Tag Archives: reading

Pink Houses, Yellow Wallpaper, and Green Lights: Your Guess Is as Good as Mine

(I apologize to any and all English teachers in advance. I really do love you.)

Last night we had dinner with a lovely group of people I haven’t seen in ages. Our conversation bounced from funny work stories and weddings to physics and Breaking Bad, took a strange detour into dirty Shakespeare jokes before coming back around to the terrible things teachers do to their students (several of us are teachers). After relaying a couple stories about eating in front of kids and not giving a crap, somehow, we ended up back at Shakespeare.

“I can tell you with absolute certainty that Shakespeare meant for the ghost of Hamlet’s father to be real,” said the one English teacher in attendance. I wanted to bring out that the uncertainty of Hamlet’s sanity (arguably one of the major themes of the play) puts even the existence of the ghost into doubt, since the ghost is what triggers his host of erratic behavior. However, I felt it unwise to argue with an English teacher.

My husband though is not so skittish. He recalled his experience in high school reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees as one long argument with his teacher. One major point of contention: the color of the famous pink house. She posed the question to the class, “Why did the author choose to make the house pink?” My husband, revealing himself as maybe not a literary scholar but certainly a budding skeptic, replied, “Because she wanted to add some descriptive detail and pink is very descriptive.”

BZZZZ! WRONG ANSWER! While many things in literature are up for interpretation, according to your garden variety English teacher, symbols are DEFINITELY NOT ONE OF THEM. Disagree with this sentiment and prepare yourself to do battle.

Following the relaying of this anecdote, my physics teacher friend piped up with three little words: “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Everyone groaned. 

“I don’t see why it had to mean anything more than her going crazy!” she said. “Because she was definitely going crazy.”

“Well it has to mean something. It’s called ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ for Pete’s sake!”

It definitely means something. I’ve just come to the conclusion, after years of reading and years of writing, that authors (and especially English teachers), have no business telling us what that something is.

Let me make one point clear: I’m a big fan of symbols. What I’m not a fan of is being dogmatic about them.

Oh sure, there has to be limits. I’m not calling for Anarchy in the UK Lit:

“The green light represents the color of dollar bills, therefore symbolizing Gatsby placing money above his aspirations of true love!”

“M. Night used the color red to symbolize life because red is the color of blood which is the essence of life!”

“Dorothy’s Kansas was black and white because Oz was real and Kansas was the dream world! It’s the Matrix with Munchkins, baby!”

(Okay all these are American examples sorry I failed at extending my comic metaphor.)

Maybe the author intends a certain interpretation. Maybe the entire work is constructed around that interpretation. But I’m going to be so bold as to say that’s her interpretation, and she has no business imposing that upon her readers, beyond the words she’s written in the book. Sure, it’s her book, I’ll grant her that, but that doesn’t give her the right to be dogmatic. If that was her goal, she would have become an English teacher, or included a decoder ring and handy glossary of literary definitions telling us exactly what her crap’s about. Instead, she spent 100k words getting us to think about what her crap’s about. If she could have said it in any less, she wouldn’t have written a novel. She would have written a term paper.

It’s like any work of art. I can stand in front of the wall that is Guernica in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid and know the history behind the painting, know what Guernica is and what Picasso had painted about, but what I bring to my viewing is entirely my own. Maybe I can’t look at it and say it’s about any old thing (like making breakfast or slaying giants), but no one can tell me my reaction to it is wrong if I view it in complete honesty (and I stood in front of that thing for half an hour with tears dripping down my cheeks).

The best part is, you don’t have to know a thing about the Spanish Civil War to have an honest reaction. Some things are universal while some things are intensely personal. Often, the two overlap.

I say all this not because I’ve had battles with many an English teacher, but because I’ve noticed symbols cropping up in my own writing, completely without my bidding. I understand how fragile they are. Once I seize on one, try to pin it down, nurture it and extend it throughout the rest of the work, more often than not it disappears.

Symbols aren’t deliberate. They’re fungus, sprouting from the very makeup of the work, from the fertile ground of the subconscious. As the writer I can have a hunch about what it means, but anything more tends to kill the mystery and smacks of mental and emotional shoehorning. I try not to tell my reader how to feel or what to think. I trust her to be able to do that herself.

That being said (and here is where I add another disclaimer), we all owe a great deal to English teachers. Good ones show you how to approach literary criticism on your own terms, show you how to have a dialogue with the text, and open up new worlds of critical thinking and reflection. Without English teachers, I’d probably still be reading Illustrated Classics.

Possibly easier to read than the original.

(I promise I’m getting to that post about taking “Show, don’t tell” too seriously. The ideas are mostly there but need a good stitching together with a healthy dose of narrative logic. I swear, if tell myself I’m going to produce something my brain rebels and goes on hiatus. I’m reminded of the famous Douglas Adams quote: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” I’d never make it as a freelancer. Even traditionally published novelist is looking unlikely.)

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Trust Your Readers, They Know What’s Up

“Reading Corner” by Greg Williams. This is where I grew up.

Recently I started reading a book (which I will not name, however I can tell you it’s a debut YA published this year). It had a very intriguing premise and wonderful opening but somehow felt. . . wrong. Tension was high, pacing snappy, it was peopled with interesting and sympathetic characters, but my reading experience felt distant, separate. I was more aware of the physical act of reading the book than I was of the story. It made me feel self-conscious, like I was reading my own work. Was I being too critical? Was I actively on the lookout for poor writing, and therefore vindicated when I found it?

So I put the book away and started another, from an author whose debut came out in the late 80s. Same ingredients: interesting premise, wonderful opening, great pace and characters. Except this time, I was immediately immersed in the story and lost several pleasant hours before I even stopped to take a breath.

What happened? Why was this book different from the first? I tried to chalk it up to personal preference, perhaps even my state of mind at the time, but the more I thought about it, the more concrete my thoughts became. It wasn’t until writing yesterday’s post that I realized exactly what the problem was.

The first author hadn’t trusted me enough to figure things out for myself.

Reading is an experience. What the reader experiences is completely separate from what the writer experiences–and not just because the writer has a backstage pass. Readers bring a lot of baggage into a story: preconceived notions, different upbringing, prejudices and preferences. For example: they can be told over and over that a beautiful woman has blond hair, but if they personally find blond hair displeasing, they’re going to cast her as a brunette. That’s part of the magic of reading. We’re not restricted to the vision of anyone, not even the writer.

However. That magic can be impeded. And when it is, it’s usually the writer’s fault.

It can be very tempting to spell everything out for a reader. After all, they don’t know, do they? They only have what you tell them, and hey–you’re the artist here, not them. How can you trust them to get it right? So you hold their hand, explaining everything they need to know to fully experience your world, your ideas, your. . . unmitigated genius.

Because of this tendency, a common piece of advice given to inexperienced writers is this: “Show, don’t tell.” Let the reader figure things out from well-placed evidence and concrete details instead of blatant explanations.

This is great advice. It allows readers to be more engaged in the magic of the story and avoids insulting their intelligence. Ultimately, I think that’s why I couldn’t get into that first author’s book. He didn’t trust me, didn’t leave me any room to figure things out for myself. He connected all the dots, covered every point, even told me how to feel about what was happening to his characters.

I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all. And neither does anyone else.

Reading something like this pushes readers out of the story, effectively telling them, “You don’t know any better.” Most of the time it’s not overt; most readers won’t be able to pinpoint what’s wrong with the story. But the cumulative effect is strong enough to alienate them, and, worst-case scenario, kick them out of your story.

How do you know what to show and what to tell? Another piece of advice, closely related to the first, is: “Do not confuse what the writer needs to know with what the reader needs to know. They are not the same thing.” And this is where things start to get complicated. Because, as an inexperienced writer (heck, any writer), it’s hard to know the difference.

Next time, I’ll share some thoughts about what happens when writers take “Show, don’t tell” too far, swinging toward the opposite end of the spectrum and not telling readers anything. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and one I’m just now starting to climb out of.

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Rhett Butler: The Video Game

Here is me trying out the reblog button!

Add Tom Gauld to whatever category Kate Beaton occupies in my brain. (It’s a good place.)

101 Books

Tom Gauld is one clever guy.

Who’s Tom Gauld, you say? He’s the man behind the amazing literary cartoons featured in The Guardian every week.

These things make me laugh. I appreciate anyone who can appreciate literature without taking it so seriously.

And I wish I could draw, just so I could draw stuff like this.

Enjoy.

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Never Trust a Writer Who Doesn’t Read

I would make a terrible professional reviewer.

For one thing, I’m too slow. I’d never get paid.

Also, I only read things that interest me, and if I lose that interest, often I won’t finish the book.

(Take, for instance, the painfully beautiful The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. I read the first chapter online, got sucked in, asked for it as an anniversary present and then stopped halfway through, just as it was getting good. Why? Maybe Mabel’s completely justified negative attitude toward nature finally got on my nerves, who knows. Perhaps I’ll pick it back up someday and find out.)

I don’t read deep enough within the confines of a genre to be any sort of expert on anything (except Sub-Roman Britain, I am proud to say, and who the heck even knows what that is?)

I don’t even read new books, or popular ones. My ticket for the bandwagon got lost somewhere with my notice for what exactly is a hashtag. And important books? Calling someone “the most important author under 35 writing with a quill in the second decade of the twenty-first century” is more than enough to make me press the snooze button.

My opinions on the books I read aren’t even that reliable. My first impressions are almost always wrong. Either I’ll love a book and later realize I was delusional, or I’ll slog through something, only to come to the conclusion that it says everything I wish I could and should be embossed in gold and preserved in amber. Maybe I read with my Empathy Switch turned up to eleven, I don’t know. My head and my heart aren’t always connected.

(Another example: back in 2007 I wrote a review for a now-defunct YA blog about Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian that pretty much revealed how much I didn’t get YA at all. I liked the story, but the writing annoyed me. Since then, I’ve reread the book as well as dipped into Alexie’s other work. Suffice to say I was definitely wrong the first time around.)

Even so, I feel compelled to talk about the books I love, as well as the ones I just don’t get. Not because I feel my opinion is important, but because I love books. Never trust a writer who doesn’t read, and how will you know if she reads if she doesn’t talk about books?

So every once in a while I will bring to you a book report of sorts, less of a Kirkus and more of a personal reflection, how I reacted to the story and what it means to me, from a writer’s perspective. Since everything that comes out had to first go in, everything I write is because I absolutely cannot stop myself from reading. Isn’t that the point of books? It’s communication. I’d just like to add a little to the conversation.

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