by Emily Hogin
One of the most common prompts I see at the Writing Center is the “lens essay.” A lens essay brings two texts in dialogue with one another in a very particular way. It asks you to use Text B – the lens – to illuminate something you didn’t already know about Text A.
How Not to Argue a Lens Essay
A lens essay is not a list of differences and similarities between two texts. The following are some (exaggerated) examples of a bad argument for a lens essay I’ve come across at the Writing Center:
Even though one is philosophy and the other is a novel, both Text A and Text B talk about the imagination.
This first thesis statement notes a similarity between the two texts that will likely be obvious to readers of the text. It doesn’t use one text to illuminate anything about the other.
While both Text A and Text B argue that human nature is unchangeable, Text A asserts that humans are inherently good and Text B asserts that humans are inherently bad.
This thesis makes a claim about each text but doesn’t say anything about them in relation to each other.
Text A, a poem, does a better job of communicating the emotional struggles of living with HIV than Text B, a statistical report, because a poem allows readers to identify emotionally with other people while statistics are more abstract and cold.
This third thesis statement does make an argument that connects both texts, but again fails to use one text to tell us something we don’t already know about the other text.
Here is an illustration of what an effective lens essay will look like:
In my experience, a successful lens essay implies a certain kind of thought-process that has at least four parts:
(1) I read Text A
(2) I read Text B (my lens)
(3) I re-read Text A and noticed something I didn’t notice before
(4) That something turns out to carry consequences for my overall reading of Text A (thesis/argument)
(And if you really want to wow your reader, you’d add a final part:)
(5) Applying Text B (my lens) in this way also reveals something significant about Text B
When I say significance or consequences, I don’t mean that it has to alter the meaning of a text radically; it can be something small but important. For example, you might find that one element is a lot more important (or a lot less important) to the overall text than you had previously thought.
As an example, here is an excerpt from the introduction to my last lens essay:
The concept of the imagination is ambiguous throughout Venus in Furs: at times, the imagination appears as passive as a battleground that external forces fight to occupy and control; at other times, the imagination appears to drive the action as if it is another character. Any theory of sexuality that seeks to explain Venus in Furs thus must be able to explain the ambiguity over the imagination. Foucault’s theory of the inescapable knowledge-power of sexuality comes close to being able to explain Sacher-Masoch’s ambiguous concept of the imagination, but applying Foucault in this way highlights Foucault’s own difficulty situating the imagination within his theory.
You can see my lens essay thought-process in just these three sentences:
(1) I read Venus in Furs (Text A) and noticed that the imagination is ambiguous
(2) I read Foucault (Text B, my lens) (3) to better understand the imagination in Venus in Furs
(4) Foucault helped explain why an ambiguous imagination is an appropriate way to look at sexuality
but (5) applying Foucault to the imagination tells me that Foucault’s own theory is challenged when he has to account for the imagination.
Once you have an argument for a lens essay, you will have to structure your paper in a way that allows this lens essay thought-process to come across. This means that each of your topic sentences should refer back to this thought-process. Even if you need a paragraph that discusses one of the texts primarily, your topic sentence should justify why you’re doing that. Your complicated and interesting thesis will likely require you to move back and forth between Text A and Text B (your lens).
Of course, your argument will depend on your assignment, but I’ve found this four-part approach successful in a number of courses where the assignment asked me to bring two texts in dialogue with one another.