[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]
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:
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.