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Speaking as an old-fashioned formalist, I would have to say that what interests me most about literature is the skill with which it is (ideally) written. In other words, I am less concerned with what a work of literature "says" than withhowit says it. Formalists operate under the assumption that most works of literature communicate very common, even humdrum messages, at least if those messages are reduced to simple paraphrases ("be good; don't be evil; treat people well; nature is beautiful; life is tragic; some people suffer unfairly," etc., etc.). The "great" work of literature takes those rather mundane meanings and, becauses of the writer's skills in phrasing, setting, symbolism, structure, sound effects, etc., etc., makes those meanings memorable, powerful, and, yes, even beautiful. Anyone (a formalist would argue) can communicate a message and convey a theme, and indeed probably the best way to do so is by writing an essay. Only a truly talented writer, however, can manipulate language in such a way that a powerful poem, novel, or drama is the final result.
Therefore, the effects that a great work of literature usually has on me might include the following:
* I am enormously impressed by the skill of the writing.
* I am enormously moved or touched becauseof the skill of the writing.
* I have a sense that such powerful writing is highly unusual and am therefore very impressed with it.
* I realize than a less talented writer could easily have treated the same "topic" or "theme" and produced a work not worth reading more than once, if that.
Different people are affected in different ways by literary texts. The school of literary criticism that investigates how contemporary readers respond to literary works is called "reader-response criticism"; historical analyses of how readers have responded to works over a long period of time is called "reception studies".
Responses to literary texts can be emotional, intellectual, or both. Aristotle and neo-Aristotelian critics argue that literature is a branch of ethics because literary characters and plots give imaginative examples of ethics in action and cause us to refine our emotion responses to ethical dilemmas via a mechanism known as catharsis.
Probably the most balanced response to literary texts is one that includes some degree of emotional engagement combined with aesthetic appreciation and an intellectual response based on knowledge of historical and generic contexts. Literary studies train people to respond in this sort of complex manner.
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