Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Sample Paper Proposal: Searching the Hoard in _Words like Coins_

Students, an example of the research proposal discussed here appears below; it is at the short end of acceptable length for the assignment.  Use it as a model for the kind of writing you are asked to do in my literature classes, but keep in mind the limitations on its applicability due to the differences in media between the model and what you are expected to submit to me.

An increasing amount of scholarly attention is being paid to what is termed "genre fiction," or stories that do not tend towards verisimilitude, but instead adhere to norms that do not correspond with observed reality.  Among the genres of such fiction is fantasy literature, whose most notable work is Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and which is abundant on bookstore shelves.  Tolkien is far from the only author in the genre, however, and although there are many writers of poor quality who publish fantasy, many others are quite good.  One of them is Robin Hobb.

Much of Robin Hobb's fantasy writing depicts the milieu of the Six Duchies, a fictive kingdom very much in the Tolkienan tradition.  In addition to the novels of the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, she has set several short stories and other works in that fictional nation.  One of them, the novella Words like Coins, serves as a commentary on the craft of writing, noting the perils in sloppiness of language.

The importance of words in the text is signaled in the title itself, which equates words with money--and the significance of money needs little explication to readers in the United States of the twenty-first century.  Words are therefore immediately linked with the primary means of access to material sustenance, foreshadowing their importance in the narrative.  And the foreshadowing is borne out by comments made throughout the text, particularly by the pecksies (fairy-like creatures who are bound by the words they utter) and regarding the workings of hedge magic (reliant on symbols--words--for specific effect).  Indeed, questions of specific wording serve to drive the plot of the novella.  Accordingly, the concern with exact language use is foregrounded throughout the text, thereby drawing significant attention to itself and inviting investigation.

Such investigation is merited for a number of reasons.  One is to uncover what the persistence of the device reveals about the writer.  For a professional writer to be concerned with specifics of wording and phrasing is expected, and writers are often exhorted to write what they know.  Hobb's attention to lexical detail is therefore unsurprising and entirely appropriate.  Too, as a writer, Hobb likely receives questions about the process of writing and things that are important in performing the tasks of writing.  A comment about factors of importance in writing, couched in a form not unlike a moral fable, permits response to such questions while allowing her to practice her craft yet further.  Examining how the response is carried out explicates how stories can be used to transmit information beyond their plots, making narrative more obviously important than is often the case.

Hobb does not write in a vacuum, and so her writing--as the writing of any writer--likely responds to ideas at work in the context in which the writer exists.  Investigation of the work may well point to those ideas, allowing for a case study of how social tendencies manifest in individual utterances.  Because such an examination potentially reveals aspects of broader social concerns, matters in which Hobb, the people among whom she lives, and perhaps even her readers are enmeshed (and which would themselves need to be explicated to fully undertake such scholarly work), it is of singular importance that the examination be conducted.  In serving as a vehicle for revealing more of the human condition to humanity, Hobb's Words like Coins marks itself as particularly deserving of study, and a conference-length paper offers a venue to begin conducting such work.

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