A Bitter Criticism Of AP Literature

For the final exam in AP Lit, our teacher asked us to write a speech explaining how the class has influenced us. My peers proceeded to kiss his ass. I went a different route and probably wound up with a very different grade. Here is the actual paper I turned in.
Flickr / Gabriel Calderón
Flickr / Gabriel Calderón

Through my work and experience in AP Literature, I’ve learned that nearly any work of writing can be analyzed to reveal deeper meaning. This will influence my future by allowing me to see the unintentional depth hidden in seemingly one-dimensional words. According to this class, anything and everything is meant to be overanalyzed almost to the point of ruin. So, as I further my education, I plan to continue to destroy books by inflating them with my own assumptions about what exactly the writer was trying to say.

  • In “How to Read Literature like a Professor” I first became acquainted with the idea that people who write books are out to trick you. They might be saying that it’s raining, but they mean for you to derive that the main character is recovering from an emotional collapse. This is unfortunate because, in real life, weather patterns are not intrinsically linked to one person’s mood. No one expects it to snow because a friend of theirs has a frosty disposition. And no one should. I don’t want to have to look out my window and wonder who got angry enough to cause it to thunderstorm.
  • Methuselah, the parrot from “Poisonwood Bible”, is supposedly a symbol of Congolese repression. But it was also a frustrating addition to an already chaotic narrative and, without the implied symbolism, just a stupid bird. I wish it had flown away a lot earlier on in the story.
  • The analytical potential of poetry is even worse than that of novels because poets are obsessed with ambiguity. In the poem “Nighttime Fires,” I predicted based on the title that it was about a fire burning during the night. I felt that this was an educated and thoughtful guess, but then it turned out to focus on the realization of a loved one’s true intent. That should have been made clearer in the title. I would have been more prepared to disregard the presence of the fire if I had known it was metaphorical.
  • I assume that Shakespeare will always have to be analyzed because his plays are so difficult to read. It’s overwhelming to think about how brilliant a writer he must have been to come up with so many methods to torture English students. Here is a quote from Macbeth: “the eye wink at the hand.” Thank you, Shakespeare. You have thoroughly confused me.
  • The essay that we wrote about “The Centaur” was also a confusing experience. I definitely had no idea if my analysis was the correct one and I feel that this confusion reflects the problem with the whole practice of analyzing in general.

I understand that the entire basis for studying literature is to analyze and explain the writing of others. I also understand that all of the things I find to be frustrating and mildly ridiculous about both are valuable. I enjoyed reading everything in class this year on some level. I genuinely hope that it was not a waste. TC mark


More From Thought Catalog

  • Taylor

    I really liked reading this essay, it explains how I've always felt about analytical work (sad, wrong). Are you a junior or senior in high school? I'm taking AP Literature next year.

  • http://twitter.com/kdwald kdwald

    Most teachers (which doesn't mean the one receiving this, necessarily) are pretty good BS detectors and don't enjoy being ass kissing.  According to the assignment that you relayed, you accomplished what you set out to do: explain how the class influenced you.  I'd argue with the “unintentional” part of depth you mention early on.  There's a reason some works take years to write.  If you delivered the speech well, I'm sure the grade will reflect kindly on you.

    You even proved the difference between reading literature for enjoyment and studying it to develop skills.  It is similar to the age-old question “Why do I have to learn Algebra-Calculus-Physics-and on?  I'm never going to use it later!”  Perhaps not, but you will use the analytical skills and deductive skills you (hopefully) developed.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=506392473 Craig Messner

    This isn't quite what “real” (professionalized, institutionalized) literary criticism is about. “Correctness” doesn't come into play so much (Derridean influence and such). Rather, at the current moment, the text is treated as a historical document and is thus pushed into a feedback loop with other contemporaneous documents in order to make arguments about the time period they represent (New Historicism).  Other varieties of critical reading exist as well, but this is the most ubiquitous in the American academy. 

    This is by no means an unassailable position – in fact there are lots of interesting rumblings about including previously disenfranchised forms of reading in the academy (affective, ie) since the canon wars have been pretty decisively won by inclusiveness.

    Anyway, as someone who also suffered through high school literary analysis don't worry, it gets different. That won't necessarily mean better for you, though I personally found it more palatable.   Build on this experience and explore other avenues of reading.  From what you wrote, I think you might find Harold Bloom interesting, even if he's not my personally favorite.  He's eminently readable as well!

    • Yes

      You name dropped Derrida and Harold Bloom. I think I'm in love with you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Timberman/922794 Steven Timberman

    Maybe I got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning, but this isn't nearly as clever as you think it is.

    Yes, AP Lit/English courses are all about over-analysis. Congratulations. Half of my AP class cracked jokes about this a few years ago, and eventually a teacher joined in. This is not new.

    Plus, your examples are weak. I'm sure there are about a billion writers that could qualify as “tough to understand” (Fuck you Chaucer/Dickens/Zora Neale Hurston!), but you're going to argue against Shakespeare? Really? Why not take on Jesus Christ while you're at it?

    I didn't “get” Shakespeare for a very very long time. Lord knows why people read Romeo and Juliet in the ninth grade, that's a mystery for another time. I read Othello and just shrugged my shoulders. But then at the end of the my undergrad career I had to take a Shakespeare in Film course, and something clicked for me.

    It was a pretty crap course, to be honest. But perhaps because I was older or because I was emotionally vulnerable, or simply because I was drunk for every class, but Shakespeare's words HIT me. Read Hamlet again as a young twenty-something. Read Richard III after studying a dictator's thought process. Read Taming the Shrew after a year of online dating. Parse the language enough (or find a decent adaption), and I think there's more than enough power left in those texts.

    Everyone's free to like what they like, but the literary canon exists for a reason.

    • Caitlin

      If I didn't enjoy literature on some level I wouldn't have made such an effort to criticize it.

      • Wtf

        …the fuck?

      • Caitlin

        I like literature, I hated my AP Literature class.


      • Mandy

        you go girl!! :DD

  • Mp90909

    You wrote what I've been thinking about for years. Though I graduated high school in 2009, I still have friends or friends' siblings complaining about AP Lit on his or her Facebook statuses. I found Comp for interesting than Lit simply due to the lack of in-depth analysis in Comp. My teacher was a typical hard-ass when it came to grading synthesis essays.

    If you're not pursing a literary field, you'll find you will never use AP-style writing past high school.

  • http://twitter.com/joshliburdi Josh Liburdi

    wow, your AP essay prompt sucked. we had to analyze a piece by the Onion and write about its use of satire. best exam i've ever taken, and i got college credit out of it.

    edit: wait, now i can't remember if it was AP lit or a different AP class. either way, i hate any sort of prompt that asks you to explain how things have impacted/ influenced you. they're the worst when you don't give a shit about any of it. (especially in job interviews.)

  • Taylor

    I took AP Literature and AP Language in high school and though I was weary about many of the things that you seem to have dismissed completely, I attempted to subscribe to them to get the most out of the course and the best possible grade. I came into college as an English major and subscribing to these seemingly bizarre theories became more and more reasonable and made every English literature class much easier and MUCH more enjoyable. I promise you, your teacher isn't wrong. Over-analysis isn't wrong (in fact, that seems to be quite what you are doing in your essay here), but thought without creativity is nothing. Literature and literary analysis is creative, and there is room for argument and invention. You seem to be a great writer, so I just urge you to give literature another chance.

  • lonicole

    Where I go, the English Department has about ten little section men running around ruining things for people, and they're all so brilliant they can hardly open their mouths – pardon the contradiction. I mean if you get into an argument with them, all they do is get this terribly benign expression on their –

  • Tory

    “How to Read Literature Like  a Professor” is the stupidest, least helpful book on literary criticism I have ever read. I knew this when I read it for AP Lit and paid it absolutely no attention, and this greatly benefited my enjoyment of the class.

    If you don't like Shakespeare, fine, you're entitled to your opinion. But I will say that, having taken AP Lit and moved on to a degree in English Literature at a UK university, I appreciate and enjoy Shakespeare much more as a 20-year-old than I did as a 17-year-old–and I enjoyed it at 17, to an extent. The above poster is right: he still has a lot to say about the human condition if you listen. And for God's sake, don't try to just *read* the plays if you can't get past the language. Watch a good film version. They help you understand what's going on.

    I'm not about to start defending the construction of the AP Lit syllabus, because if you don't have a decent teacher who can bring things to life for you, the course is bullshit. But AP Lit has very little to do with the adult world of literary criticism. Just so you know.

  • alice

    you are ~*~sUcH a bAdAsS~*~

  • sidebar

    This reminds me of the first essay I wrote in 6th grade about how hard it was to read 'Dracula'.  Are you going to write next about how blue the sky is?

    • YES

      I love you.

    • http://twitter.com/Sscottie Scott Lewis

      this kitty's got claws

  • Hank Single

    Sort of ran out of steam after the first example – but the opening and it were both really clever.

  • Actually a Russian major

    Are you shitting me? You think Shakespeare is hard? Try some Faulkner or some James Joyce that I had to study in high school. Boo fucking hoo.

    • FATHER

      There, there, peasant.  She's too young for vulgarities.

    • father

      There, there, peasant.  She's too young for vulgarity.

    • UMM

      James Joyce is a genius (but yes, he is difficult), but I don't really understand why people say Faulkner is so difficult. His prose is fairly simplistic because it's all stream-of-consciousness. He's much easier than the European Modernists, like Joyce and Woolf.

  • inflammatorywrit

    For our IB English exam, we had to pick one of 15 possible folders on a table (with work ranging from Shakespeare to Hemingway to Margaret Atwood) and talk about it for 20 or so minutes to our teacher. I picked something by Virginia Wolfe and then experienced the most terrifying 20 minutes of my life.

    • heyoh

      Independent Oral Commentary. REPRESS THOSE HORRIBLE MEMORIES!!! Worst 20 minutes of my life. and yet somehow I still scraped a 5 on that test…

  • BrownBound

    And here, my friends, is a perfect example of why Thought Catalog should NOT extend its editorship beyond, say, a handful of the social elite.  But, in an attempt to offer some constructive criticism, Caits (since I'm sure your BFF calls you that), try writing less; it would save the reader time and frustration.  
    AP Score: 1

    • Caitlin

      Yes, all my best friends call me Caits. They refer to me in the plural form. Always.

      • Mandy

        sarcasm! hah i <3 it caits ur so snappy! :D

    • eclaire

      An here, my friends, is a perfect example of why not everyone should use the internet. The internet allows people to hide behind a semi-anonymous persona where they can believe that they belong to a so-called “social elite”. But, in an attempt to offer some constructive criticism, brownbound (I will not assume I know what your friends call you, since I don't know you and that would make me look like a know-it-all), I suggest you learn to understand sarcasm.  Sarcasm is a simple device and is used quite often as an outlet for humor. It would save those who read your comments time and frustration.
      AP Score: 1, for a misreading of the passage.

      • arbiterofjustice

        (Suggested time—7 minutes. This question counts as 1/3 of the total essay section score.)

        The above essay is by NOTCLAIRE, Esq. Read carefully and analyze. You may wish to consider such elements as spelling, word choice, punctuation, grammar, and style.

      • NotClaire

        If this was supposed to be a clever comeback of some sort it didn't come across as such.


        If you took the doc's comments to heart, you'd go to bed.  Isn't it past your bed time?

      • DoctorBlum

        I believe you meant bedtime. 

    • Goodgood

      I agree. Thank you for this.

  • http://twitter.com/VAMPARS Smokey Problemson

    I was fully prepared to dismiss this as “high school student without Perspective whining about their high school class OH MY GOD GET REAL PROBLEMS” but you know what? I remember this. I felt the exact same way. I graduated high school in 2003 after suffering through an AP Lit class much like this one, complete with Chaucer, Joyce, Faulkner, and all the other authors the comments section has designated as Hard to Read.

    In college I double majored in Spanish and Italian, and it was all literature all the time. All I ever cared about was the linguistic side of things- the structure of the language itself. I could have given a shit less about magical realism or or fantastic whatever–I thought I was done with that crap. Some people have minds for Literature, some don't. Once I realized that I was generally happier reading nonfiction and stopped trying to force myself to care about symbolism and tone and all that BS, my life became a lot easier.

    Don't worry about all the frustrated English majors- leave this shit in the dust and find something you actually like to study and you won't have to do this kind of work anymore.

    • Caitlin

      It's funny because I am a fairly adequate English student. I didn't mean the basis of this speech to be taken literally. The way we were taught Lit in my class, however, was infuriating. Analysis can make books and authors and long-dead poets unbearable. So can incompetent teachers.

      I was pissed, it was the end of year, and I am a hormonal teen. That's what came out of me.

      • Irate

        Analysis can make books unbearable?! What the hell else are you supposed to do with them? Talk about how they made you “feel?” (Which is, I would imagine, in your case, confused.)

      • DanGraysonVI

        Hormones produce the craziest things. If it's either this or “16 and Pregnant,” I'll color us lucky.

  • jellybeansparkles

    OMG! I can ToTaLLY relate! But I *think*
    “The eye ;) at the hand, yet let that be/

    Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see”
    means that MacB would rather be blind than look at a hand capable of writing this essay.

  • Ameltoid

    I remember feeling like this in AP Lit. (in 2006? OMG), and I chuckled at the opening. This paper might have been more interesting to an audience beyond your English class if you maybe introduced some of your own ideas about how to interpret literature and poetry.

  • http://twitter.com/buytoiletpaper Meaghan S

    when you grow up, you might regret 'publishing' this piece. that is, if you aspire to be a writer.

    you're missing some very crucial aspects to analyzing literature. (history, context, meaning in symbols to particular populations of people) and dismissing the metaphor as 'confusing' (gosh, you seem to be confused a lot) just makes you look dumb.

    • Caitlin

      All of this is true, but I would hope that in my old age I don't lose all ability to detect sarcasm.

      • peacenotwar

        Is sarcasm one of the few words you know?  Your not-so-biting criticism isn't sarcastic; it's bad.

  • doctorblum

    I get your argument. The “publish or perish” tenure structure forces even the purists to re-frame The Tempest from the p.o.v. of the third fisherman. But your supporting evidence is weak, and you make yourself out to be weaker-minded. The takeaway message is less “A Bitter Criticism Of AP Literature” and more “A Bitter Criticism of a Failing Educational System that Pushes Just About Anyone Through AP English.”

  • NotClaire

    you are such a kake girl, but you are also a living legend.

  • CC

    my AP lit teacher would have loved this, but he had an advanced degree in sarcasm.

  • Alison

    OMG I READ HOW TO READ LIT LIKE A PROF FOR AP LIT. i remember him using Bob Seger's “Night Moves” as a reference.

  • Jenna

    I enjoyed this essay because it basically sums up exactly how I feel about AP Literature. Not every single aspect of the writing has to have a symbol, and symbols are meant to be interpreted individually. Just because the way I saw it wasn't the way my Lit teacher (or that stupid How To Read Lit Like A Professor book…), did not mean it was wrong. Thank you, this was quite fun to read.

  • NotAmathperson

    i think its more infuriating having a teacher who refuses to accept any other symbolic interpretation other than what is printed on the answer booklet.

blog comments powered by Disqus