A primer on the GRE Subject Test in Literature

[This post is dedicated to a friend of mine who said he was interested in applying to creative writing PhDs some time in the future]

Part 1

In America, the GRE Subject Test in Literature is a requirement for a few Creative Writing MFAs and many PhDs. It is a two hour forty five minute multiple choice exam on English language literature, done with a pencil and paper, aimed to provide college admissions committees with a guide to how much literature you know. I see two main ways to prepare for it: 1. Buy test prep books, take classes with Kaplan, and learn tricks to improve your score. 2. Know, as best you can, the literature the test focuses on.

Obviously the two options should be combined. I didn’t have time for 1., unfortunately, so I didn’t do any exam prep apart from working through the provided practice test. Fortunately, however, the test has a distinct bias towards certain kinds of literature, and I was lucky enough to share its interests. Even if you are worried about your general lit knowledge, if you focus on what the test seems to like, and start studying now-ish, you should be able to get a very good score in October or November. You don’t need to get every question right: I left many unanswered, and I’m sure made many mistakes, but still managed to get into the top 2%.

A cynical way to understand the current test: imagine it is drawn up by a rather old professor who adores everything that happened in England before 1929, and who considers “literature” to be roughly synonymous with poetry written by Englishmen in gowns, ruffs, hats and wigs. He is helped by a younger assistant who is keenly interested in literary theory, and who, worried that the test may be perceived by some to be too conservative, devotes one or two pages to twentieth century African American fiction, and two questions within one page to A House for Mr. Biswas.

In other words (and this meant to be is a rough and ready guide—please check with Kaplan or some other test expert to make sure this is good advice), don’t expect much of:

  • Raymond Carver or Alice Munro
  • Elizabeth Bishop or James Merrill
  • Basho or Sappho
  • Charles Waddell Chesnutt or Graham Greene
  • Salman Rushdie or Anne Rice
  •  

    What, then, do you need to know?

    1. The major Romantic poets. There seem to be regular questions that require you know who said what. You should build up a familiarity with the most famous poems of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge, and a less extensive understanding of the kind of stuff Byron and Blake wrote. In the test, you will likely have to be able to put names to verses.

    For instance, if you get this:

    I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

    Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,

    But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet

    Wherewith the seasonable month endows

    The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;

    then you might consider what you know of the Romantics, and think: too sensual to be Wordsworth, too sanguine to be Shelley, too good to be Byron, not nuts enough to be Coleridge, not allegorical enough to be Blake. Ergo, it must be Keats. Whereas this:

    O Rose, thou art sick:
    The invisible worm,
    That flies in the night
    In the howling storm,
    
    Has found out thy bed
    Of crimson joy;
    And his dark secret love
    Does thy life destroy.

    This is a bit too openly sexual for Keats. It’s is too Wagner-esque to be Wordsworth. The diction is too rapid to be Shelley or Coleridge or Byron. It feels like there is a complex allegory at work here: it’s Blake.

    The remaining eight categories of topics to study, and how to begin studying them, will follow in the next post (s). I’m also planning a primer on the major Romantic poets, so pretty soon you’ll be playing the guess-the-Romantic game with ease.

    Best wishes,

    Daniel

    2 thoughts on “A primer on the GRE Subject Test in Literature

    1. I have read that poem about the rose and the worm and thought it concerned a caterpillar turning into a butterfly after the caterpillar had ruined the blossom. Apparently I missed the meaning completely.You English majors really have a rough time. In reading about parataxis and hypotaxis I wondered, do U actually have to remember all that while U are writing something? What about an interesting subject? I read a lot, buy books and magazines and certainly never think about parataxis, etc. I do find Hemingway’s short and choppy sentences annoying. I prefer Somerset Maugham who writes about places I have never been and would love to visit. By the way, I read someplace that Keat’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is the greatest piece of literature ever written. Better than the Greek tragedies or Shakespear. Do U agree?

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    2. Hi Peregrine,

      That’s a lot of questions at once… 🙂

      About the Blake poem–well, it might simply be about natural birth and decay. It might also be about other things. I don’t think asking what the “meaning” is is the best way to read a poem. That makes it sound like poems are tests set by writers, and you either get the answer or you don’t. For the greatest literature, that obviously can’t be true: there are more books written about Hamlet than could ever be read. Either only one of those books is right (or none of them), or, instead, poetry is a place where meaning happens, where we bring who we are and what we know into play, and see what we can produce. The better the poem, usually, the more fertile it is.

      If the rose is simply the victim of a grub or insect, why does Blake talk about “bed of crimson joy?” It is noticeable that both characters in the poem see love as something they must hide–so in this poem, aggressive destructive love and self-love are both seen as sinful by the people doing them. Because Blake writes about frustrated sexuality in some of his other poems (“Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” is maybe his boldest criticism of it) one starts to think about what the rose might represent, what vision of perverted love is being hinted at: society, or “experience,” leaves us unable to love healthily.

      Hypotaxis: no, I don’t think about it consciously while scribbling, but if one wants to improve one’s style, thinking consciously about techniques can be useful. It’s like cooking: I’ve eaten lots of meals I didn’t know how to make; I’ve cooked good meals without a recipe; the best chefs can both cook by instinct and they know the recipe.

      Fiction writing is frequently taught in US colleges as though there are no recipes–I dislike this approach, and so on this blog and elsewhere I try to provide some and show their value.

      I never start a story from a technique. Usually I have an idea, a character’s voice, a situation. But in order to get it on to the page, techniques of some kind are necessary. Perhaps in a few years I will get to a higher level of cooking and will have forgotten all this talk of technique.

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