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Learn a Little Lit

Learn a Little Lit—Margaret Atwood

Monday, 05 August 2013 13:37

margaret-atwood1Interpreting literature can be boorish business; just skim book reviews in major dailies—or customer reviews on Amazon. Even book clubs can work themselves into a frenzy over different ways of reading the same words.

Yet if we learned anything from Post Modernism, it's that words don't confine themselves to a single meaning...which is why it was so gratifying to come across this comment by Margaret Atwood.

I’m not comfortable giving interpretations of my work. If I were to provide one, it would become the definitive interpretation, inhibiting readers from finding their own meanings.
The comment reveals a refreshing humility. It recognizes that while an author may exert full authority over plot and characters, she has no such control over her readers.

Atwood apparently wants her readers to feel free to derive meanings, separate from hers. That would imply separate from other readers, too—all of whose ideas may be equally valid.

Words of caution. The operative word in the above sentence is "may"—other interpretations may be equally valid—which means we're not free to go off the reservation and shoot at anything that moves. Interpretations need to be supported by evidence within the text and consistent with the general sense of the work.

In other words, Robert Frost's "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" is pretty much NOT about Santa Claus.


 

Learn a Little Lit—mystery / crime thrillers

Thursday, 19 July 2012 09:09

mystery-thrillersDo mysteries and thrillers make good book club reads? More important, do they lead to good discussions?

Take a stroll through any bestseller list; you'll find thrillers and detective stories at (or near) the top. I love suspense mysteries (love them)! But here's my suggestion—read them on your own time. They don't necessarily inspire great book club discussions, primarily because characters are short on development...and plot discussion boils down to "what did you know and when did you know it?"

There are, of course, exceptions. A number of recent authors have jumped the genre ... moving the mystery/crime thriller into "literary fiction." What's that mean?

When critics talk like that about a crime thiller—specifically the new Gillian Flynn Gone Girl...or Tana French's Broken Harbor—they're talking about wonderful, often witty, prose; solid character development; and the exploration of philosophical ideas. Kate Atkinson is another writer who's moved the genre into high literary gear.

The three—Flynn, French, and Atkinson—are not only terrific suspense writers...they've been singled out as writers who probe deeply into character, motivation, how the past impinges on the present, and the nature of good and evil. They get us to ponder our own relationships, as well as the untenable choices life sometimes gives us. In other words, they make us think...and thinking always makes for good book conversations!

On top of good writing, two other requirements exist for great mystery/thrillers:
  1. The author must let the line out slowly, knowing precisely when to withhold—and when to release—information. It's a plot technique known as "suspended revelation,"—mysteries depend on it; in fact, it's their defining characteristic. (See LitCourse 6 on Plot.)
  2. The clues should be burried in plain sight—yet so cleverly that the reader won't pick up on them. Great mysteries stand up to a re-read, which only then reveals how, when, and where the author hid the clues.
If neither of those conditions is met, the story turns predictable, losing the element of surprise—the very thing that makes mysteries and thrillers so satisfying.


 

Learn a Little Lit—authorial intent

Wednesday, 10 February 2010 13:34

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You've seen the cartoons in which characters say one thing—but they're thinking another. Authorial intention is sort of like that.

Contemporary literary theory pretty much debunks the idea that authors say exactly what they mean—because the words on the page don't always support their intended meaning. Or readers find additional meanings that author's never considered.

Here's an interview with Peter Carey, author of Parrot and Olivier in America and Oscar and Lucinda. An audience member asked Carey about an espisode in the latter novel that reminded her of Adam tasting the forbidden fruit.

Here’s Carey’s response:

Your way of reading that holds up perfectly, I think, and it’s totally consistent with the book and consistent with my intention, and yet it never occured to me!

Then he said . . .

So isn’ t that the extraordinary thing about literature? It only really works when the reader reads it because until then…it’s words on a page…. Everybody brings their own lives, and their own experience, their own intellect… and then a book is made! And that’s the wonder of literature.


No one
could have put it better. You can listen to the full interview from this 2003 BBC World Book Club broadcast.

 

Learn a Little Lit—the point of point-of-view

Tuesday, 10 November 2009 13:51

pencil-pointOlive Kitteridge  got me thinking about point of view—who gets to tell the story. Elizabeth Strout’s book shifts from character to character, a narrative technique that lends her work its depth and beauty. 

We see Olive, not only as she sees herself, but as she’s seen by the community.  The pay-off is a richer, far more complicated portrait of Olive than if she alone—or any single narrator—had told us the story.

Point of view, or perspective, is one of the most important decisions an author has to make.  Whoever tells the story shapes the story.

A little game:  take a couple of novels, change the narrators…and see what happens. Try this as a book club activity. Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Remains of the Day:  what if Miss Kenton told the story rather than the butler Stevens?  We’d miss the rich irony of a hopelessly naive narrator.  In fact, if we weren’t inside Stevens’s head, he would seem a pitiless monster of a being.

  • Gilead: if we were to see the story through shifty, unreliable Jack Boughton, the story’s prodigal son, we would never experience our own sense shame as we, along with Reverend Ames, willfully pass judgment on a misunderstood character. 

More on point of view at a later date.  In the meantime take our free LitCourse 8 on Point of View.  It’s fun…quick…and informative.

 

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