you prefer, by intelligent passion. The lyric network leads not to finality and causality but to circularity and consequence and brings us closer to ourselves, and, by extension, to others.”

masscult and midcultDwight McDonald, in 1960, wrote a critique, Masscult and Midcult, on Middle Brow culture which, according to him, rose with the advance of mass production and industrialization. The specialization of craft and folk art was replaced by anonymous consumerism. Mid cult aspires to embody High Brow culture and “pretends to respect the standards of high culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.”

multiplicity– one of the chapters from Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium, other chapters include “Lightness,” “Quickness,” Exactitude,” and “Visibility” which Calvino believes are central to fiction. Calvino argues Paul Valery, in his writing, pursues, “The Total Phenomenon, that is the Totality of conscience, conditions, possibilities and impossibilites.” Read more from Literary Philosophers by Jorge J. E. Gracia, Carolyn Korsmeyer, Rodolphe Gasché and “Invisible Natures: on Italo Calvino Invisible Cities” published in Modern Criticism, Atlantic Publishers by C. Rollason and R. Mittapalli

multiverse– From The Guardian article, published on November 21, 2009 by Michael Moorcock, “I’m writing the new Dr. Who.” Moorcock will be writing a novel based on Dr. Who, and he explains his approach to the story:

[multiverse] a term I invented (or reinvented, since I wasn’t originally aware that William James coined it to describe the many worlds our minds inhabit) in 1962, for a near-infinite system of parallel worlds in which subtly different versions of our own universe exist simultaneously. The term caught on well enough to be used for a variety of purposes in popular fiction and theoretical physics and was incorporated into the lexicon of Doctor Who. There’s nothing unusual in this. Terry Pratchett said generic fiction is a big pot from which one takes a bit and adds a bit. I’m flattered that some of my ingredients became staples, but it’s always a pleasure to use what was once a private vocabulary in another medium.

For the scientific skinny on multiverses, check out NPR’s quick segment, “Landscaping the Cosmic Garden” by Marcelo Gleiser, published June 22, 2011.

mythopoeia– the narrative genre and the act of creating a modern mythology or mythologies. JRR Tollkien, CS Lewis, J.K. Rowling, G.R.R. Martin among other notable writers, poets, and screenwriters practice the art of mythology-making or mythopoeia. Tolkien wrote a poem about this art to his friend C.S. Lewis, To one [C.S. Lewis] who said that myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though ‘breathed through silver’. Philomythus to Misomythus”

negative capability– defined by Keats in a letter to George and Thomas Keats (Sunday, 22, December 1817): “…what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Writers must learn to be comfortable and inhabit this murky space, allowing their minds to be open to possibility.

negative education– from Virginia Woolf’s essay “Two Women” in Moments of Being and Other Essays: “that which decrees not what you may do but what you may not do, that cramped and stifled.” In reference to Miss Emily Davies and Lady Stephens, Woolf writes of them, ‘Do they go to school? No. Do they have governesses at home? No. They have lessons and get on as they can.’ But if their positive education had stopped at a little Latin, a little history, a little housework, it would not so much have mattered”

object correlative-an image that recurs throughout a story to create or evoke a certain emotion. The recurrence of this specific image create a pattern and accumulates meaning as the story develops. Examples???

officialdom novel– a Chinese genre of literature made popular by white-collar workers. From China Daily’s “Rules of Engagement” by Liu Jun, published June 30, 2009:

Chen Zhitao, a literary critic, says modern officialdom novels probe the social system, daily life and human nature as they focus on power struggles in official circles. Ancient Chinese used the word huanhai (sea of officialdom) to describe the unfathomable knowledge of official circles. As the classic novel Dream of the Red Mansions tells: When an official took up a post in a new place, he would obtain a little pamphlet noting the heavyweight families in the networks of power. But the first officialdom novel, according to Chen, is Revealing the Original Officialdom (Guanchang Xianxing Ji) by Li Baojia. The 1903 collection of short stories discloses the tales of corrupt officials who pursued their own interests as the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) tumbled. The formal name of Officialdom Novel surfaced when Wang Yuewen’s Painting made a huge stir in 1998. With several novels on the theme under his belt, Wang is considered the founder of modern officialdom novels.

polyphonic narrative-epics were borne out of the oral tradition and polyphonic narratives are a return to the epic oral traditions. Pick up thread where the last voice left off- takes knowing your threads.

research rapture – from Janice P. Nimura, “Under No Certain Search Terms” New York Times, January 22, 2015:

People call it “research rapture” — the rare and ecstatic moment when you slip the bonds of the present and follow a twinkling detail into the past.


shivering fragments– coined by Virginia Woolf to describe the wealth of artistic material mined from journals and diaries. from Virginia Woolf”s 1908 Perugia

I attain a different kind of beauty, achieve a symmetry by means of infinite discords, showing all the traces of the mind’s passage through the world, achieve in the end some kind of whole made of shivering fragments—to me this seems the natural process, the flight of the mind.

subquel- from Jo Baker in reference to her novel Longbourn. Check out post “Not a prequel, not a sequel, but a subquel”

A confessed Austenite through and through, Baker admitted to reading the novels repeatedly and had even grabbed one on her way to hospital before giving birth to her son, as if she’d have any time to crack open the spine. Longbourn had been hatched after a repeat reading of P&P where a certain line snagged, a line during a scene when rain was about to ruin the wash at the Bennett household and someone had to fetch the laundry as it stormed outside. Austen had written that the clothes were fetched by proxy, and Baker knew that proxy had “human agency.”…So she mapped her novel, page by page and minute by minute, in order to force the invisible hands that made the Bennett household comfortable and cosy out of the shadows. Austen references only a few of the domestic help in P&P; there is Sarah and Mrs. Hill and the Bennetts at some point hire a male servant, which was a very fashionable thing to do because most able men were away fending off Napoleon and his troops, so there was a high tax to have a working man in the house. Baker wanted to know about all the other hands of the house, and she used a backwash of events to shape what occurred downstairs.

suspended revelation– referenced in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the narrator notes the telling of a story, where the teller with holds vital information of the narrative to heighten anticipation and generate different expectations. From the novel:

He paused; the birds went on carolling, the leaves lightly rustling. I almost wondered they did not check their songs and whispers to catch the suspended revelation; but they would have to wait many minutes–so long was the silence protracted. At last I looked up at the tardy speaker he was looking eagerly at me.

speculum-from Alberto Manguel’s review of Eduardo Galeano’s Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone published The Guardian, Sunday, December 6, 2009:

The speculum, espéculo or mirror, understood as a sort of whimsical anthology or commonplace book, is a literary genre of venerable antiquity. In Spanish, one of the earliest of these exemplary works is a 14th-century version of the Speculum laicorum attributed to the English divine John of Howden, translated under the title El espéculo de los legos, in which brief factual chronicles are interspersed with gossip on various subjects, mini-biographies of heroes and saints, and legends culled from various sources. Among speculum authors, the most distinguished is the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano, who has made the genre his trademark, notably in his three-volume masterpiece, Memory of Fire. His new book, Mirrors, explicitly declares its lineage in its title.

suspended revelation- Explained in Stevie Davies‘ “Introduction” to Jane Eyre (Penguin 2006), Bronte coins the phrase in Chapter XX, and Davies defines Bronte’s technique: “this breathless sense of awaiting imminent knowledge, moment by moment…The whole narrative of Jane Eyre encourages breathless wonder: it holds a succession of pauses, digressions, incomplete sentences, riddles, and sets of trails of false clues…”

theory of omission- otherwise famously known as Hemingway’s “iceberg principal.” Defined in his 1964 memoir A Moveable Feast he states, “you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.”

the two cultures-a literary phrase created by C.P. Snow, and summarized in Peter Dizikes’ NY Times essay, “Our Two cultures,” used “to describe what he saw as a dangerous schism between science and literary life…It was 50 years ago this May [1959] that Snow, an English physicist, civil servant and novelist, delivered a lecture at Cambridge called “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” which was later published in book form. Snow’s famous lament was that ‘the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups,’ consisting of scientists on the one hand and literary scholars on the other. Snow largely blamed literary types for this ‘gulf of mutual incomprehension.’”

More glossary references:

J Paul Johnson Winona (MN) State University Narrative Fiction and Film Glossary