One of David Foster Wallace’s students has posted a copy of the syllabus Wallace used to teach an undergrad course on “Literary Interpretation.” The document makes more honest literary sense than most of the overbearing, over-reaching tributes we’ve had thrown at us since Wallace’s suicide:
The goals of this section of E67 are to survey certain important forms of modern literatureâ€”short stories, novels, poemsâ€”and to introduce you to some techniques for achieving a critical appreciation of literary art. “Critical appreciation” means having smart, sophisticated reasons for liking whatever literature you like, and being able to articulate those reasons to other people, especially in writing. Vital for critical appreciation is the ability to “interpret” a piece of literature, which basically means coming up with a cogent, interesting account of what a piece of lit means, what it’s trying to do to/for the reader, what technical choices the author’s made in order to achieve the effects she wants, and so on. As you can probably anticipate, the whole thing gets very complicated and abstract and hard, which is one reason why entire college departments are devoted to studying and interpreting literature.