Writing a Critical Brief:
Note: Before writing your first Critical Brief, study carefully the document How to Read a Short Story, which defines and explains the literary terms and concepts I expect you to understand and use during this course.
You can find the story here: https://sfponline.org/Uploads/372/sonnysblues.pdf
What is a Critical Brief?
It is an informal writing assignment in which you demonstrate two things—first, that you have read the assigned story and are able to discuss its fundamental literary elements; and second, that you have given careful, original thought to its meaning. You will be writing one critical brief for each assigned story. Critical briefs are not formal papers; they will be graded for content only—for their ideas and thoughts—NOT for the quality of the writing. (Of course, it is necessary that your writing be clear and understandable!)
Each Critical Brief should consist of THREE SEPARATE PARAGRAPHS, each one at least 75 words. Together, these three paragraphs should fit on one double-spaced page; they will add up to about 225-250 words. You are welcome to write more if you like.
PARAGRAPH 1 must answer the following questions: (1) What point-of-view method is being used? (2) Who is the protagonist (main character), and why do you think so? (3) How is the protagonist tested by the story’s events, and what does this say about the protagonist’s character and personality? (4) How is the protagonist changed by the story’s events? Make sure you answer all four of these questions if you hope to receive full credit.
PARAGRAPH 2 is comprised of your response to just ONE of the several questions provided for the assigned story “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin (These questions can be found highlighted in yellow at the end of this doc). Simply write a thoughtful reaction to ONE of the prompts, supporting your ideas with evidence from the story.
PARAGRAPH 3 is more open-ended. In it, you must demonstrate your willingness to think creatively about what you have read. Do this by (1) offering an interesting question YOU have about the story, OR (2) making an observation about the story that you think other readers may not have noticed. In either case, whether you ask a question or make an observation (no need to do both!), you must follow up with a brief discussion that tries to answer the question you have posed or explain why you’ve made the observation you’ve made. Your task in this paragraph, then, is to offer your own unique perspective — to demonstrate that you have thought about the story deeply and on a personal level.
When writing the Critical Briefs, please avoid offering opinions based solely on personal experience or personal taste. Don’t tell stories that may have happened to you or to someone you know. Stick to the text.
Critical Briefs are each worth 10 possible points. Each will be assessed according the following three criteria:
1. Meets length requirements and addresses all stated areas for the three paragraphs.
2. Focuses on the text, not merely on personal taste.
3. Demonstrates thoughtfulness about the assigned story.
Questions for Paragraph 2, pick ONE to write your thoughtful reaction.
1. What statement does the story make about the relationship of art to life or about the relationship of art to suffering? Explain.
2. Explore the intersections between the effects of drug use, music and religion in “Sonny’s Blues.”
3. Toward the end of the story, as he is trying to explain his addiction to heroin and his passion for music, Sonny tells the narrator that everyone tries to find a way not to suffer, even the narrator himself. What are the narrator’s ways of coping with his pain and fear?
4. How would you describe the tone of the ending? What sort of resolution (if any) does the story or the narrator come to? Does the narrator express optimism? Pessimism? Something in between? Explain.
5. Do Sonny and his brother change in this story? If so, what do you identify as the catalyst for their changes and where do we see these changes? If not, how can you tell that they remain stagnant?
6. In what respects is this story and comment on the ways in which “Sonny’s Blues” is a retelling, revision or modernization of the Cain and Abel story in the Bible?
7. What is the “cup of trembling” referred to in the last line? How does this Biblical allusion work to help the reader understand what will or has happened to Sonny, his brother, their family and their community?