This post is part of a series on Writing Pedagogy.
The review of the literature, also called a lit review, is a tricky sub-genre of scholarly writing. It sometimes shows up as a standalone document in class assignments or in the early stages of the research process. It also shows up as a section of a thesis-driven paper, article, dissertation, or book.
The purpose of a lit review is to give a snapshot of the scholarly conversation on a topic. What have other people been saying about this thing you, the author of the lit review, care about?
As a photographer needs to think about how to frame a photo, the author of a lit review needs to think about what to include and what to exclude. Depending on the project it fits into, a lit review might aim to be comprehensive, to cover the development of ideas in the field over time, or to limit itself to a particular span of years. These choices about inclusion and exclusion also create space for the new arguments the author of the lit review wants to make on the topic.
A lit review is not an annotated bibliography, which would be organized alphabetically by source with standalone comments for each one. A lit review needs to be organized by IDEAS and put the sources into conversation with one another.
A mental model that helps me is to think about the lit review as a tea party. In this model, I–the author of the lit review–am the Queen. It’s my tea party, so I get to decide 1) who is invited, 2) where they get to sit, and 3) what they get to talk about with the people around them.
In this video, I model this thinking by talking through some of the sources I included in the introduction to my book Fairy Tales in Contemporary American Culture: How We Hate to Love Them.
Here are some sample paragraphs from the middle of the introduction where I write similar paragraphs on race and disability as I outlined in this video. Note the way that each time I engage with a new source, I put their ideas in the context of my overall argument and in conversation with each other. I need to give a snapshot of the conversation my book is entering, but I decide how to frame it. As the Queen of the tea party, I decide who gets invited to talk. In the video, I mentioned Nnedi Okorafor and Qiana Whitted in conversation with Thomas. I ended up not quoting them here, putting Thomas in conversation with Dhonielle Clayton and Vivian Yenika-Agbaw instead. Okorafor’s ideas show up elsewhere in the book. (Note also that all quoted material has Chicago-style endnotes in the book. Always cite your sources according to the style requested!)
In the United States in the twenty-first century, the corpus of core narratives is dominated by fairy tales. It is Grimm, Andersen, Disney, and Lang that Americans draw inspiration from and allude to as we create the narratives that tell us who we have been and who we might become. As Cristina Bacchilega writes in Postmodern Fairy Tales, “The stories we tell produce and find us in the past, and enable us to live through the present’s uncertainties by projecting us into the future,” so it is imperative that we turn scholarly attention toward these stories . This book first lays out the transition from the biblical scripture of Judaism and Christianity that informed community identity in Early Modern Europe and the American Early Republic to a shared corpus made up of fairy tales. Then follows an analysis of the way that new narrative texts in a variety of media draw on the raw materials of fairy tales to tell new stories. Fairy tales function in this way for the American community because they have not been sacred to any single group, and because they have already crossed national, ethnic, and linguistic boundaries, so similar stories exist in the corpuses familiar to different groups of people. For these reasons, the community of people who make their home in the United States and who call themselves American can use these stories to reinforce community identity.
Those members of the American community who also identify with marginalized communities, however, rarely see themselves represented, and far too often see themselves represented poorly. The fairy-tale stories American culture has been telling are problematic because systemic racism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, and ableism in the industries of cultural production favor stories that reinforce white supremacist patriarchy. As Dhonielle Clayton, co-founder of We Need Diverse Books, noted in her virtual talk at the 2020 Gaithersburg Book Festival, “without [diverse books] we’re not telling the truth.” The United States is a kaleidoscope of communities, with the potential to create striking patterns of dynamic interaction, but our narrative media tend to show us a static image. Because I am a cis-het, abled, white woman, my authority to comment on these aspects of contemporary fairy tales is limited. In an effort to balance critical analysis of these issues with the call to stay in my lane, I have, throughout this monograph, quoted and cited voices who can speak to these concerns authoritatively, and my hope is that this book will prompt conversation among literary scholars with perspectives and training that differ from mine.
In The Dark Fantastic, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas writes eloquently of her experience of consuming fantastic stories as a Black woman in her call for critical race counterstorytelling:
“In the Anglo-American fantastic tradition, the Dark Other is the spectacle, the monstrous Thing that is the root cause of hesitation, ambivalence, and the uncanny. […] Readers and hearers of fantastic tales who have been endarkened and Othered by the dominant culture can never be plausible conquering heroes nor prizes to be won in the fantastic. […] For many readers, viewers, and fans of color […] at the level of consciousness, to participate in the fantastic is to watch yourself be slain—and justifiably so, as the story recounts.”
Thomas’s analysis shows that the fantastic, the discursive space for exploring social issues, which has the potential to imagine new ways of being, has thus far tended to reinforce the structures and ideas of white supremacy in the new social systems it proposes. While Thomas’s monograph analyzes teen and adult fantastic films and television in order to articulate a broadly applicable theory, the body of scholarship by Vivian Yenika-Agbaw analyzes of representations of Blackness in literature for children and similarly finds that some texts set in Africa-inspired settings reinforce white supremacist power structures. This dynamic and its interaction with Americans’ ideas about race deserves more attention than it has been receiving in discussions of literature in classrooms and in scholarly publications.
Disability studies offers similar calls to reevaluate the texts that we create and consume. In her analysis of Disability, Deformity, and Disease in the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Ann Schmiesing finds a dynamic similar to Thomas’s theory of the Dark Fantastic—disability serves as a narrative tool for advancing the plot or revealing a character’s relative goodness (or lack thereof). Although Schmiesing’s analysis includes only the Grimms’ and closely related texts for comparison, the pattern she articulates can also be found in fairy-tale texts throughout Western culture up to the present. More broadly, in Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, Amanda Leduc explores her own reading and viewing experiences of Western fairy tales and reflects on the impact negative representations of disability have on disabled readers. In a hopeful moment, Leduc posits the potential for fairy-tales stories to depict characters who remain “disabled throughout the [story] and [don’t] encounter a magical cure.” Stories that do this would be a powerful challenge to the ableism endemic to contemporary American culture.