4: Personal and expressive genres
An expressive text may reveal the thoughts, feelings, experiences and memories of its author. Narratives, personal commentaries, personal essays and blogs are examples of expressive texts.
1) Personal essay
The personal essay is a very popular genre today, not least on the internet. Journalists often write in this genre, producing personal commentaries or even diaries. Typical of these texts is the personal, subjective and informal tone. The aim is to grasp the reader through a personal approach not unlike the narrative approach of fiction, as if we are being told an important story. An example of the personal essay is Zora Neale Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”:
I remember the very day that I became colored. Up to my thirteenth year I lived in the little Negro town of Eatonville, Florida. It is exclusively a colored town. The only white people I knew passed through the town going to or coming from Orlando. The native whites rode dusty horses, the Northern tourists chugged down the sandy village road in automobiles. The town knew the Southerners and never stopped cane chewing when they passed. But the Northerners were something else again. They were peered at cautiously from behind curtains by the timid. The more venturesome would come out on the porch to watch them go past and got just as much pleasure out of the tourists as the tourists got out of the village.
Hurston entices us with her first sentence, adding a touch of mystery. How did she become coloured at 13? The language is fairly simple. Most of the sentences are short so the text is accessible to all readers. The subjective informal tone adds to the intended feeling of this being a personal memory, and the personal pronoun leaves no doubt of this. In Hurston's text the blacks and whites look at each other with equal curiosity. This text is from 1928 and Hurston is challenging the ruling racist ideas of the period by treating blacks and whites equally.
Even though this is a subjective, personal text it can be very effective and informative. Presumably as we read we will learn about how Hurston became coloured at 13 and this may give us insight into racism and how people feel when they are treated differently. A text like this can be just as informative as an objective text and in many cases may be much more effective.
2) Political blogs
The language of blogs can vary from the very informal and even grammatically suspect to professionally edited texts. We have placed blogs in the personal genre mostly because it is a text format that is open to everyone. However, even if its origin is very personal, a blog text may share many of the characteristics of many of the other genres we have looked at, since the aim of the blog might be to explain, persuade or analyse.
Many blogs are commentaries on politics and other important issues where the blog acts in much the same way as an editorial or commentary in a newspaper. Political blogs welcome reader responses which appear in a string at the bottom of the main text and which sometimes carry on a life of their own.
Read the following blog entry:
America must act to address Climate Change
The world’s scientists are in agreement: climate change is real, and we are largely responsible. America’s religious institutions, corporations, environmental and political leaders are in agreement – we must take action and we must recognize our moral responsibility to be good stewards of the Earth today and for all future generations. Out of this sense of responsibility, we call on our country to take immediate action to address climate change. Join us in partnering with the producers of the new film The Great Warming, as we launch our awareness campaign and call to action. Nothing less is at stake than the future of this planet we all call home.
While we call this a blog text and it appears on the internet, it is also a persuasive text. The language is formal and professional, and it does not use abbreviations. The repetition of the verb “must” is an emotional appeal to readers. The adjective “immediate” adds a sense of urgency to the issue. The text also repeats the abstract noun “responsibility” twice to make the reader feel that he or she is part of the problem and the solution, while the adjective “moral” in front of responsibility is used to suggest that we cannot escape our duties and obligations when it comes to saving the earth. The text has a tone of formal, official fact: “the world’s scientists are in agreement”. This is not an easy claim to make as scientists seldom seem to be in agreement on anything at all, but when it is stated here it makes climate change appear to be a reality that requires urgent action. This agreement is then extended to religious institutions, corporations, and environmental and political leaders, including all the big players in society.
The use of the noun “steward” is interesting here in two ways. It suggests that we were born to be protectors of the earth rather than exploiters, and it draws our attention to the fact that we have a responsibility (implied without using the word again) for future generations.
The formal language gives the call to action a professional tone so readers feel they are joining a legitimate and well-organised crusade for the environment. The closing sentence uses the personal pronoun “we” and the metaphor “home” for the planet as the final appeal to the reader to accept his or her responsibility.
Literary texts cover a wide variety of genres; these can express opinions, ideas, images and events, usually with an underlying intention or theme. We call literary texts expressive, as their aim is to express ideas and to help us form images in our minds.
If we look at the text below from the novel The Great Gatsby, an analysis ofthe effect of the language features and literary devices shows how carefully constructed this text is. The narrator is describing a polluted industrial area outside New York City that is referred to as the “valley of ashes”.
About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes – a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.
This does not seem like an area that people would want to visit. The long sentences, especially the second sentence, suggest the narrator’s morbid fascination with this place, almost as if he cannot take his eyes off it. The language is quite sophisticated and formal, with high lexical density, and combined with the complex sentence structure we can surmise that the text is written for discerning, well-educated readers.
Already in the first sentence we read that the road hastily joins the railroad. The adverb hastily tells us that this place is so ugly and bad that even the road is trying to get out of there as quickly as possible, and it wants to shrink away from this desolate area. The verb shrink underlines how disgusting and depressing this area is, as we shrink back from sights and smells we do not like. Shrinking also suggests being overwhelmed by and afraid of something, in this case the ugly “valley of ashes”. The use of shrink here is also an example of the literary device of personification. The road is referred to as shrinking like a person or animal. The tone of the text is affected by such adjectives as desolate and grotesque, while the proper name used for this place, valley of ashes, has connotations of death, perhaps even hell. By calling it a fantastic farm, an example of alliteration, we are given a sense of this terrible place actually being cultivated, that is, built with intent. This valley is then the result of all our industrial endeavours that make a few people rich and result in ugly pollution and a grotesque landscape. This also adds an accusatory tone to the text that is highlighted by the use of the above-mentioned alliteration. Comparing the industrial “growth” to farming is also a metaphor, another typical literary device that makes us more aware of the fact that this ugly scene before us is the willing creation of man.
The text then maintains the farm metaphor as the corrupted nature of the valley is described by the simile like wheat into ridges and hills… The image we form in our minds of rows of wheat is normally one of beauty as in wheat waving in the wind. But here the image is grotesque because of this contrast between the words and the place being described: the valley of ashes. The adjective transcendent, which means rising above, or something exceptional, here describes the men moving in the valley. This is ironic, as the men do not transcend anything at all, they only manage to move dimly and in a crumbling way; the adverbs dimly and crumbling give connotations of broken men beaten down by their environment. Combining this with the adjectival phrase through the powdery air makes this environment seem extremely unhealthy and uninviting. No wonder the road is shrinking away and trying to get out of there so quickly!
Here we see how language and literary devices are used to create effect and the level of the language even helps us to decide who the intended reader is. We can say that the writer tries to manipulate or persuade the reader to see things a certain way, and this text makes us see the negative effects of industry and, by association, capitalism.
Determine the text type of each of the texts below and write one or two paragraphs for each text in which you give reasons for your choices, using examples from the texts.
a) As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes. Most of them, I have no doubt, are kind-hearted law-abiding men who would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it. He is serving his country, which has the power to absolve him from evil.
b) There one might have sat the clock round lost in thought. Thought — to call it by a prouder name than it deserved — had let its line down into the stream. It swayed, minute after minute, hither and thither among the reflections and the weeds, letting the water lift it and sink it until — you know the little tug — the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out? Alas, laid on the grass how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating. I will not trouble you with that thought now, though if you look carefully you may find it for yourselves in the course of what I am going to say.
c) Responses to efforts to control who can legally own firearms suggest that, for many in America, guns are closely tied to national identity. For Canadians to understand the reaction in America to the possibility of more gun control, they should imagine the response here in Canada should factions begin suggesting increased regulation of beavers and maple syrup.
I anticipate there would be a furious response from our citizenry to beaver control. This reaction would occur, the American debate around firearms suggests, even if restrictions to Canadiana were proposed specifically because people kept taking their beavers into malls and movie theatres and using them to kill people – lots of people, since the beavers were semi-automatic, or at least tireless, as beavers famously are.
If maple syrup exploded and killed a lot of children in a school, there would be outrage, but were someone (who owned acres of sugar bush) to insist that paying people to stand around schools with large jugs of maple syrup would keep the children safe, some might agree that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with maple syrup is a good guy with maple syrup, because, mmm, maple syrup.
d ) I feel sick at heart reading about the deaths of desperate people at sea. Too many are dying as they try to enter Fort Europe. So much more needs to be done to address the problems that force people to risk their lives in this way. We can’t go on ignoring this. I look forward to comments on this terrible tragedy. What are your thoughts?
e) Some time back I wrote a post about whether music practice tells us anything about practising language. I enjoyed thinking about it, and especially interviewing musicians to get their take on what was/is going on. There seemed to be a consensus that to be effective, practice (of music, that is) needs to be focused, deliberate, and maybe conducted in short bursts, rather than lengthy sessions.
Read part of the extract from the novel Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. You will find it one page 306 of the textbook. Analyse the passage from the paragraph that begins “The bankruptcy matched my psyche perfectly” to the end of the extract and comment on the use and effect of the language. Pay special attention to the tone. Use examples from the text.
Read the extract below from the novel The Closed Circle by Jonathan Coe. Analyse the passage in terms of how the author creates an understanding of the character, Paul, through the language he uses in his description of the city of London. Use examples from the text.
He lifted his bike on to the pavement and leaned it against the railings of the bridge. Elbows on the parapet, chin cupped in his hands, he gazed for a while at the view that never failed to entrance him: to his left, the Palace of Westminster, floodlit and buttery, its shimmering reflection throwing a golden light on to the black metal surface of the sleeping Thames; and to his right, the new upstart, the London Eye, bolder, sleeker, bigger than any of the buildings around it, patterning the river with pools of neon blue, transforming the whole cityscape with casual impudence. One of them represented tradition and continuity - the things Paul was most suspicious of. The other represented - what? It was sublimely purposeless. It was a machine, a flawless machine for making money and for showing people new vistas of something that they already knew to be there. The Wheel and the Palace squared up to each other, co-existing for now, sharing their ascendancy over this part of London in a surreal, uneasy, beautiful truce. And Paul stood on the bridge between them, feeling a shivery exhilaration, an overwhelming sense of the tightness of a life that had led him, finally, to this place, and this time. It was where he belonged.