READ 001 – The Educated Imagination – Northrop Frye

Part of the CBC Massey Lectures series, Northrop Frye originally delivered his series of six talks on the value of studying literature, collective known as The Educated Imagination, in 1962. The lectures have been collected in a book published by Anasi. By virtue of being a student at the University of Toronto and being taught by professors who were in turn taught by Frye himself, the ideas of this book are a part of my critical DNA. Before going back to read The Educated Imagination again this week after a decade of recommending it to all and sundry, I don’t think I fully appreciated exactly how formative Frye’s ideas are to me and my approach to literature and critical theory.

If you’re feeling adventurous, take a look at my post history. Every single article I’ve written for Adventures in Storytelling on critical theory has its roots in this 98 page book. Every idea I’ve presented was either informed by or a reaction to Frye’s approach to critical theory. I think that’s pretty huge, and makes for an interesting first READ article.

The Educated Imagination seeks to answer what is, on the surface, a simple question: “What good is the study of literature?”1If I may be permitted to unfairly boil down Frye’s work to a single sentence, his thesis is simply that the study of literature teaches us to think critically, and that critical thought about the world we live in is the most useful tool in becoming a meaningful contributor to society.

One of the most attractive features of Frye’s work is that it is designed to be entertaining. The Massey Lectures are radio programming, after all, not a graduate syllabus. Many of the ideas presented in The Educated Imagination are drawn from Frye’s larger critical corpus, and are presented here in direct language that is not only accessible, but fun. The ideas aren’t watered down, they’re just simply, clearly, and concisely stated with excellent examples. Frye’s incredible and yet very dry sense of humour is also on display in spades in this work – I’m fairly certain that it is the only work of critical theory that has ever made me laugh out loud.

You may be asking yourself “what good is a book on literary criticism to a storyteller?” It’s all in how Frye approaches his explanations. If I’m being honest, the sixth and final lecture, although useful as a student of literature, is of lesser value to me as a creator. The Educated Imagination is a book for people studying literature, not writing it. That said, just because Frye approaches his examples from the opposite direction doesn’t mean they aren’t useful to us as storytellers.

If Frye’s work tells us how literature enriches us as human beings, those same lessons can be applied to the creation of literature as much as they are the enjoyment of it. Simply put, we can use the tools Frye speaks of to improve our writing by simply thinking about how stories are told. Frye says a lot, but I’d like to draw out two ideas that are built in to the very fabric of  Adventures in Storytelling.

A writer’s desire to write can only have come from previous experience of literature 2, and he’ll start by imitating whatever he’s read, which usually means what the people around him are writing. This provides for him what is called a convention.

I know. Give him a chance.

I’m not saying that there’s nothing new in literature: I’m saying that everything is new, and yet recognizably the same kind of thing as the old, just as a new baby is genuinely new individual, although it’s also an example of something very common, which is human beings, and is lineally descended from the first human being there ever were.

There’s something comforting about the idea of all storytelling working like mythology. Frye invokes Campbell and explains that stories all function in predictable, systematic ways: this is what he means by convention. There are, in short, rules that stories obey. Frye continues:

The language of literature [is] associative: it uses figures of speech, like the simile and the metaphor, to suggest an identity between the human mind and the world outside it, that identity being what the imagination is chiefly concerned with.

This is itself a fairly concise summary of some Big Ideas in semiotics, the study of how symbols make meaning. The nice thing about Frye’s treatment is that you get those ideas without pages and pages of Ferdinand de Saussure’s dense prose. Finally, in what I think is not only the best passage in the book, but a really beautifully written idea, Frye says:

Literature as a whole is not an aggregate of exhibits with red and blue ribbons attached to them, like a cat-show, but the range of articulate human imagination as it extends from the height of imaginative heaven to the depth of imaginative hell.  Literature is a human apocalypse, man’s revelation to man, and criticism is not a body of adjudications, but the awareness of that revelation, the last judgement of mankind.

What Frye does in these passages is suggest two linked ideas. First, that literature is a web of self-referencing context, and the more you know about literature, the better you can appreciate it. This is the project of Adventures in Storytelling in a nutshell. We’re creating literature of all types, looking into how it works, how best to make it, and discovering for ourselves how the links in that web that Frye talks about work.

Second, Frye says that literature, the stories we tell ourselves, are how we define ourselves as human beings. This is Adventures in Storytelling’s mission statement. Its our raison d’etre, writ large in a work of critical theory. The valuable lesson here is that the two are so inextricably linked to each other in Frye’s work. Maybe this should have been self-evident, but the very process of trying to be better at storytelling means that we are trying to improve ourselves as human beings.

Frye does an excellent job of looking at topics like semiotics, verisimilitude, how meaning is generated by an audience and author alike (and in conjunction), and he even complicates classic writing advice like “write what you know” in interesting ways. I picked these examples because they explicitly link to ideas I’ve presented in my own work here at Adventures in Storytelling, but Frye does so much more, and links them all in the context of his thesis in an easy-to-read series of lectures. I cannot recommend The Educated Imagination enough – not only because it challenges me as a storyteller, but because I feel it challenges me to be a better person. And really, as it turns out, those two things are one and the same.

  1. If you’re an English major, the next time somebody asks you why you study English, just hand them this book. Keep a few copies in your pocket. They’ll come in handy, I promise. Source: my two English degrees.

  2. “literature” in a broad sense. Frye spends a lot of time explaining that “literature” is more than just books and movies, but rather the stories that define us as human beings… waitaminute, this sounds familiar…

1 thought on “READ 001 – The Educated Imagination – Northrop Frye”

  1. I don’t wish to speak for other community members and their personal critical preferences or background, and so I didn’t put this in the article proper, but Frye’s ideas seem present in articles by Madeline and Amanda, as well as my own. It could very well be that neither of these AiS contributors have ever read Frye, or it could be they disagree vehemently with his critical oeuvre, but there is, at the very least, some parallel of ideas here.

    If you take a look at Madeline’s “On Writing Alone,” you’ll see a simile that suggests writing by yourself is like living on an island with a population of one. Frye uses the exact same device in his efforts to define what literature is. His entire first lecture informs Madeline’s ideas in interesting (and I thought enlightening) ways.

    Amanda, in her article “It’s a Bit Formulaic, Wouldn’t You Say?” comes right up against what Frye is saying about convention; Lester Dent’s Master Plot depends on literature acting a certain way in its own system. Frye spends some time talking about how this is true for both popular (read: pulp) fiction writers are the so-called “Great Works” of literature. It all exists in the same system and it all lives (or dies) based on the same rules.

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