What Do We Mean by Changing Lives and, Anyway, Why Literature?

photo by voxtheory on flickr

by Jane Hale 

All students in the Changing Lives Through Literature program, without exception, need to make changes in their lives. In fact, they are all doing so, as do all of the rest of us, for to be alive is to change. While change is inevitable, though, its direction is not.

The CLTL students have typically experienced a number of changes for the worse in their lives, sometimes in their family situation, often in their behavior, and probably most recently in their status within the legal system. Some have gone from not having a record to getting one, some from minor scrapes with the law to a major one. Many of them have learned only two ways to deal with this kind of painful change: acting out in inappropriate and ultimately self-defeating ways or numbing their pain with drugs and alcohol. Making them aware of other, less self-defeating options that will redirect their lives in more positive directions is the purpose of CLTL.


What better way to explore options for one’s life than to read and talk and think and write about how others live theirs? And about how our experiences and choices are related to theirs? About how we might learn from their mistakes, learn to feel compassion for people different from ourselves, be validated by finding out that others experience the same frustrations, doubts, and difficulties as we do in their own lives, that we are not alone?


 The literary texts we choose for our CLTL classes all deal with characters confronting pain, choices, and change. We use them as models and springboards for our own self-discovery and self-expression, and we practice discussing their experiences in order to learn ways of responding with empathy and insight to the stories of those around us. It is much easier for students, initially at least, to open up to a CLTL group when discussing fictional characters’ behavior and lives than when talking about their own.


But why literature? Why not biography, autobiography, or news reports of others’ deeds and lives? The answer is not clear-cut, but there is one, and it’s based on the experiences of many groups and facilitators. There’s nothing to say that a nonfiction text will not work for any given group, but our experience has shown that the more complex and ambiguous the text, the more subjective the style, the more the text lends itself to rich discussion rather than to simple summary and straightforward comment. Some nonfiction texts reach this level of rich complexity; they are usually by writers whose primary genre is fiction. I am thinking here of John Edgar Wideman’s Brothers and Keepers or George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which have created characters and situations that far transcend any particulars of journalistic time, place, and circumstance, and both of which I use in CLTL with success.


photo by masamitony on FlickrOne of the major lessons of growing up involves learning to tolerate ambiguity. When we are little, we see the world in binary terms and want to know who is wrong and who is right, what is bad and what is good, who loves us and who doesn’t, what the whole world ought to do about any given situation. Fairy tales provide a good literary structure for such categorical thought. In my work with freshmen at Brandeis University, I often encounter the same type of rigid thinking. I make it a point to work with students over their four years in college to help them see that the world is full of many more questions than answers, and that those who pose the questions eloquently and wisely live much richer and more useful lives than those who have all the answers. We try to choose texts for CLTL that model how to formulate interesting questions and teach the benefit of considering, and perhaps accepting, several answers to the same one.


Most definitions of literature emphasize the relative importance it accords to style in relation to content. In pieces of writing we define as literature, the author normally pays more attention to the “how” of the storytelling than to the journalist’s no-nonsense “who, what, when, where, and why.”  Who has not read a novel of great beauty about people suffering in imaginary or far-off times and places?  Or seen a tragedy that delivers a soap-opera plot with cathartic force?  The way human language can be used and manipulated to make an event have value to oneself and others is one of the great lessons we teachers of literature have to impart to our students.

CLTL students need particularly to learn how to represent themselves, their experiences, thoughts, and aspirations, eloquently and positively. Teaching them both the power and the conventions of spoken and written discourse through discussing their own and others’ lives is a way to directly empower them to see and live their lives as if they had all the options for change we know they do.


Jane Hale is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Brandeis University and an instructor in the Framingham CLTL program. She has been teaching language and literature for over thirty years.


8 thoughts on “What Do We Mean by Changing Lives and, Anyway, Why Literature?

  1. Jane: Your post here covers so much about literature and about CLTL! Thanks. Your discussion about “the complexity” of literature underlines, for me, how literature can work as a way of breaking the stereotypes we too often carry around with us. Literature, I agree, invites us to question, to go on a quest. It stirs us, and helps us to break free from all kinds of rigid perceptions. Keep the vision!

  2. I’ve occasionally thought of literature as providing a kind of “technology” for living. I put the term in scare quotes because nowadays technology is associated with high tech gizmos, but I mean it in the original sense of techniques for solving problems. Fuzzy problems aren’t usually solved by simple algorithmic solutions, and many of life’s significant challenges are ill-defined. Literature contains a marvelous repository of (good and bad) solutions. It is but a small step from there to connecting literature to ethics– one which the academy has been largely afraid to take since modernizing (becoming secular). For a passionate argument on this topic, see Education’s End by Anthony Kronman.


  3. Jane, your post inspires and motivates me as a writer, reader, and teacher – thank you. In particular, I appreciate your concise, insightful answer to “But why literature?” – you articulate this so well. It’s an accessible idea and key talking point — “our experience has shown that the more complex and ambiguous the text, the more subjective the style, the more the text lends itself to rich discussion rather than to simple summary and straightforward comment.”

    You mention that “the literary texts we choose for our CLTL classes all deal with characters confronting pain, choices, and change.” In my work developing Peace Through Fiction, I’ve discovered that a wide range of novels can be transformative for some groups—even novels that don’t qualify as literature, and possibly any novel that engages a particular reader. This is exciting in part because it means the journeys begun by CLTL students can continue beyond those life-changing classes.


  4. Jane, your answer to “why literature?” reminds us of T.S. Eliot’s gibe in answer to the same question. He equated good literature with “good gossip.” People like to talk about other people. We see ourselves and the life around us reflected in people we gossip about. Works of imagination open us to the “rich discussion” of life’s complexiteis and ambiguities because, first, they tell stories about people. And for whatever reason, we just love to delve into people’s personal and private affairs; we wonder what’s going on with them and what makes them tick. What better way to pursue this kind of inquiry, this gossip if you will, than to read a work of fiction, where the author invites us to peek behind the xurtains of people’s lives. Once we getting chatting about those lives, whew, no telling where it’ll take us or what we’ll find.

  5. Carl: Gossip and good literature? Whew! That’s interesting. I usually think of gossip as the opposite of good literature. To me, gossip is similar to the television news; it might create a momentary sensation, but we’ll forget it the next day. Gossip, I believe, is a distraction, pulls us away from the “true” story that literature offers. Isn’t Prufrock in danger of being drowned by gossip when he enters that tea party at the end of Eliot’s poem?

  6. Bob, it’s Eliot’s comment. And I too thought it problematic. Until I considered “good gossip.” I inferred from the phrase that “good” gossip (as opposed to just “gossip” which we agree is superficial and a distraction) is the starting point for a “deep reading” discussion of characters’ lives. When people start gossiping, they often go beyond idle chatter, sometimes not though, of course. Through works of imagination, authors invite us, I think, to gossip about the characters. When we start a discussion of a story or book in class, the students’ comments often smack of gossip–light banter or innuendo, and sometimes downright malicious opinion. From there we move further into the heart of the story and our “gossip” begins to unravel the secrets or mysteries of the lives before us.

    Perhaps, too, I personally like to think of our discussions as gossip. If I ever mention to my students that we’re doing some heavy thinking, boy that might just stop the conversation cold.

    Jane’s point, “why literature,” brought the Eliot quotation to mind. After all, more than in biography, memoir, or history fiction allows our imaginations to range more freely, and if we start with gossip maybe that ain’t so bad.

  7. Nicole, you also picked out my favourite part of Jane’s post. It’s our “experience” that literary reading allows us to join a social conversation, realizing that the questions we ask ourselves are asked and answers by others–and have been asked and answered by others.

    Bob and Carl: nice banter about “gossip” vs “good gossip”; I’m sure Eliot had something different in mind than our current use of the word. Carl, I would love that citation.

  8. Allan, I too would love that citation for Eliot’s quotation. It’s somewhere in this moldly attic of my aging brain,but am not exacltly sure where. I think I read it eons ago in his letters, and if memory serves me correctly (and we can’t be sure about this) it had someting to do with Virginia Woolf and her novels). It’s worhty to note too that Bob is likely correct in his assertion that gossip as we commonly think about it and “serious” literature in general are inimical. Truman Capote once weighed in on thsi topic with a remark; something like “literaure is nothing but gossip” (or something like that). But as a comment on literature, we can consider this only lightly since what Capoter wrote in his last novel (such as it was) could be consdiered nothing but gossip as we know it.

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