Usable Questions

I spent two hours in the stacks yesterday, unearthing Norman Mailer criticism. (My love of library research comes in at #17 on the “Reasons I’m Still Not Finished That Damn Dissertation” list.) While flipping through the pages of College English in search of an early Frederic Jameson article, I found and photocopied a two-page piece by Ira Shor, which I’ve transcribed below. The first set of questions were gleaned from Shor’s readings of Georg Lukacs; the second were borrowed from a “former classmate’s paper.” Lest you think he has completely forgotten about, well, art, Shor does add the following:

A marxist formalism becomes possible when a materialist intelligence reads texture and structure as closely as do New Critics. The deepest level of literary experience occurs through diction, imagery, patterns of language and character, structures of incidents, motifs, figures, and gestures. A method which absorbs that level of aesthetic form demonstrates most profoundly the unity of knowledge action, and feeling which is art’s mimesis of life.

I’ll comment on the questions themselves later, in a post that has been percolating for a week or two now.

“Questions Marxists Ask About Literature” by Ira Shor
College English 34.2 (1972): 178-79.


  1. Is there an outright rejection of socialism in the work?
  2. Does the novel raise the fundamental criticisms about the emptiness of life in bourgeois society?
  3. Does the author try to overcome Angst and chaos?
  4. In portraying a society, what approximation of totality does the author achieve? What is emphasized, what ignored?
  5. How is meaning restored to life?
  6. How well is the fate of the individual linked organically to the nature of societal forces?


  1. What are the work’s conflicting forces?
    • What secondary conflicts exist?
    • Does the plot tension imply a widespread social anxiety? Does its resolution imply the hopes of a period?
    • What threatens order?
    • Who wins in the end? In terms of the unexpected, as well as the predictable victors, can any ideological statement be made?
  2. At what points are actions or solutions to problems forced or unreal?
  3. In terms of characterization:
    • Are there any common analogies used in describing categories of people or actions, like women or working or lovemaking?
    • Are characters from all social levels equally well-sketched?
    • Are any constituencies caricatures vis-a-vis sex, race, or class, or defined only from an outsider’s point of view?
    • How often, for what reasons, and in which instances does authorial distance change, does the author alter her or his detachment, irony, or seriousness?
  4. What are the values of each class in the work?
    • What are the values of one class to another and how are they expressed?
    • Is there a class of virtuous people (children, women, servants, beggars, priests, police, etc.)?
    • What do characters (or classes of characters) worry about?
  5. Are the main problems or solutions in the novel individual or collective? Same for secondary concerns?
  6. Is there any indication that social change might improve anything?
  7. What are the dialectics of morality? Is anyone caught in a moral dilemma in which social or economic necessity clashes with moral precept?
  8. What considerations override basic impulses toward love, justice, solidarity, generosity, etc.
  9. Which values allow effective action?
    • What values are proposed for the reader’s adoption? Which characters are models?
    • What is valued most? Sacrifice? Assent? Resistance? How clearly do narratives of disillusionment and defeat indicate that bourgeois values (competition, acquisitiveness, chauvinism) are incompatible with human happiness?
    • What specific complex of forces motivates behavior? Family? Village? Passion? Civil authority?
    • Does the protagonist defend or defect from the dominant values of society? Are those values in ascendancy or decay?
    • How do characters get information?
    • How are forms of life validated to the characters?
    • Which kinds of characters mediate a change in values?
    • What controls (sanctions or procedures or protocol) exist within each group of characters to control behavior?