Monday, May 14, 2007

A Conceit

When first exposed to Shakespeare, I raised my hand and challenged the teacher: "You're reading too much into it," I said. "No one is going write that way."

We were arguing about symbolism. I had a notion that writers wrote, that it was fluid and not a tortuous process in which sentences were constructed like tonka toys. I turned up my nose at the idea that some writers mixed words with the deliberateness of an artist mixing oils on a palate. My belief was that English teachers were trying to justify their jobs by putting fur on ducks and calling them dogs.

In short, I was an idiot.

Time passed, and so did my appreciation for literature. Nothing helps one appreciate the deliberateness of writing though like engaging in writing itself. What I discovered was that Bradbury did indeed deliberately use the 'hot' and 'cold', 'summer' and 'winter' motifs in "Something Wicked This Way Comes". I acknowledged that in "Grapes of Wrath" that there were all manner of religious allusion as well as a sound undercurrent of Marxist respect for the dignity of the proletariat. I came to believe and accept that Hemingway in all his glorious simplicity and pared back narrative created the most basic metaphor for life in "The Old Man and The Sea".

What I also learned was that symbolism, motifs, and foreshadowing, while enriching the novel, did not necessarily have to detract from the narrative. In important works of art, they were actually intrinsic to the narrative.

In my unpublished novel "Palpable Illusion", I have carefully inlaid a Norse mythology motif [by the way I am not comparing myself to Shakespeare, Bradbury, Steinbeck, or Hemingway]. It echoes the idea that the corrupt may seek redemption, but until they forsake that which makes them corrupt (in the case of the Norse gods that would be power) that redemption is impossible. To illustrate how I introduce the motif, here is a scene from the beginning of the novel.

Promises were made to be broken,” said James Maloney, the man driving.

“Promises were made to be broken,” Maloney repeated, nodding toward the giant twin cooling towers of a nuclear power plant.

These few lines are a direct reference to Wagner's Odin (king of the Norse Gods), who breaks his promises to two giants who build his royal palace--a break that leads to the fall of Asgard and the arrival of Ragnarok (the end times). The line is actually used several times throughout the novel. It is also the first line spoken by the villain of the story and it is an obvious clue as to his character.

Now, will readers catch the allusions to Norse mythology that run through the novel? Maybe not. Probably not. But they are there, and in my opinion, they enrich the work. They allow it to operate at different levels. They add to the motivation of the characters, they solidify the theme. They do not interrupt or distract.

What about the works of modern popular writers? Do Laurell K. Hamilton, Robert B. Parker, or Jim Butcher use symbolism? What about Dan Brown? Clive Cussler?

Graham Greene, the English novelist who gave us "The Power and the Glory", wrote that he considered his work to fall into one of two categories: literature and entertainment. Literature was deliberate, thoughtful. Literature attempted to be uplifting and to address the human condition. Entertainment was a diversion. It was meant to be disposable.

I've looked at my own writing that way. Sometimes I try and write literature. Sometimes, I just try and tell a story.


Cappy said...

You got inlaid by a motif? Please, leave the bestiality out of the blog!

Travis said...


Anonymous said...

Actually, I lean more toward your original theory than not. :) I don't think it's as cut-and-dried as "all lit analysis is professors justifying their existence" or "all lit analysis is holy and wise."

I think there's a whole lot of emperor's new clothes syndrome in literary circles. But you also find the occasional, genuinely insightful, intelligent and eloquent literary analysis.

Note, however, that in my opinion, the ratio is heavily skewed toward the gobbletygook end.

Personally, I don't consciously work lots of symbolism in. Sometimes things wind up looking that way on accident, and sometimes my English Lit degree bleeds through when I'm not looking.

Writing a satisfying genre fiction novel is difficult enough without adding extra layers of work to the job. Especially work that can have such a strong tendency to make novels longer, slower, more boring, and infinitely more full of themselves.

Twain had something to say about reading things into his work, and I find myself holding a very similar opinion of mine. Ye gods, I am so anti-literary, and perversely proud of the fact.

YMMV, and it probably should. No two minds approach literature, whether in creation or consumption, from exactly the same angle. If you can draw extra depth and texture and meaning from your reading or writing by wrapping yourself up in literary robes, more power to you. It doesn't matter if someone else thinks that they are imaginary.

Use your own mind, make your own calls, and play to your own strengths. It's the best way to get somewhere as a writer.

Jim Butcher

Stewart Sternberg said...

Anonymous, or Mr. Butcher...great comment. I think you are correct about getting too caught up in analysis and its trappings. I would rather be read and enjoyed by many than read and analyzed by a few.

I specifically offered up Greene's quote about literature and entertainment because I believe an author can write both.

I especially like the last paragraph of your comment. I sometimes lose sight of that.

avery said...

I write to entertain. If some literature happens to fall in there, I take no responsibility for it.

Kate S said...

Funny, Stewart, this is just like my theories of painting.

I remember an art instructor once going on about Rembrandt's white hat (in a self portrait) reflecting his purity of thought or some such nonsense. I still think he just thought that hat was cool, or some barmaid told him he looked good in it. :)

I've had people find all sorts of meaning in paintings that I in no way put there. On the other hand, they've also completely missed it when I did use something symbolically. The same has happened with my writing.

Does that mean I'm not doing my job well? Who knows.

And was that really Jim Butcher? :)

Regardless, I think you and he are both right - in art of any sort - we need to play to our strengths and just enjoy the process. People will always see things differently than we do anyway.

Looking forward to "Palpable Illusion."

Stewart Sternberg said...

I am going to my next post on literature v. entertainment. I don't know, Avery...don't you sometimes stop and think about foreshadowing? When creating a character, don't you give consideration to how the character fits into a possible theme? Do you ever stop and consider a theme?

When I write, a theme is like a compass. I start storytelling, but before the work is finished, I need to be able to feel a subtext in the work. It's just a quirk I have.

SQT said...

I like to look for certain themes when writing but not necessarily literary allusions. Religion is a favorite for me. And I can't help but dissect male-female relationships and turn then on their ear if possible. But I don't look for literary allusions to do that. Biblical allusions on the other hand might find their way in.

miller580 said...

I will admit, when I write, I don't sit down and say, "how can I slip in some symbolism here or what motif should I use today" I simply spill out a story. It's not until the third draft or so that themes seem to surface, and at that point I may finesse them.
Maybe that is amateur I don't know. I think themes and symbols are subject to interpretation anyway. Once in workshop I offered a story where in the first few paragraphs a character of mine bought some goldfish to feed his piranha. A unnamed woman wanted to know what the fish symbolized. At first, I didn't know what to say because this was the first page. It was also only a rough third draft. I thought about it for a second and told her food. The goldfish symbolized food.

Jon said...

I think in order to work, second layers of meaning and allusion need to be both clear enough to note and slick enough to go unnoticed.

The Two Towers might well now be read as some kind of reference to the World Trade Center. I'm not certain why a writer would bury little "Easter Eggs" like this if the weren't to be discovered. A much better example of second layer meaning from your novel is the scene on Belle Isle with the three old ladies (witches). Many general readers would "get it." Norse mythology? Not so much.

On the other hand, motif and theme are not only useful...they are crucial, but they mustn't get in the way. In my novel, Buck and Tangee, I had intended the third section to be an expression of the Odessy. I wanted my characters to run into obstacles echoing scenes from that classic, but it turned out to be too overworked and obvious. (I really liked a section where Buck takes up with the madam of a roadside brothel in Nevada and his travelling companions loll around turning into real pigs. But it didn't suit the story, so I deleted it.)

Yes, write from your heart but take direction from your brain...a second layer of meaning will then just flow.

Charles Gramlich said...

I do occassionally put conscious symbolism into my stuff. More often I consciously put in references or asides to other writers and their works that I know and enjoy. Non-conscious symbolism is a part of all writers' works, I'm sure, and can raise entertainment to literature.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Kate, I love when analogies are made between literature and painting. I often talk about underpainting when I discuss outlining and refer to blocking in shapes for the first rewrite. Then, I talk about detail and going back and adding things in rewrite.

Jim, I laughed. Goldfish=food. There are some people and writers who take themselves far too seriously.

Jon, the three women were a good example of deliberate symbolism in the novel. They were a direct reference to the Rhine Maidens, but someone else could have made an argument for them being a throwback to the three witches, or references to other mythological figures. What was important to me though was that they helped develop character and advance plot.

I like the statement, write from the heart, but take direction from the brain.

As for symbolism and theme in Buck and Tangee, there is a stream running through the work that elevates the common. When all the absurd moments and plot contrivances are stripped, what remains are two people looking for reaffirmation of their humanity.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I like to put my friends in my novels, Charles. Jon has been given status as head of the gang squad in one novel I am working on. I guess that is as close to an aside as I have gotten. I am still hoping someone uses me as a villain.

Kate S said...

I am still hoping someone uses me as a villain.

Hey, I've heard you say that before which is why I have a villian named Stewart coming up. In that particular story, there are also a Wayne, a Charles, a Sidney and a Susan. :)

Kate - playing fast and loose with monikers and hoping not to be sued. :)

SQT said...

You know Stewart, I think it would be great fun to use you as a villain. I finally submitted something into that Writers Digest contest and I'm feeling good that I finally submitted something and now it's time to think of a new project. Maybe I'll make it my personal challenge to write something with you as the villain.

James Burnett said...

This was a deep analysis, Stewart. I've never been good at writing literature. I always just try to tell stories. I'll leave it to the reader to interpret the style.


Sphinx Ink said...

A fascinating entry, Stewart.

And wow, am I impressed: JIM BUTCHER reads your blog and comments on it! How cool is THAT? I've become a huge fan of Butcher's work over the last year, since discovering his wonderful Dresden Files series...and the TV series made from it that aired this spring was pretty good, too.

To return to the subject, I believe art is both conscious and subconscious. Conscious art can be either enlightening and engrossing, or it can be painful to read and off-putting. The difference is the skill of the writer. Subconscious art is organic. The writer may not realize he/she is putting in themes and a mythos, but if the reader can find them, then they are there. The subconscious mind operates and manifests itself whether or not the writer plans for it.

Like Jim Butcher, I was an English Literature major. After college I decided that never again would I endure that painful analytical process when reading a book. I wanted simply to read what I liked, and to enjoy it without complications.

Nevertheless, everything we read affects our lives afterward. Literature with hidden motifs and buried meaning will affect our subconscious minds. It likely will manifest itself in our own work, at times and in ways we least expect.
If someone finds meaning, sees symbolism, it matters not whether the writer intended it. It's in the work and it's part of the story.

My moment of pompous self-importance is over. You may stand down.

Fab said...

A an uninitiated one to literature, I feel a bit silly commenting on this.

I remember being frustrated at uni when we had to study and discuss literature. I wondered if writers put in so much symbolism intentionally. I remember a prof disecting a text to such an extend that it almost became rediculous.
On the otherhand, he pushed us to look deeper. To analyze. What you said about mythology is true: if you don't know it, how do you know the writer uses it in his text to make a point? Greek mythology I am familiar with, but Scandinavian? I had so many issues with the Nibellungen, thank godess for reference books!

But not knowing the symbolism or recognizing it shouldn't stand in the way of appreciating a text. Unless you find out afterwords and feel cheated by your own ignorance.

Susan Miller said...

I think I've always been threatened by this. It seemed so "high brow" to me when discussing a good read with someone. I easily get lost in a story written by a good writer. Those are the books that I love. When someone takes that book and starts explaining to me the great lit meaning and references I clam up attempting to keep the story to myself.

I do applaud your ability to use this and recognize it in works, but I plan on enjoying Maloney for who he is and what he means to me.

Also, I'm scared that Kate has a character named Susan. Oh, shit! Please, just let me be played by Selma Hayek in the movie. ;)

Stewart Sternberg said...

Kate,SQT...I need to do a posting on this at some point. But among the villains I've enjoyed most in literature were: Prof. Moriarty (from the Holmes series), Dracula (and in the novel he is truly evil---there is nothing like him holding a bag of what has to be squirming baby and tossing it to his women), and Fagin from Dickens. I think I like my villains to be evil at a whole new level, and charming.

James, thanks for stopping in and commenting on this one. I think there is a key to elevating work to literature, and that is being familiar with literature. I think the more one understands and appreciates it, the more one strives to include elements in one's work.

Sue, I don't know about this being high brow. I think that just as writers have an intuitive sense of what works, so do readers. I talk to students and ask them to break something down, and they sometimes stumble on the "why's" and "wherefores", but they possess a wonderful sense that something feels 'wrong' or 'right'.

William Jones said...

Is it possible not to have meaning in a work -- literature or entertainment? Perhaps writing produces a meaning inside the reader, intended or not. It is obvious from the notes of many of the past "classic" authors that some meaning, symbol, themes were intentional. And I think that is how a work of "entertainment" or a work of "literature" can still influence or change a person's life.

The question I pose: Ws "intention" needed for symbols/themes to appear in fiction?

Sometimes they simply appear because of the topic being written about, because of culture, because of a reader's experience. Other times, a writer helps such readings along. But if we assume there is nothing to be taken from the work, except a brief emotion of some sort, are we also selling the writing short? Or cheating ourselves out of some additional pleasure?

As for "lit analysis," it is sometimes, or perhaps most often used, to understand the world around us. It isn't always delving into the "hidden meaning" of a work so much as to find out why readers respond to the work, and how readers are influenced by the work. Entertainment and art can influence how people think.

Here is a quote from the author A. A. Attanasio related to this topic: Every time we read with the expectation of understanding, we perform an act of magic. Therefore, it's dangerous. Text, by definition, is the power to spell. We must be exorcists not to get possessed and bedeviled by text and its illusions. The important lesson here: Words mean something, even when they don't.