"best of the worst on the best"
October 23, 2005 6:42 AM   Subscribe

"This book isn't as good as Harry Potter in MY opinion, and no one can refute me. Tastes are relative!" A review of Orwell's 1984 on Amazon, from a list compiled by Matthew Baldwin at The Morning News with a selection of the funniest one-star reviews of books from Time's list of the 100 best novels.
posted by funambulist (99 comments total)

 
Hey, I enjoyed that.
posted by Miko at 6:59 AM on October 23, 2005


To be fair I expect at least 90% of people would rate 1984 lower than Harry Potter. It's just 1984 gets rated great by default because of it's social commentary and general good content. Homage to Catalonia for example, is pretty lamely written imo, but is a pretty good as a recount of the Spanish civil war can get.

Unfortunately 90% of people these days don't care about politics, or the world around and have lost all sense of responsibility for their own existence. Hence the popularity of escapist nonsense like the work of J.K. Rowling and TV shows such as "Big Brother". Personally I find the irony of such a crap show quite a amusing. So I guess it succeeds on the intellectual level to some extent.
posted by alexst at 7:11 AM on October 23, 2005


I like 1984 and Harry Potter, so I'm not sure if you like me or hate me.
posted by Bugbread at 7:15 AM on October 23, 2005


Dude. Harry Potter compares to Big Brother? It's at least as good as the earlier seasons of The Real World.
posted by my sock puppet account at 7:16 AM on October 23, 2005


Is Big Brother still on? That show is soooo 2001.



.
posted by mullacc at 7:17 AM on October 23, 2005


Whoops, inadvertent period. Flagged. Please carry on.
posted by mullacc at 7:20 AM on October 23, 2005


Sadly yes, it is. I believe someone gave birth on the Norwegian one recently. Sad isn't it?
posted by alexst at 7:20 AM on October 23, 2005


AKA our very own shadowkeeper. [Mr Baldwin that is, not Mr Orwell.]

As for the reviews, to be stupid is one thing. To be so stupid as to go out & advertise to a big chunk of the world just how stupid you are is really...stupid.

[And I should know.]
posted by i_cola at 7:24 AM on October 23, 2005


The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Author: John Steinbeck

“While the story did have a great moral to go along with it, it was about dirt! Dirt and migrating. Dirt and migrating and more dirt.”



[this is awesome]
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 7:25 AM on October 23, 2005


Every time I look up a book I like on Amazon (or a movie on IMdB or Netflix, etc) I go to the 1-star reviews almost immediately. There is something fascinating and infuriating about reading an opinion that is entirely opposite your own, especially when it is based in ignorance or idiocy.
posted by Jesse H Christ at 7:26 AM on October 23, 2005


By definition aren't all opinions opposite to your own based on ignorance and/or idiocy? ;)
posted by alexst at 7:31 AM on October 23, 2005


Yes, the 1984 review (and most of the others) is hilarious.

I totally agree with the comments about Thomas Pynchon, though. That guy is totally unreadable.
posted by sour cream at 7:32 AM on October 23, 2005


This is the best link on the internet.
posted by wumpus at 7:35 AM on October 23, 2005


sour cream: Unlike the rest of literature philosophical novels have an inverse correlation between goodness and readability.
posted by alexst at 7:36 AM on October 23, 2005


For the record, I am totally in agreement with the "Son Also Rises" guy.
posted by Shadowkeeper at 7:46 AM on October 23, 2005


“When one contrasts Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five with this[Gravity's Rainbow] book, it’s like comparing an Olympic sprinter with an obese man running for the bus with a hot dog in one hand and a soda in the other.”

That's classic.
posted by papakwanz at 7:48 AM on October 23, 2005


For the record, I am totally in agreement with the "Son Also Rises" guy.

Me too. It's funny. Funny because it's true.

It kind of goes without saying that most of these are opinions arising from ignorance and lack of sophistication. That's why they're entertaining.

And sometimes, something hailed as a classic just isn't one person's cup of tea, even if they're bright and can understand the author's aims. Pynchon is a great example, for me. I respect the stuff, I just don't like reading it.
posted by Miko at 8:05 AM on October 23, 2005


Great post. Some of these reviews are funny because they are ignorant, but others are just very damn perceptive:

The Sound and the Fury (1929)

Author: William Faulkner

“This book is like an ungrateful girlfriend. You do your best to understand her and get nothing back in return
.”
posted by LarryC at 8:08 AM on October 23, 2005


See also.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:14 AM on October 23, 2005


Unfortunately 90% of people these days don't care about politics, or the world around and have lost all sense of responsibility for their own existence. Hence the popularity of escapist nonsense like the work of J.K. Rowling...

I have ZERO interest in political novels. I like "1984" BECAUSE of its escapist elements. I much prefer "1984" to Harry Potter books, because the Potter books are poorly written (in terms of style and command-of-language) and poorly structured (plot errors). "1984" contains amazing language and its plot is well worked out.
posted by grumblebee at 8:17 AM on October 23, 2005


In the first 20 pages, Alex and his lackies beat a guy senseless and rob him; they steal a car and trash it, they get into a vicious gang fight; they attack a couple at their home, destroy the husband’s life work (his book, A Clockwork Orange), beat him and his wife senseless, and rape the wife. This really ticked me off.

This is great! I'm a snob, so I enjoy laughing at ignorant morons. Thanks for the link.
posted by Decani at 8:22 AM on October 23, 2005


For what it's worth, I wouldn't read Gravity's Rainbow again for a million, billion dollars. Fine fine fine, breathtaking work of an indisputable genius, but sucker was long and nearly unreadable. And I read it after Finnegan's Wake, so it was up against some tough competition for LittleMissCranky's tough slog of the year award. The Joyce still won, but barely.

I guess that I'm glad that I read both of them, but I wouldn't do it again, and I do have to wonder if the artistic value is compromised by the sheer unaccessability. That's not to say that authors (and artists in general) should worry about the comprehension of every single person who might pick up their work, but since communication is pretty much the soul of the medium, I think that there's a breaking point in there somewhere. I feel the same way about Fowles when he lapses into Greek for paragraphs. It's lovely that he's so accomplished and deep and all, but maybe he could save that for cocktail parties.

On another note, I love top-whatever lists in general, precisely because it engenders good discussion, but I sort of hate it when they morph into proof-positive of merit. This list is pretty in line with my own tastes in general, although I think they tried too hard not to repeat authors. They also seem to have included at least a few based on popularity -- Gone With the Wind? Really?? Hell of a fun read, and I'd rather read that again (for maybe the 20th time) than read the damn turtle chapters in Grapes of Wrath, but it's not a "great" novel in the sense that they seem to be using the term. It's really pretty poorly written and doesn't actually have all that much to say. On the other hand, the one-star-er of this one was maybe my favorite of the lot. Heh.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 8:30 AM on October 23, 2005


“The only good thing to say about this “literary” drivel is that the person responsible, Virginia Woolf, has been dead for quite some time now. Let us pray to God she stays that way.”

Will be adding this sentiment to my evening prayers...
posted by soiled cowboy at 8:36 AM on October 23, 2005


Oh, and I like escapist nonsense, too. I think that it's as much a mistake to talk about how Harry Potter et al. aren't as good as 1984/Dick/Tennyson/the Bible as it is to talk about how they're better. More factually acurate, maybe, but still a mistake. Different purposes for different works -- nothing wrong with that. Same with GWtW -- I quibble with the "great" thing, but I'm glad it was written.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 8:37 AM on October 23, 2005


I like "1984" BECAUSE of its escapist elements.

Er, I've got some bad news for you.
posted by odinsdream at 8:51 AM on October 23, 2005


I have ZERO interest in political novels. I like "1984" BECAUSE of its escapist elements. I much prefer "1984" to Harry Potter books, because the Potter books are poorly written (in terms of style and command-of-language) and poorly structured (plot errors). "1984" contains amazing language and its plot is well worked out.

I was obviously generalising a lot, but i'd also argue that you do like political novels, you just don't like externalising them. e.g. Catch-22 and 1984 are both good books on their own even if you don't think about how they could be interpreted as a social commentary. Pynchon novels (and pretty any existential novel) however, aren't generally that good unless you attempt to externalise them somewhat.
posted by alexst at 9:01 AM on October 23, 2005


I think that it's as much a mistake to talk about how Harry Potter et al. aren't as good as 1984/Dick/Tennyson/the Bible as it is to talk about how they're better.

You think comparative literary or artistic criticism is a mistake? I can't agree with that. I think it's valid to compare and contrast the merits of different works in the same field. We can make judgements about the relative quality of works. We can say trivial things like, "Author X uses a wider vocabulary than author Y". We can say that author X's powers of description are better. We can say that author X's plots are more convincing; her characters better drawn and so on. Yes, to some degree these value judgements may be subjective, but it is possible and reasonable to argue well in defence of - or against - such judgements. Are we to have no yardsticks of quality in art?

And of course, saying this novel is "better" than that one doesn't necessarily mean a given reader will enjoy it more. I can recognise the quality in Hardy but it bores the arse off me. That comes down to a question of personal taste; I won't try to argue that Hardy was a poor novelist. But I think that to say (for example) that Harry Potter is just as "good" as 1984 is to blinker oneself to quality or to show a lack of discernment and artistic insight.
posted by Decani at 9:02 AM on October 23, 2005


I have to agree with the review of Gravity's Rainbow.
posted by Navek Rednam at 9:03 AM on October 23, 2005


I am obsessed with Survivor, so I thought it would be fun. WRONG!!!

OMG, Mr. or Miss Lord of the Flies reviewer, me too totally! Like no girls and there weren't games and the alliances were so boring!

Are you Miss? Cause I need a lady with tastes to match my awesome...i...tude. pixplz?

Cause it's totally valid to prefer a show full of loser wanna-be commercial actors over a work that explores the universal question of whether civilization is only a thin veneer! I'm sure the parallels between Survivor and life are totally for real as meaningful as those between LotF and the world at large, with characters representing war powers, the civilizing force of government, and the weak voice of the sciences, along with the perversion of religion! And I bet Survivor characters also mirror the (admittedly psychologically dubious) archetypes of the superego, ego, and id!

kthxbai!
posted by NickDouglas at 9:04 AM on October 23, 2005


I own a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow and I read a bit of it. It was enjoyable, but long passages were completely incomprehensible. They sell a companion book on Amazon to help you decipher it.

Part of the problem is that it uses a lot of pop-culture references from the time it was published, making it hard to understand for modern readers. I found some of the scenes and visuals very beautiful and compelling, though. I'm not sure if I'll pick it back up.
posted by delmoi at 9:08 AM on October 23, 2005


Lord of the Flies is my favorite.
posted by danb at 9:19 AM on October 23, 2005


NickDouglas - you said it all here. I found parts of Gravity's Rainbow erudite, hilarious and thought provoking - but not neccesarily in that order. I also found parts utterly incomprehensible. It also confused me when a then girlfriend tried to explain to me how the formatting of this novel followed some of the arcadian golden rules.; but then I am fequently easily confused. As for Finnegan's Wake... medals to LittleMissCranky.
posted by adamvasco at 9:25 AM on October 23, 2005


Other than that idiotic portrayal, the book was good. (!)
posted by kosem at 9:45 AM on October 23, 2005


"It's said that some time ago a Columbia University instructor used to issue a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to?" Mark Edmundson.
posted by vitia at 10:31 AM on October 23, 2005


MetaFilter: I was very much disturbed when I found young children killing each other. I think that anyone with a conscience would agree with me.
posted by cleardawn at 10:32 AM on October 23, 2005


You think comparative literary or artistic criticism is a mistake? I can't agree with that. I think it's valid to compare and contrast the merits of different works in the same field.

No, if you read my remarks critically joking!, you'll notice that I am specifically against comparing merits of wholly dissimilar works. We might have different ideas of what is actually dissimilar, though. I would argue that the current fashion of bewailing the lack of artistic merit of Harry Potter is stupid, since it is, in fact, a children's book and doesn't seem to me to aspire to much more. As far as I know, no one reads HP for the books' artistic merit, but because they find them entertaining. One might find 1984 entertaining as well (I certainly do), but I think that it's a little sniffily to start dismissing other people's pleasure/recreational reading because it's not as high-falutin' as one's own.

I'm not at all immune to the snobbery, though. My own personal pet peeve is the oh-aren't-I-literary affectations from people after they read goddamn Dan Brown. Makes me nuts. But whatever; the people thinking that The DaVinci Code is high art probably aren't going to be converted into Joyce fans, and it's probably good that they're reading at all, since a lot of people have abandoned it altogether.

Anyway, I could spend a lot of time decrying the Richard Scary books as lacking any real narrative cohesion, but I think that any real literary criticism is best reserved for books that are actually, you know, literary.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 10:42 AM on October 23, 2005


Speaking of funny-cause-its-true, this review of Great Gatsby: “It grieves me deeply that we Americans should take as our classic a book that is no more than a lengthy description of the doings of fops.”

Y'know, I deeply love that book but I can't but agree with that sentiment :)
posted by Kattullus at 10:51 AM on October 23, 2005


Sun Also Rises review is tight
posted by stbalbach at 10:57 AM on October 23, 2005


See also.

Yes, but, in my defense, see also also.
posted by Shadowkeeper at 11:12 AM on October 23, 2005


We have to look for power sources here, and distribution networks we were never taught... zeroing in on what incalculable plot?

I'd like to pipe up here and take a plucky stand for the much-maligned Gravity's Rainbow. Yes, it has been, in part, co-opted by a crowd of dour undergrads who find its bulk reassuring and its references obtuse and mannerly — but it's a book that makes fun of that very fact, and of them. It's our 20th C Tristam Shandy, ripped to the tits on amphetamines and Tex Avery cartoons. Of all of Pynchon's books, GR is the one I reread most often, for the unsurpassed pathos, immense historical vistas and flat-out knock-about humor, often in the same page, even same paragraph and line.

[But the review for The Sun Also Rises is dead on, yo.]
posted by Haruspex at 11:20 AM on October 23, 2005


some of these are real keepers
posted by Busithoth at 11:29 AM on October 23, 2005


hipster doofus fans

That's priceless.
posted by amro at 11:38 AM on October 23, 2005


My favorite is Lord of the Rings: “The book is not readable because of the overuse of adverbs.” It isn't why I hate that book, but I like the way the commenter is so succinct and sure. And it's a reasonable criticism.

More generally, I think the status given inpenetrable works is one of the worst legacies of modernism. I don't mind being challenged, but I expect to be engaged. And to be purposely unengaging is the kind of fuck you I don't enjoy. Anyway, some people might enjoy the Harper's essay [pdf]Ben Marcus did defending "difficult" fiction (and talking shit about Franzen). (I'm sure lots of people have read it already, too.) He gave a good defense of what I consider fuck-you stuff.
posted by dame at 11:43 AM on October 23, 2005


nice. thanks for that, funambulist.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 11:46 AM on October 23, 2005


“The only good thing to say about this “literary” drivel is that the person responsible, Virginia Woolf, has been dead for quite some time now. Let us pray to God she stays that way."
Someone out there is worried about Zombie Virginia Woolf?
posted by bibliowench at 12:06 PM on October 23, 2005


“I am obsessed with Survivor, so I thought it would be fun. WRONG!!!

I nearly peed.

For what it's worth, my mediocre educational opportunities didn't expose me to 1984 or Catch-22 as a youth, so I picked them up recently -- and they're terrific books. Although I didn't enjoy Joseph Heller's Closing Time nearly as much as Catch-22.
posted by davejay at 12:19 PM on October 23, 2005


...i'd also argue that you do like political novels, you just don't like externalizing them. e.g. Catch-22 and 1984 are both good books on their own even if you don't think about how they could be interpreted as a social commentary.

Except I'm not interested in the politics WITHIN "1984." (Unless you believe "everything is politics.") I like the book for its characters (well, for its one character, really), its plot and its style. I remember being scared out of my pants the first time I read it ("You ARE the dead!"). The thrill I got was much the same that I get from a Stephen King novel (or the thrill I WOULD get if King wrote better). THAT'S why I like the book.

I like "1984" BECAUSE of its escapist elements.

Er, I've got some bad news for you.


I know what you're saying, but I disagree. I find the kitchen-sink novels of Anne Tyler every bit as escapist as "Lord of the Rings." In other words, they fulfill my need to get out of my own skin and into someone else's. A non-escapist novel is one in which I am a character (I wouldn't like that at all, but I'm not too worried about encountering such a book) or a book that calls attention to itself AS a book (so that I can't comfortably fall into believing in its fictional world). This happens for me when a book is didactic, poorly written or tricky (i.e. post-modern trickery).

It's amazing to me that "1984" works for me (since it IS readable as a didactic book). Orwell's achievement is a book that can be read and enjoyed by both escapists AND moralists (and lovers of satire -- a form I really dislike).
posted by grumblebee at 12:23 PM on October 23, 2005


1984 is about the relationship of truth to power, and so it's fundamentally political. To attempt to read it in any other way is to fail to read the book. One might as well read Elie Weisel's Night and express pleasure at reading it except for all that political stuff about the Holocaust.
posted by vitia at 12:37 PM on October 23, 2005


I'm not sure what you're saying, vitia. I didn't fail to read "1984." I've read it about 10 times in my life. I've read every word. I can quote certain passages by heart. I understand why you say it's about the relationship between truth and power, but that's NOT what it's about to me. Sure, I could write a term paper arguing your point, but it's not what fires my imagination and my feelings when I read the book. I simply don't care about that aspect of it.

I DO care about the feeling of paranoia. I DO care about betrayal. I DO care about love. I DO care about wanting to escape from a horrible job. I do care about feelings of guilt. All of these things are explored in the book. It's just as much "about" these things as it is "about" the things you say it's about.

A book is just words on paper. You can claim there's some "theme" or "point," but that's always going to be your interpretation, the author's interpretation, a critic's interpretation or the interpretation of most readers. None of that invalidates an individual reader's interpretation. An interpretation can't be valid or invalid. An interpretation is one's thoughts and feelings about a book. They are what they are.
posted by grumblebee at 12:51 PM on October 23, 2005


I clicked on Shadowkeeper's 11:12AM link and found this gold:
6. Ulysses: "It is the only book I can think of where the reader deserves more credit for finishing it than the author."
posted by Cranberry at 12:52 PM on October 23, 2005


One might as well read Elie Weisel's Night and express pleasure at reading it except for all that political stuff about the Holocaust.

Yes. One might. And I would call such a reader "eccentric." Maybe you would call him "wrong" or "someone who misses the point," but so what? He still enjoyed the book. I really don't care if I get the point of a book or not. I don't read to "get the point." Nor do I read to pass a test. I read for enjoyment. I read to laugh and cry.
posted by grumblebee at 12:53 PM on October 23, 2005


Haruspex: Man, had I known that Gravity's Rainbow loved on Tex Avery I'd have read it a long time ago. Thanks for the heads up.
posted by Kattullus at 1:02 PM on October 23, 2005


I love Gravity's Rainbow AND that review of it.
posted by brundlefly at 1:07 PM on October 23, 2005


Heart of Darkness (not in the Time list, just searched out of curiosity):

"The meaning of life could have been in this book, and still I would not care."

"The innocence of children is routinely destroyed in American classrooms with books like this."

"I just want it to end. Please, make it stop."

"I much prefer Martin Sheen in Vietnam. Now there's a guy who'll teach you a thing or two."

"Dickens has always been a dread to me. It's no surprise that Heart of Darkness is no different in my mind."
posted by funambulist at 1:10 PM on October 23, 2005


ripped to the tits on amphetamines and Tex Avery cartoons

Yeah, you'll have to forgive if that's not what I'm looking for in a novel.
posted by Miko at 1:21 PM on October 23, 2005


Funambulist, that was awesome. Only tangentially related, I always like to imagine Kurtz as he lay dying, staring up into the blank, ineffably-alien sky, and gasping: "The car-alarm. The car-alarm."

Then I laugh and laugh.
posted by Haruspex at 1:22 PM on October 23, 2005


So, Grumblebee, you're acknowledging that you're performing the supremely solipsistic relativism of taste that this FPP indicts? The truth of a text exists only in its individuated reception? Because I'd call that reader of Elie Weisel's Night monumentally stupid in a way that offers aid and comfort to tyranny.

Evaluating a text solely on the basis of how much one "enjoyed" it is masturbatory.
posted by vitia at 1:24 PM on October 23, 2005


KING LEAR


While I enjoyed PARTS of this play, I thought Mr. Shakespeare was a little confused about the central nature of love and compasion. Its still an interestingread, though. I recommend thatyou buy it, despite its nebulous approach toward life and love.

===

An annoying old fool named King Lear doesn't know the true character of his own children. He divides all of his property between his two disloyal daughters simply because they flatter him, and he gives nothing to his loyal daughter because she refuses to play the flattery game. In retrospect I can't blame the two flatterers for their behavior, considering that their father is an obnoxious fool. He gets his just desserts in the end - the short end of the stick. So there's a happy ending after all. Shakespeare wrote it with sympathy for the old king. He excuses arrogance in kings. I don't. The hell with King Lear.

===


THE GREAT GATSBY

Fitzgerald's skill with emotion is supposed to be one of the reasons that this book is so well-known and loved. But the ending is the only bit that got a good reaction. I was disgusted by the rest of the story, and I hated it. He did have skill with emotion, he did make you connect with the story, but it is good to have such pure and total disgust of something?


===

Now I am a teacher and at one time found myself in a position where I had no choice but to assign my students _The Great Gatsby_. For that act of inhumanity, I humbly beg forgiveness, though I know full well that the teacher who betrays his students' trust in such a way can no more expect absolution than can the Nazi underling, who, acting on his superior's orders, sends a cowering Jew to the gas chamber.

And don't you dare tell me I didn't get the book. Since I was supposed to be teaching the thing I read it three times (well, to be frank, two and half times; midway through my third reading, I gave up in disgust, both at myself, for having persisted so long, and at the novel itself). I mean, who really gives a fig for any of the characters in the book? Or for that stupid green light? Oooh, ah, and the Valley of Ashes! How very apocalyptic! And T. J. Mecklenburg, or whatever his name was. How could anybody really give a fig for any of it?

I've also seen lots of reviews where high-school students (probably with plenty of help from their teachers) say they must not be smart enough or mature enough to get Gatsby. Not at all, my friends! Believe in yourselves, youth of the world force-fed Gatsby by illiterate curriculum writers! You are neither too stupid nor too immature. Gatsby, at any age, is simply awful. And you can tell your teachers I said so.

===

All in all, Fitzgerald's "Best American Novel of All Time" unfortunately isn't at its best. Honestly, the way he expresses his writing with such perplex detail isn't the smartest approach an author, who supposedly is seen as one of the greatest American novelist in American Literature, should make. As a reader you should consider these factors as to how to judge this so called "classical" novel written by the infamous and supposed great writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald for yourself. But truthfully, if you, as a reader, define Fitzgerald's archetypal storyline as great as its title; that is beyond me.



LOLITA


You will enjoy this only if A: like most of America (a staggering 53%) you have a double digit IQ and assume that only big words can accurately describe human turmoil; or B: your sexuality is whacked out to the level of a sex offender or the victim of a sex offender.

Sorry, but for any female that reads this book and enjoys the sexuality please contact the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) because yes, you have a problem. And for any man, please please please, do not follow this and think it's normal for a 12 year old girl to want to have sex with a middle aged man.

===


BEOWOLF

If you only read one book this year that: lacks substance, doesnt require any real thinking, lacks adequate description, has a ridiculously overpowered and infinitely benevolent hero, is written in a boring fashion, and is a 6th century equivalent to The Power Rangers......... makes it this one!


===


I had heard it was good (despite being written in verse).
posted by grumblebee at 1:48 PM on October 23, 2005


Lolita was vociferously debated here as well. Majority summation? It was naughty.
posted by Haruspex at 1:56 PM on October 23, 2005


So, Grumblebee, you're acknowledging that you're performing the supremely solipsistic relativism of taste that this FPP indicts?


Yes.


The truth of a text exists only in its individuated reception?



I don't know what "the truth of a text" means.

Because I'd call that reader of Elie Weisel's Night monumentally stupid in a way that offers aid and comfort to tyranny.


Huh? How can one's personal interpretation "aid tyranny"? No one knows my interpretation except me, and I'm not a tyrant. I don't have power over anyone, and the people who do don't know anything about my interpretations of books.

Evaluating a text solely on the basis of how much one "enjoyed" it is masturbatory.

I agree with you -- but you put a negative spin on it. I don't. I read for the same reason I eat cake. Am I BAD because I eat cake for enjoyment? If I masterbate, is THAT bad?

What if I give money to the poor, volunteer at charities, help my neighbors (I do all of these things) and read for enjoyment? Am I bad? Isn't it okay to "masterbate" once you're done doing all the altruistic things you do? Or must EVERYTHING serve some cause?

In the end, I'm saying something very simple. I read a book and I have a reaction. The reaction I have is the reaction I have. It's a REACTION. I can intellectualize and come up with some theme, but that's not my gut reaction.

You say my gut reaction isn't "the truth." Maybe not. I don't care. But you can't say my gut reaction isn't my gut reaction. It is. And it gives me immense pleasure without hurting anyone else (explain to me how it does). So what's wrong with it?
posted by grumblebee at 1:57 PM on October 23, 2005


grumblebee: You are equating "escapism" with the simple mechanism by which you get into a story and enjoy it, but it's not the same thing. Orwell definitely cannot be called escapist.

And I don't see how one can artificially divorce the enjoyment of the story, plot, characters, ideas, style, language etc. in a novel from the "politics" (however defined) when it is overtly part of the whole thing.

When you discuss it, then of course you focus on certain aspects and 'themes' and 'points' (and it can become reductive, or academic, or arbitrary; and there is always room for different interpretations, from more to less obvious, more so the more complex and ambiguous the story is, but that doesn't mean any interpretation is valid... interpretation, not enjoyment).

But when you read it, it's all in one narrative. There is no separation. (Unless the book is so terrible that it becomes clear the author started from a political intent or "message", made it very narrow and unimaginative, and failed to make a good story about it).

So I don't see the reason to put personal enjoyment vs. author's "political" intent (which can mean anything, it depends how strictly you define politics) when the author's intent is that you both enjoy reading the story and also think about the subjects they're making you read about. That's not "intellectualising", that's just what non-escapist novels do. It's part of the reaction, I don't see how it can happen otherwise. Everyone reads a book their own way, with their own nuances, but no one can remove the author from the picture.
posted by funambulist at 2:36 PM on October 23, 2005


PS - funnily enough, an essay by Orwell on the subject of escapist literature.
posted by funambulist at 2:40 PM on October 23, 2005


...the author's intent is that you both enjoy reading the story and also think about the subjects...

Ah, but you see, I don't care about the author or his intention. There are many people who share my view (and, of course, many people who don't). If it's new to you, read up on "The Intentional Fallacy." (That was a wikipedia link. If you're interested, you can also check out this "self link".) I don't care, because I don't see why the author's interpretation is more valid than anyone else's (I don't think interpretations are valid or invalid) and I also don't think it's possible to know the author's interpretation (you can only "play telephone" and interpret the author's interpretation.)

That's not "intellectualizing", that's just what non-escapist novels do.

That's what they do to YOU. To say "that's what they do" is like saying, "Fish tastes good." It tastes good if you like fish. Now, I can come close to saying (and meaning) "Chocolate tastes good," because it's hard for me to imagine someone not liking chocolate. But there ARE people who don't like it. They seem somewhat alien to me, but they exist. So maybe I seem alien to you. Fine. But I too exist.

I really don't think there's a rational argument for ANYTHING (any external meaning) being contained within a novel except for the words themselves. These words enter one's brain and spark certain associations. Since we all grew up on the same planet and have similar brain chemistry, it's likely we'll have similar reactions. I suppose we could call "the theme" the reaction that most people (or most learned people) have when they read the same book. If you're claiming the theme is something else, you're claiming something magical. Fine. But I don't believe in magic.

If you're claiming that the theme IS the majority reaction, then what do you say about someone who has his own (minority) reaction. You say he's eccentric.

I'm not calling Orwell "escapist." I'm saying that I read to escape. (And I'm only talking about fiction when I say that.) I read for plot and character. I read for feelings. I really don't care about a novel's intellectual content at all. Yes, there are power games in "1984." I am interested in them in that they impact the main character. And if you want to call that "politics" or "personal politics" or whatever, that's fine.

But I think it's useful to distinguish a reader like me, who is only interested in O'Brian's power of Winston Smith from another type of reader, who extrapolates something beyond O'Brian and Smith (who sees O'Brian and Smith as symbols).

For similar reasons, I'm generally unmoved by cries that a story is sexist or racist (even though I deplore sexism and racism). When I ask people why they think this, they generally say something like, "the women in the book are all evil" or "there are no sympathetic black characters." And I think to myself, "have I ever worked somewhere in which all the women were horrible." Of course I have. Luck of the draw. That certainly doesn't convince me that ALL women are horrible -- just THOSE specific women at my office (not my current office!).

This is how I feel about stories. If they interest me at all, they are (or I can read them as) tales about specific characters -- not Everymen and Everywomen.

PLEASE note that I am NOT saying my way is superior (or inferior). It is just MY way.
posted by grumblebee at 3:05 PM on October 23, 2005


J.D. Salinger went into hiding because he was embarrassed

That makes sense to me.
posted by fshgrl at 4:08 PM on October 23, 2005


grumblebee, I know I used dangerous terms like "author's intent" but I did not mean "author's interpretation", or that the author's intent (however you define it) is the one and only way to read a book, whatever that means. So don't jump ahead and assume I meant something I didn't (how's that for authorial intent?).

I don't think in either/or terms and am not interested in arguing a theory about this, I don't have one. I'm talking of something that seems very obvious to me. I said: Everyone reads a book their own way, with their own nuances, but no one can remove the author from the picture. Nothing extreme in that, no? Nothing either/or.

That's what they do to YOU. To say "that's what they do" is like saying, "Fish tastes good." It tastes good if you like fish.

But, er, fish is not a work of art?

What's so absolutist in saying non-escapist literature aims at provoking more than the mere escapist enjoyment of being engrossed in a plot like in Survivor (if it was a book)?

I really don't think there's a rational argument for ANYTHING (any external meaning) being contained within a novel except for the words themselves.

But the words have meanings and contexts, and it's not something external. They're not compleltey fixed but are not such arbitrary things like tastes about food either. (Some might say even appreciation of food is not really that arbitrary).

Maybe we here are using words to mean different things, which makes this doubly meta-complicated. Abstractions give me headaches.

Examples. If an author writes an autobiographical work about his experience in concentration camps in nazi Germany, that's a specific context you cannot fail to take into account.

The fact you can read his work in different ways, relate to different things in the novel, the more or less specific aspects, the context or the psychology of the characters, the plot or the style, and have different reactions to it, all that will be a testament to how engaging that work can be on different levels. But it won't mean you can brush aside the specific context completely and ignore it altogether. And taking that into account doesn't mean you can't enjoy the work in your own way. In fact seems to me it's all just a false dichotomy.

It's not even about "themes" and I'm not talking of reducing all to some universal traits or whatever. Talking of "themes" can become very reductive, and definitely talking of "the theme" as if any work could be reduced to one thing, that can be said for convenience or reference, obviously the reason you read something is not to "spot the theme". Unless you're in school and doing a boring assignment like those poor kids who then take revenge with their one-star reviews on Amazon...

I'm not making a case for one universal reaction vs "eccentric" minority reaction. But you seem to be saying what matters is only the reaction of the readers. What do you mean by reaction, just that you either like it or not, just like fish? all else is "intellectualising"? So the choices the author made, in telling that particular story, in that particular way, set in that particular context, mean nothing at all to you except how much enjoyment they give you in reading? Isn't that a rather mercenary view of all writing? Nothing there would distinguish an author from another. Like all authors choose words, and plots, and characters, and contexts, and subjects, for no reasons other than giving readers pleasure.

Sorry if I'm misreading. I honestly don't get it. (And by the way, this is not a life or death argument to me, again, don't have any theory to "defend", I'm just really curious.)
posted by funambulist at 4:36 PM on October 23, 2005


funambulist : "So the choices the author made, in telling that particular story, in that particular way, set in that particular context, mean nothing at all to you except how much enjoyment they give you in reading?"

Whatever's made of those choices has to be made by the reader.
posted by Gyan at 5:16 PM on October 23, 2005


ten points for the On the Road review. Boy, I love reading about how much people on speed love, you know, stuff.
posted by es_de_bah at 5:23 PM on October 23, 2005


grumblebee, I know I used dangerous terms like "author's intent" but I did not mean "author's interpretation", or that ... So don't jump ahead and assume I meant something I didn't...

I'm not assuming you meant something you didn't. You said "author's intent." That's a meaningless phrase to me. I don't know what the author intended. I can't know. And if I did know, I wouldn't care (unless the author was a personal friend of mine -- and then I'd care for social reasons, not literary reasons).

...no one can remove the author from the picture...

What's "the picture." I'm not sure what you mean. No one can remove the author from the planet (unless he's dead). But he's not "in the picture" for me if "the picture" has anything to do with the experience of reading the book. The author has no baring on my reading experience. If you told me that "War and Peace" was composed by a computer or a space alien I wouldn't care. I just like the words.

But, er, fish is not a work of art?

And? I love eating fish. I love reading novels. I don't care if one is "art" and the other isn't. (Can you prove a novel is art? Can you prove a fish isn't? What is "art," anyway?). As someone once said, "I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like."

What's so absolutist in saying non-escapist literature aims...

Literature doesn't "aim" to do anything. Literature isn't conscious, so it can't aim. It's words on a page. Maybe the author of those words had an aim, but I don't know or care about that. I care about the words on the page and how they affect me. They help me escape, which is why I love them. Maybe they do something else for you. That's also great. (I see no difference between "War and Peace" and "Survivor" except for the fact that "War and Peace" is masterfully crafted and "Survivor" is not. If "Survivor" was made with as much attention to detail -- if the characters were as rich and the plot as engrossing -- I would definitely rank it as high as "War and Peace." It would fulfill the same need as "War and Peace." Escape. I can't escape with "Survivor", "Star Wars" or "CSI," because they're not well crafted.)

Examples. If an author writes an autobiographical work about his experience in concentration camps in nazi Germany, that's a specific context you cannot fail to take into account.

What do you mean by "you cannot fail to take into account?" What if I didn't know anything about the author's life and yet I read his book? How could I take the details of his life into account? When you say "you cannot fail," do you mean I SHOULD not? Is it an ethical thing for you? One SHOULD take the author's life into account? If so, I disagree. I think stories are ethically neutral -- at least they are for me. Do you mean "my experice would be richer IF I took the author's life into account?" Nope. I've tried. It's not. I prefer the story by itself. Do you mean it's cognitively impossible to ignore the author? I assure you, it's not. I do it all the time.

you seem to be saying what matters is only the reaction of the readers.

No. That's all that matters to ME. We're in agreement that different folks like different strokes. Right? I am only an expert on what I like. I make no claims for superiority. I DO claim that someone with my (peculiar?) tastes can deeply enjoy literature. Literature is one of the most important things in my life. It's a deep, deep love for me. Despite what my, to you, see like an odd (limited) way of looking at it.

What do you mean by reaction...?

The feelings I have when I read a book. These can be very complex -- way beyond liking or disliking. They include fear, anger, loathing, hilarity, puzzlement, love, attraction, lust, wonderment....

Isn't that a rather mercenary view of all writing?

It is what it is. It serves me well and doesn't hurt anyone.

Like all authors choose words, and plots, and characters, and contexts, and subjects, for no reasons other than giving readers pleasure.


No doubt they have their reasons for writing. I wish them well. I have my reasons for reading.

I'm just really curious.

Well, I'm always happy to discuss this stuff. If you want to take it away from MeFi, feel free to email me or visit my blog (see my profile). I write about this stuff often.
posted by grumblebee at 6:08 PM on October 23, 2005


grumblebee : "Do you mean it's cognitively impossible to ignore the author? I assure you, it's not. I do it all the time."

You're probably wrong on this. Maybe you believe differently, but common sense is that only humans communicate via a written language. You may not explicitly construct a model of the author, while reading, but the prose, the characterization, the plot guide your formation of a psychological profile of the author, the starting template of which is that of a human and all that it implies. That's the basis for when a reader might say, "I didn't expect the story to end that way" or "Her writing in this book isn't quite as X".
posted by Gyan at 6:40 PM on October 23, 2005


Gyan, I'm not going to deny that this NEVER happens (I call it a "ghost author"), but it definitely doesn't always happen -- and when it does, it is generally a negative experience for me, like realizing that a good dream is "just a dream."

If I read a very descriptive passage (sometimes whole books are written in this style), it doesn't happen at all: "He walked over to the door. He opened it. His mother entered. She shot him in the head..." To me this is just "stuff that happened." Just like life: authorless. (I am an atheist. I suppose many people feel that LIFE has an author, but I don't. And life doesn't FEEL authored to me, so maybe I relate novelistic worlds to my model of the real world.)

Sometimes a novel has a personified narrator, like in "The Great Gatsby." In which case it is Nick Carroway talking to me, not F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don't know anything about Fitzgerald; nor do I care. But I DO care about Nick Carroway, because he's part of the story.

Sometimes there's a very strong narrative voice without a named narrator. You can call this "the author" if you want, and I DO care deeply about this voice. But you shouldn't confuse me with someone who cares about whether or not this voice has any relationship to a real-life person (who may have written the book).

Sometimes I am keenly aware of the actual author's voice (or what seems like it). In which case I am having a bad time. I am incapable of thinking about the fact that there's an author without also thinking about the fact that I'm reading a made up story. I doubt anyone can think differently, but I won't assume stuff about other people's mindset. Now many people may be able to read a made-up story and fully realize that it's made up while they are reading it -- yet STILL enjoy it, still get deeply emotionally involved. Alas, I can't. For me to be terrified about the fate of a character being chased by a monster, I have to believe he's REAL -- like me. The good news is that when I'm NOT thinking about the author (and when the author has done his job re: syntax, word-choice, plotting and characterization), I CAN believe in the reality of a fictional world for LONG stretches of time.
posted by grumblebee at 6:55 PM on October 23, 2005


grumblebee : "Sometimes there's a very strong narrative voice without a named narrator. You can call this 'the author' if you want, and I DO care deeply about this voice. But you shouldn't confuse me with someone who cares about whether or not this voice has any relationship to a real-life person (who may have written the book)."

Except you know that it does, unless you believe that the book mysteriously popped out of thin air, or from a zoo containing a monkey with a typewriter. Like I said, you may not think to yourself, "this author avoids long sentences and polysyllabic words", but your brain picks up on these things. You may only notice that you notice when these things are breached (a paragraph with liberal sprinklings of polysyllabic words). The brain is a pattern processor. There are no neatly divorced faculties in the brain, only a selective conscious focus.
posted by Gyan at 7:05 PM on October 23, 2005


Gyan, I can't prove to you that my mind doesn't make certain connections, and you can't prove that it can. I am willing to take your word that my unconscious mind imagines a human author writing with a feather quill or typing on a word processor. Whatever. I don't care if it does. As long as these thoughts don't intrude on my conscious experience of the story.

I am scrupulous about ridding my own work of anything authorly (I am a theatre director). If the audience walks out of one of my shows saying, "What great direction," I am flattered, but I feel I haven't done my job, which is to tell the story of a guy named Hamlet (not the story of me or the story of Shakespeare).

I once directed this play in which two people were giving conflicting advice to the main character. They were kind of like the devil and angel on his shoulder. One was appealing to his better nature; one to his worse. He felt trapped between them. I came up with this really cool moment when both of the advisors moved in unison, one from one side of the room and one from the other, converging on the hero. They moved in tandem; same rhythm; same stride; reaching him at the same time.

Test audiences kept telling me that this was a really "cool" moment. They kept referring to ME. ("That was really cool how you made them move together...") That wasn't how they talked about the rest of the play. They talked about the rest of the play by saying things like, "It really scared me when..." and "it reminded me of the time when I..."

So, though I thought the tandem movement was the coolest thing in the whole play, I axed it. And I'm SO glad I did. It was cool, and it gave the audience a good clue as to MY ideas about the story -- but it also pulled them out of the story itself.

This happened when I was really young. It was a great lesson. Later, I read Hemingway's famous advice to "kill all your darlings." I've been a darling killer ever since. Anything "cool" gets shown the exit.
posted by grumblebee at 7:23 PM on October 23, 2005


grumblebee : "As long as these thoughts don't intrude on my conscious experience of the story."

The point is that they do, and one doesn't necessarily recognize it as such. It's Theory of Mind at work in the background.
posted by Gyan at 7:27 PM on October 23, 2005


I weep for the future.

A lot of these reviews seem to assume that everything is written for the sole purpose of entertainment, and furthermore that everything written is meant sincerely (like the person who was appalled by the actions in A Clockwork Orange).
posted by Target Practice at 2:50 AM on October 24, 2005


grumblebee: (Can you prove a novel is art? Can you prove a fish isn't? What is "art," anyway?)

Work of art = made by humans

Fish = not made by humans!

See, that's the basic difference. No I don't know or care to define "work of art". That's opening up a whole other level of sophistry and we have more than enough here!

Oh and to complicate matters, my sponsor told me to add that fish becomes a work of art when cooked by the poshest restaurant on earth which is [name of sponsor deleted].

But no I can't prove anything. Maybe there is a monkey typing my words and you can't prove otherwise. My monkey can also produce works of art, cook fish to perfection, and says this discussion risks becoming very tedious.

But seriously - the "author's intent" and "can't remove author from the picture" are what Gyan talked about already. In clearer and more synthetic ways than I could put it.
posted by funambulist at 4:17 AM on October 24, 2005


And to add to that...

Again the example of a novel based on the author's experiences in a particular historical context... No you don't need to read anything about the author's life or anything that is not in the book (and no there's no reason you "should" do that or that it's "unethical" to not do so, it's an extra and if you don't have that curiosity you don't have it, period), the point is that it's all already in there, that's why you "cannot fail to take it into account", and that's the author's intent in that case, to write about their experiences so you can read about them. The choice to narrate those experiences rather than others is already intent. The choice of plot, characters, structure, language, etc. is yet more intent.

Then, as a reader, make of those experiences and the way the author tells them what you will, I'm not saying what you "should" do with a book, but I don't see how it is technically possible to say "the author could have been anyone, I don't care". That's an absurd, impossible abstraction, because anyone else, not living in the same country, society, era, not having the same experiences, would not have written the same book.

The final product you're reading/viewing is made by humans and there is no way they could avoid putting their own voice, experience, views, style, social and historical context, etc, in there. Their individual voice. No matter if it's more or less autobiographical, or not autobiographical at all and entirely fictional, and there is no narrator voice and all that malarkey: they are still the ones writing it.

All sorts of things can be equally well-crafted in their own way, from a tv show to a classic novel. They can both achieve the effect of making you forget they're "not real", if that's the main thing you enjoy. But you don't really ever "forget" it's fiction, even if you think you do. What Gyan said.

They can also achieve the effect of making you forget or ignore the choices the author made in telling that story; but even there, it's something you don't notice, or choose not to notice, or don't enjoy noticing - but not something that doesn't exist.

(This is all abstraction anyway, I'm trying to put into words something that I find obvious and don't even think about at all. I don't go "ooh I like this story but I should also try and think about what the author did here and who they are and why they chose to tell this story and what it says about how they view life and the society the story is set in and how it all relates to the society I live in and my own experiences and views", no. I don't make any extra effort to draw "themes" or "intellectualise" anything).

We're in agreement that different folks like different strokes. Right? I am only an expert on what I like. I make no claims for superiority.

Yes, and yes, and me neither.

What I meant with "mercenary" view of literature is not in the sense it kills or hurts anyone or that you should stop enjoying what you like the way you enjoy it; but in the sense you seem to conceive of all literature as simply something to pleasure and entertain the readers, take them away from their own reality and plunge them in a fictional one, and nothing more. That's not true, not of all authors.

Everyone enjoys different things or the same things in different ways, yes, agreed. I'm not arguing with your way to enjoy literature, that's yours; but with your concept of what it is.
posted by funambulist at 5:17 AM on October 24, 2005


grumblebee : "As long as these thoughts don't intrude on my conscious experience of the story."

Gyan: The point is that they do, and one doesn't necessarily recognize it as such. It's Theory of Mind at work in the background.

Funambulist: But you don't really ever "forget" it's fiction, even if you think you do.


You define "forget" in a way that is very alien to me. If I say, "If forgot where I left my keys," I don't necessarily mean that the location is no where in my brain. I just mean that I have no CONSCIOUS memory of where they are.

Maybe my unconscious mind "knows" that a book is fiction, but my conscious mind often forgets. I don't mean that when I think about "King Lear," I go crazy and somehow believe Kent is a real person. But I DO think this for long stretches WHILE I am reading. I really do (you can believe this or not; say that I somehow unconsciously know he's unreal or whatever... none of that is my point). While I'm reading, there really is no difference between Kent and people that I know in real life. I don't even think "he's real." In the same sense that I don't think that about people I know. They just SEEM real, and I don't question their reality.

But if an author -- through what I'd call negligence -- MAKES me question his character's reality, I can't sink in and enjoy the book the way I like to enjoy it.

I'd like to add here that you folks claim to know an awful lot about how the unconscious mind works. I'm not sure how you can make claims that go beyond what the current bounds of neuroscience. But I'll let that go, because I'm not really interested in unconscious "thoughts" here.

you seem to conceive of all literature as simply something to pleasure and entertain the readers, take them away from their own reality and plunge them in a fictional one, and nothing more. That's not true, not of all authors ... I'm not arguing with your way to enjoy literature, that's yours; but with your concept of what it is.

No. I don't have a concept of what literature "is". I'm not sure I even give the world "literature" much meaning, other than "printed texts."

I have only argued about the way I prefer to read, which you agree I am right about (how could I be wrong about it). That's really ALL I have said (or at least meant to say. If I have given you any other impression, either you are mistaken or I messed up).

I am still confused by statements like "that's not true, not of all authors" because I don't care about authors, only books. I think perhaps we're just having a confusion over definitions. If I understand your argument, you define a book and its author as almost the same thing. If this is true, then naturally you're confused as to how I can miss the author in the book. Your definition is your definition. But if author and book are one, I don't see why we need two words. I define an author as a distinct entity from the book -- one I don't care about. His handprint might be all over his book, and if that affects me some way, so be it. I don't call those effects "the author."

I feel kind of like we're having an argument about a hammer. It's as if I'm using a hammer to scratch my back and you're telling me I can also use it to hit nails.

Me: I don't care about that.

You: That's fine, but a hammer is MEANT to be used for hitting nails.

Me: Meant?

You: That's why the hammer-makers made the hammer.

Me: I don't care. I like using to to scratch my back.

You: But that's not what other people mean when they talk about hammers -- they don't mean "a back scratcher."

Me: I don't care what other people mean. I get great pleasure out of using a hammer to scratch my back, and that's all I want out of it.

You: You might get even more pleasure out of it if you ALSO used it to bang nails.

Me: Nope. I'm not interested in banging nails.

Okay, I'm putting tons of words in your mouth, so correct me if any of these are wrong.

There's something else that I THINK you're saying -- something that you'd probably say is true about books but not true about hammers.

Are you saying that books somehow contain both their raw text AND a meaning (or purpose)? This IS what you seem to be saying. You seem to be saying that without talking to the author (i.e. the hammer maker) you can figure out the PURPOSE or MEANING of a book. You seem to be saying that this meaning in NOT just what the majority of people think it means (how people generally use a hammer) or how critics/scholars interpret a book (how pro carpenters use hammers), but it comes from some thing within the book itself -- beyond the literal text. Almost like the book has a soul.

If so, you're making a "religious" statement. I respect it, but I don't share it.

Let's try to analyze this via a really simple story:

John came home late that night, only to find a gunman waiting for him in his living room. Ten seconds later, John was dead.

Okay, the LITERAL text tells us that (a) John came home and found a gunman; (b) John died. It does NOT tell us that the gunman shot John, even though that might be a logical inference. I STRONGLY believe that the information "the gunman shot John" is NOT in the story. Rather, it is an assumption that MOST people will make when reading the story. (I.e. the way most people use a hammer.)

If someone says that the gunman didn't kill John, he's not wrong, he's eccentric. We CAN'T say he's wrong, because there is no shooting in the story.

We can tell him the author intended him to think that the gunman shot John, but if he doesn't care about the author's intentions, he doesn't care. That is HIS context. Within his context, the gunman didn't kill John. His reading doesn't violate anything actually in the story. It's just a weird reading.

I'm going to try to attack this one more way:

When I read Anne Frank's "Diary of a Young Girl," it was an exciting story to me -- a tale of a family hiding from bad guys in a secret room. It would have enjoyed it just as much if it was set on Mars or in France in the 18th Century. (I come from a Jewish family that lost family in the Holocaust, so I'm not uncaring about the true history. I just don't care about it when I'm reading fiction. Yes, I know "Anne Frank is not actually fiction, but I read it as such.)

You seem to have a problem with this. What EXACTLY is your problem.

== you've stated that it isn't ethical. You don't think I'm morally wrong to read this way. (If you do, I don't care. I am comfortable that, in general, I am not a bad person. My reading habits give me pleasure and hurt no one, so I'll stick to them).

== is the problem that I'm not reading the book in the standard way -- the way most people read it? If so, I don't care. Reading is a selfish act for me.

== is the problem that I'm not honoring the author's intentions? If so, then we're back to ethics. See my first point.

== is the problem that I'm missing out on a great experience? If so, I don't care. I LIKE the experience that I am having. It fills me to the brim with feeling, which is what I want to be filled with.

== is it problem that I'm lying to myself? I AM actually thinking of this as a Holocaust story? If so, then these are unconscious thoughts. I don't care about them.

I am really saying something VERY simple. I have certain CONSCIOUS reactions to reading. These reactions are the reason I read and they are all I care about when I do read.

Finally, I would like to say that when I say, "I read for pleasure," I am NOT talking (necessarily) about a warm fuzzy feeling or about simple titillation. I am talking about these things, sure. But I also read to give myself great pain; I read to suffer as-well-as to laugh. But for me, reading is a sensual experience. And sensation isn't right or wrong, good or bad. It just is.
posted by grumblebee at 6:27 AM on October 24, 2005


Okay, I'm putting tons of words in your mouth, so correct me if any of these are wrong.

Yes you are and yes they are (thank you for acknowledging that). But I don't think I can "explain" or "correct" by saying anything I've not said already. This is doing my head in really.

Look, believe it or not, like I already said, I'm not trying to tell you "how" you "should" read, watch or listen to anything, so no need to be so defensive about it. Why should I even care?

I'm also not telling you to read "differently" so you can get "more pleasure". Or saying that you are "morally wrong". Or making any "religious" argument or talking about the "unconscious".

I don't even have an argument as such!

But it seems whatever words I use seem to mean something else entirely to you, and on the other hand I am genuinely having lots of trouble following your reasoning, more so when you try to "interpret" what you think I'm saying (MetaMetafilter)...

Case in point:

Are you saying that books somehow contain both their raw text AND a meaning (or purpose)? This IS what you seem to be saying. You seem to be saying that without talking to the author (i.e. the hammer maker) you can figure out the PURPOSE or MEANING of a book. You seem to be saying that this meaning in NOT just what the majority of people think it means (how people generally use a hammer) or how critics/scholars interpret a book (how pro carpenters use hammers), but it comes from some thing within the book itself -- beyond the literal text. Almost like the book has a soul.

Now, honestly, I can't even being to parse that. What's "raw text" as opposed to "meaning"?

I'm definitely not talking about "talking to the author" (in what sense? literally?) or about some external "purpose" (?) or even "interpretations" by most people; I'm not talking of school assigments where you write "this book explores the theme of", I'm not talking of reader's notes.

I'm also not talking of anything that is or should be "beyond" a story, in fact, the opposite. Seems to me you're the one drawing all these lines where I don't see any.

When I read Anne Frank's "Diary of a Young Girl," it was an exciting story to me -- a tale of a family hiding from bad guys in a secret room. It would have enjoyed it just as much if it was set on Mars or in France in the 18th Century. (I come from a Jewish family that lost family in the Holocaust, so I'm not uncaring about the true history. I just don't care about it when I'm reading fiction. Yes, I know "Anne Frank is not actually fiction, but I read it as such.)

You seem to have a problem with this. What EXACTLY is your problem.


Are YOU talking to me? Wanna know what MY problem is? Aside from YOUR use of CAPITALS, you mean? (sorry, couldn't resist)

Look, I don't care why you like it or if you don't like it, that's irrelevant. (I didn't enjoy reading it for instance. I don't know why, long time ago, I just didn't. That is neither her nor there though).

I don't "have a problem" with you liking it as an exciting tale, but when you talk about it, I just don't understand how you can "not care about the Holocaust part" precisely as you're reading it, when it is part of the story. Like it or not, the author's experience in that particular historical context is what made her story possible in the first place; and even if it had been fiction, it'd be her choice in telling the story that makes it possible so no part is something you can choose to ignore.

So my "problem" here is that I don't get how can you even claim that you "would have enjoyed it just as much if it was set on Mars or in France in the 18th Century", because that is such an impossible abstraction. An artifice.

It's like saying "oh I would have loved the Big Lebowski all the same even if it had been set in nazi Germany and directed by Stephen Spielberg". How would it be the same?

Sounds like you're taking a thing called "setting" that can be somehow separated from the "story" and "plot" and "characters" (and the enjoyable exciting nature of it all and the pleasure or thrill of reading it), and changed like clothes can be changed, and the "story" and "plot" and "characters" would still remain the same. But those are not separate things. They're all one and the same, they're all in the same work, they depend on each other. Know what I mean here?

Of course I see nothing wrong much less at "moral" level in enjoying a story mostly for how it is constructed or for its chracters (or the language and style, or any single "element" you can focus your enjoyment on); but I don't think you can artificially separate that from the whole and say the rest doesn't matter. Yet this is what it seems you're saying. If I have gotten it completely wrong, then nevermind!
posted by funambulist at 9:44 AM on October 24, 2005


funambulist, I'm sorry if I sound defensive. I assure you I'm not. I greatly enjoy these sorts of discussions. The unfortunate thing is that we seem to be confusing each other. Here's why I'm confused. You say, "I'm not trying to tell you 'how' you 'should' read." I can't fit that together with "you seem to conceive of all literature as simply something to pleasure and entertain the readers."

This implies that you DON'T think literature is simply something to pleasure and entertain the readers, and you're trying to explain to me how my "pleasure" view is wrong. But if you're trying to show me how my way of reading -- pleasure and entertain -- is wrong, then you ARE telling me how I should read? Sorry, if that's wrong, but I'm confused.

Maybe you're making a distinction between "how I read" and "what literature is." Is that right? You're not trying to tell me how to read, you're just trying to tell me about literature?

This will sound arrogant, but to me, "how I read" IS "what literature is." I respect anyone else's way of reading, but it doesn't matter to me. For me, reading is a solo activity -- it's VERY much like masturbating. If you tell me that someone else masturbates for different reasons than me, I may find that interesting, but ultimately I don't care.

You also seem to be saying that I can't possibly read the text without encountering the author's context. I guess I agree with you in the sense that if the author sets his book in Montana, I WILL realize that it's in Montana. If that's your point, then I agree with it, but I don't find very interesting or meaningful.

I am pretty much only interested in plot and character. I do NOTICE other aspects of the book, and I don't mind them -- as-long-as they don't detract from plot and character. I also don't care much about them.

I get very confused when you make claims that "literature is X" and "you can't see literature as Y." Sorry about that. I think literature is a word you and I use very differently. Same with the word "author." I suspect much of our confusion stems from different assumptions about these words.

If it helps, I will point out that I don't give "literature" any special status. To me, there is no important difference between a Shakespeare play and The Grand Canyon. They are both equally works of art to me -- they are both equally not works of art to me. Of course, I understand intellectually that plays are man-made and canyons just appear. But I don't care deeply about that distinction. I care about whether something fills me with emotion, and both "King Lear" and "The Grand Canyon" do so. My whole context for art stems from this, so I don't naturally think about authors and their contexts.

You were right when you chided me about "raw text" vs. meaning. Technically, they CAN be divorced in this sense. The raw text is the symbols on the paper (as opposed to their meaning. In other words, if we look at the word "cow" as raw text, we would say it is a curved open shape, followed by a circle, followed by a zigzag. But I never took "raw text" to that simplistic level. I DID confuse "raw text" with meaning -- simple meaning.

But before I go on, let me state for the record that the only things in a book are squiggles on paper. JUST raw text. Any thing else is stuff we read into it. I strongly believe the the concept "cow" is not in any book. What's in the book are those shapes (the shapes of the letters). The animal cow is something that my brain creates when it reads those letters. You probably agree with this (that the animal is in my brain, not in the book), but I want to make sure. If you believe that the book contains ANYTHING besides the letter-forms, they we are very different from each other -- probably in ways that can't be reconciled.

I bring this up, because in similar discussions I've often found (after hours of discussion) that the other party believes that books actually contain all sorts of other things -- ideas, themes, descriptions, etc. I believe that it's useful to say that books contain these things when we're having a casual conversation, but I also believe that this is just a manner of speaking or an illusion. The book contains letter forms -- and that is all.

My mind will probably decode those letter forms into something similar to whatever was in the author's mind when he wrote them. This is because the author and I share many biological and cultural similarities. But if I somehow decode the forms differently, that merely means I am odd. I haven't decoded the book wrong, because the book doesn't contain its own decoding key. The decoding key is in my mind, and it's (similar but) not the same as the decoding key in your mind or the author's mind.

Now it's HIGHLY likely that we'll all decode "cow", "duck", "house", "fire" and "rock" into the same (or very similar) images. This is the level I was talking about when I mentioned raw text. What I really meant was "the letter forms PLUS the very basic decoding of them that 99.9% of us make."

Now, decode the following words into images:

"Small boy. Matches. Burned down house."

My question is, "what is intrinsic to that story?" What meaning is actually encoded WITHIN it? What is not encoded in it but is rather a personal interpretation? I would say this:

1) In the story: letter forms.
2) Basic interpretation (so many people will make this interpretation, we can pretend that it's actually built into the story instead of in these people's heads): an image of a small child, an image of a match, an image of a house burned down.
3) Common interpretation (but definitely NOT in the story): the boy burned the house down.
4) Personal interpretation: a moral along the lines of "one shouldn't play with matches."

Do you agree with all of this? If you disagree, what do you disagree with?
posted by grumblebee at 11:09 AM on October 24, 2005


Perhaps this is even simpler: think of a movie you like. I'm going to use "The Godfather," but please substitute something else if there's a movie you like better. What do you like about it? What REALLY turns you on about it?

Now, are there OTHER aspects of the movie besides those? Are you excited and emotional about Al Pacino's shoes? Do you thrill to the way the extras are arranged in the crowd scenes? Maybe so, but there's surely something that, while it's in the movie, you don't care about it. Maybe it adds to the film on some unconscious level, but I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about the things you can point to that really thrill and excite you.

Do you notice the things that don't excite you? Probably. But they still don't excite you, right? To notice is not the same as to care.

So, yes, I notice that Anne Frank is set during the Holocaust, but I don't care. It's backdrop to me. Many might say to me, "but the Holocaust is the whole POINT of the story!" Similarly, a costume designer might claim that Pacino's shoes are integral to The Godfather. It doesn't matter. They are not integral to MY Godfather -- the interpretation of the film that I care about.

I would go further and say that they aren't integral to THE Godfather and the Holocaust isn't integral to THE Diary of a Young Girl. This is because I don't believe there's such a thing as THE Godfather or THE Diary of a Young Girl -- other than squiggles on paper and scratches on celluloid. Everything else in interpretation.

We can say, so-and-so is missing the whole point of Diary of a Young Girl. Or so-and-so is missing the author's point. But all we can mean by this is that they are not interpreting the work the way most people do (i.e. they are eccentric) or they are not interpreting in in a way that would do them the most good (i.e. they are foolish).
posted by grumblebee at 11:20 AM on October 24, 2005


grumblebee : "3) Common interpretation (but definitely NOT in the story): the boy burned the house down."

This comes down to the meaning behind "raw text". In this case, you're expecting/requiring an explicit narrative of events..

1)Small boy.
2) Matches.
3)Small boy takes matches.
4)small boy lits matches.
5)small boy places lit matches near curtains
6)...
7)...
8) Burned down house.

But clearly there is a logically arbitrary breakpoint at which we don't require finer subdivisions to be interpolated. You wouldn't expect

1)Small boy, homo sapiens, on planet earth, in an atmosphere that supports combustion
2)matches (not the sports terminology, but refering to a device that assists in producing a flame)
3)small boy takes matches (he extends a hand, holds posterior end of match; grasps and lifrs it up)
...
...
...

The sequence, the juxtaposition of narrated events, (in retrospect) the conspicious omission of information that might say otherwise, imply to an intelligent human that your 'common interpretation' is inherent to your text. Your objection basically comes down to the fact that since the cascade/mechanism between the written events can be filled by multiple permutations, it is valid to remain agnostic or supply a suitable interpolation of your own. Where that breaks down is that we hardly ever have the complete information to single out a strict inference. We make decisions probabilistically because the pressures of time, effort and parsimony affect us. The author is such a creature, and so is the reader. Hopefully, both know that about the other. So, in your example, the common interpretation is inherent,because it is the most probabilistic, given that the author is a literate human, with apparently a Westernized education.
posted by Gyan at 11:41 AM on October 24, 2005


Gyan, I think we're mostly in agreement, but we're stressing things slightly differently.

All that is IN the text is marks on paper. Yet it's reasonable to assume that (in general) we'll all interpret those marks the same way (or in highly similar ways).

But what if someone doesn't? I'm not talking about CHOOSING not to. I don't think one can choose one's interpretation. (One can announce any interpretation one wants, but I'm talking about gut reaction, which isn't a choice).

We can call that person abnormal, insane or (I guess) wrong. But he's not missing something that is IN the text. He's missing the common (perhaps nearly universal) interpretation of what's in the text.

Unless you're claiming that this very idea is impossible. That just by being a human, one MUST interpret texts in the universal way. I actually would agree with that somewhat -- at least for humans that aren't brain damaged. But I think the margin for differences in individual interpretations is actually quite large -- especially on EMOTIVE levels. You and I might both agree on some intellectual point. But our emotional reaction to a work will likely be extremely unique to each one of us. And it's THAT interpretation I care about.
posted by grumblebee at 12:29 PM on October 24, 2005


grumblebee : "But he's not missing something that is IN the text. He's missing the common (perhaps nearly universal) interpretation of what's in the text.

"Unless you're claiming that this very idea is impossible."


It is. Everything's in your head. The paper & the marks on it, is a product of your visual cortex. We have to ground ourselves in the world, at some (arbitrary) level. You choose to demarcate between your sensory modalities as the objective marker of what's "out there" and your cognitive/affective modalities as what's your "reaction". It is a naive natural dichotomy, atleast in Western thought, but it's inconsistent.
posted by Gyan at 1:11 PM on October 24, 2005


Thanks, Gyan. You're quite right about that, of course.

I do think that I could get 100 people to agree about the shape of the letter forms. Not only that, I could get machines with vision to agree on them (this breaks down because the "agreeing people" and "agreeing machines" are, quite possibly, all in my head.)

But I can't get 100 people to agree about much else (themes, emotional responses, etc.)

So IF there's an objective reality (it seems to me like) it's one in which there's a page with symbols on it and nothing else.

If there ISN'T an objective reality (or if there is one, but I can't see it accurately), then I certainly can't be wrong. It's my reality in my head.
posted by grumblebee at 1:33 PM on October 24, 2005


grumblebee : "I do think that I could get 100 people to agree about the shape of the letter forms.
...
But I can't get 100 people to agree about much else (themes, emotional responses, etc.)"


You could, but it would take an intelligent, specific route. The people would agree on the shapes because of (presumably) very similar brain function, but the same's true about other faculties. The difference is that we don't have a presumed common stage where affective objects reside, like the referent of visual objects, so the assumption is that people are inherently different and unbridgeable in such modalities. They aren't. It's an epistemological and logistical problem, not ontological.
posted by Gyan at 2:08 PM on October 24, 2005


You could, but it would take an intelligent, specific route.

This directly impacts my work (as a director), so I'd be interested in specifics. How would you do this?
posted by grumblebee at 2:54 PM on October 24, 2005


Gyan, grumblebee, funambulist:

I just wanted to say that I've only skimmed some of your comments in the post, but from what I've skimmed:
1) I'm very impressed at the articulateness of the discussion
2) I'm impressed at the maturity in the face of disagreement
3) It seems like a conversation I would have enjoyed taking place in had I gotten in on the ground floor, and
4) I look forward to seeing y'alls posts in the future.
posted by Bugbread at 3:53 PM on October 24, 2005


grumblebee : "This directly impacts my work (as a director), so I'd be interested in specifics. How would you do this?"

Psychological forensics and modelling. Like we have a specific grammar of the objects of vision and sound, we need a psychological grammar. I don't actually have any specific specifics in mind. The point I was rebutting was that a dichotomy of innately objective and subjective markers exist; only a functional dichotomy between vague, imprecise markers and rich, precise ones. And what you believe is inherent in a stimulus depends on where the demarcation exists for you.
posted by Gyan at 4:00 PM on October 24, 2005


say fella, i betcha dint even really read all them books, now did ya? may' a few, but ya dint read awlla ones ya said ya did. wanna bet?
posted by beyondme at 6:52 PM on October 24, 2005


Hey grumblebee, in case you still check this, I came back to the thread after a break hoping the confusion had cleared a little and I could make sense of what we were discussing, cos last time I checked both you and Gyan had completely lost me...

So if this is still of any interest, I just want to add, after re-reading, I think I understand better what you're saying now (I also read some stuff you wrote on your blog that kind of helped a little, I think) so I just want to give it a last attempt to clarify my point, and I hope I don't bore anyone to bits in the process, or adding even more to the confusion (or conversely, say something so stupidly obvious that was already implied, but I'm not good at discussing by pure abstractions so apologies in advance for any fuckup).

Yes you're right we're also probably using the same words in different ways, but when I'm saying "author" or "literature" I really don't mean anything behind what it says on the tin, you know, author someone who writes a story, and literature, shorthand for those stories being written... Just like with "art", for the purpose of this discussion at least, I'm really only interested in the most basic definition of the terms, not attaching to them some mystical or religious significance.

Now what was I arguing with there? Not with your own tastes and approach to reading or watching a story for its sensual pleasure of escape into an engrossing plot and characters etc. etc. I get it, and it doesn't sound odd or eccentric to me at all. I'm not arguing for a 'didactic approach' as superior to the sheer pleasure in reading a book or watching a film (I don't even think in terms of that dichotomy really, I just think of different levels of enjoyment). Pleasure is great. Hurrah for pleasure. Hurrah for escapism too. And for personal emotional reactions. No argument there.

What I'm arguing with is that you call "interpretation" of a reader everything from that pleasure and the emotional reactions to the story, to the very act of reading as if the act of reading means creating the story yourself. So that interpretation, in that vast sense, is all there is, and you create the story yourself by reading it, the rest is only symbols on a page.

Yes, physically, books are only ink on paper, like a story told is only sounds, but those symbols on paper and those sounds are symbols and sounds in a given language. Yes, yes, langauge works by abstraction and mental images and no two people have the exact same mental image of the same word even when it refers to an object or animal and not some vague idea -- yet it works, as a convention assigning shared meanings to words, spoken or written, it enables us to communicate. We don't need to analyse it in theory each time we need to use it, we just do. For the practical purpose of communicating. Sorry to be so horribly pragmatic.

So what's the point of saying it's just ink on paper? If it is ink on paper in a book written in a language you don't speak, you wouldn't be able to even begin that whole interpretation process, from reading to enjoying to having your own emotions about the story. You wouldn't have the basic tool for it, ie. knowledge of that language. So, no, it's definitely not all in your head.

I know I'm not saying anything you didn't know here, but I feel it's something you're not considering here when you talk of "raw text" like squiggles on paper and shapes of letters. Raw text in English for you as an English speaker is not the same thing as raw text in Farsi or Chinese, is it?

The whole objective/subjective distinction has no use to me in this discussion either, it's not a distinction I care for and I wasn't even thinking about that. You seem to think I'm saying the story is something objective, while your reactions to it are subjective, so your reactions cannot be all that matters.

No, I'm saying that a story - whether it's told orally or written in a book, whether it's fiction or not - is communication, and if you want to use those neat abstract categories, then communication is all subjective. It's someone telling a story, someone else listening.

Your unique individual subjectivity - anything from your character, personality, background, nationality, language, culture, life experiences, tastes, etc, etc. - is an inseparable whole that colours, so to speak, the way you listen, and the same is true for the other person telling the story -- and no amount of you not caring about that, or not wanting to notice to so as not to spoil the pleasure of the fiction, will erase that.

That's what I meant by "can't remove the author from the picture". Their individuality and their background is in the story, from the very language they write it in, to where they set it, to the way the portray characters, everything.

So even as you're caring only for your own reactions, it's a fallacy to say that's all there is, and that there's no such thing as "THE Diary of Anne Frank" or "THE novel by Orwell", only a series letters on a page plus a set of differing, unique, individual readings. That's a paradox.

There's a story because there's a storyteller, not because there's a listener. If the Diary of Anne Frank had never been found and read by anyone, it would still be the same diary. It would just lack readers, the other half of the communication process, so to speak, no one would have listened to her experience. But the first half is still there, her experience and her telling it. Same for an unpublished fictional novel.

You can get all philosophical about it and claim it's just pages of paper with letters on them therefore it "doesn't exist" as a story unless it gets "interpreted" in the reader's mind, but it's just a theoretical absurdity. A story unread is still a story someone wrote.

The fact the listening part of the communication process is something you do all by yourself when reading a book instead of listening to someone telling a story to you face to face (nevermind the other differences between the two things) only means you don't have to know or think or care about that person, and about their context (more on that later) and how it affects the story they're telling, and you can focus only that story and your own reading of it. You said "I don't care about the author, I only care about the book". Sure, I get that, for the purpose of enjoying the story, I understand what you mean there.

But your reading and perception of a story doesn't create the story out of thin air. Language is not something you create all by yourself each time you read. And that's what it sounds like when you talk about "just symbols on paper".

So, one thing is to say "tastes are relative" and that you only care about your own reactions, quite another to deny the process of human communication through language.

So it's not so much your preferences I am arguing with, but the theoretical claims you make about them. That's what I have a problem with, not the rest which is indeed a personal difference in tastes or approaches.
posted by funambulist at 4:59 AM on November 3, 2005


Ouch, that was so long... but I just have to reply to one last thing about "context".

When you say: You also seem to be saying that I can't possibly read the text without encountering the author's context. I guess I agree with you in the sense that if the author sets his book in Montana, I WILL realize that it's in Montana. If that's your point, then I agree with it, but I don't find very interesting or meaningful.

Eh, because that's not really my point, and I realise I took for granted you'd understand what I meant without trying to explain it.

No, the context I'm talking about is definitely not just setting of a story (or even biography of the author).

A story set in Montana, written by an American author, in American English, that's already the premise that affects everything in the story. It's much more than "set in Montana". If I read that story, and I'm not American, and I've never been to Montana, then I can't help but both notice and care, instinctively, about how that emerges in the story, including plots and characters, probably even more than if I was reading a story set in my own country and social environment and written in my own language. Besides, it's also the very notions of plot and character that change in different cultures and times.

I realise this is also a personal difference, in that you said you read even non fiction as if it was fiction, whereas even with fiction I do enjoy thinking of the reality it connects to, as it appears in the story, either overtly or in what's taken for granted -- as in I don't know, local cultural references in a dialogue between characters, that a foreigner wouldn't get, so as a foreigner I'm forced to think about it, and maybe even look it up. I don't mind that at all, I enjoy it even more when a story has a lot of references to a specific place and time.

Even if I wanted only to think of the story itself, I'd still be taking in all that. I just like to be aware of it, not out of some sense of duty to the mighty authors, or out of a self-imposed didactic mission, but because I'm interested in that, in how stories reflect not just the individuality of their authors but their culture and society too, and how they view it, their perspective on it. It doesn't have to be about politics or history. It can be a plot involving marital infidelity - if I'm watching a Hollywood film or tv series rather than an Italian film, the difference in treatment of that is usually very remarkable. How much of that is convention of that genre, or a choice of that particular author/scriptwriter/director, and how much is it a realistic portrait of different mentalities in those societies? I don't make a point of wondering about it on purpose, I just can't help it, either when I'm reading or viewing, or after, and wondering about it in relation to what I know of those different contexts in reality. If I say "that's not realistic!" or "that's a stupid plot!" only because the characters behave or talk in a way I'm not used to considering realistic, I'm just being ignorant, am I not?

So that's an example of what's what I mean by context and why I find it hard to not care about it. I guess we meant different things here...

Re: the other thing you said about the difference between noticing and caring, and your example of Al Pacino's shoes. See, I find it absurd to compare the relevance of Al Pacino's shoes to the Godfather to the relevance of nazi Germany to Anne Frank. Someone for some odd reason may care more about those shoes than anything, but they still aren't the cultural and historical background of the Godfather story.

So, I can sort of understand what you mean by the difference between noticing and caring, but again, it's not the reactions that make the story so it's not the lack of caring for that context that makes it as irrelevant as an actor's shoes.

(Just like it's not having similar reactions of pleasure to both a story in a novel/film and the Grand Canyon that makes the two things equal!)
posted by funambulist at 6:22 AM on November 3, 2005


fumambulist, I think I understand you (I get your first post more than I do your second), and I don't think we're disagreeing about much anymore. Maybe it's more a matter of personal emphasis.

As I read your first post, you're saying that....

(A) Stories are CAUSED by authors. If there was no author, there would be no story.
(B) Authors are living, breathing, complex people and the nuances of their lives are necessarily going to leave an imprint on the symbols on the page. In other words, if Raymond Carver and Italo Calvino had tried to write exactly the same story, they would fail. Each would write a different (though perhaps superficially similar) story.
(C) As a reader, I am going to notice these "personality" differences whether I want to or not.

If this is what you're saying, I agree with all of it. In fact, I LOVE those differences. I LOVE the feeling that a book has a distinct personality or point-of-view. I prefer to think of it as the book's personality, not the author's personality. I realize that it all CAME from the author, but the problem is (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not) authors are tricky. For instance, Joyce Carol Oats wrote a couple of novels in a sort of Charlotte Bronte style. The book's "personally" is 19th-Centery Gothic more than it is recognizably Oats (based on reading her other novels). Sure, it COMES from Oats, but it's the book's "personality."

I think it was Gyan who pointed out that people naturally personify. I agree with that. When we read, most of us (maybe not all of us, most of the time) will imagine that someone is TELLING us the story. Since there's a name of an author listen on the jacket, most people confuse that imaginary person with the author. And it's okay to make that confusion. But it IS a confusion. The storyteller is more like a puppet on the author's arm. And we all know that Miss Piggy's personality is not the same as Frank Oz's personality. (Barry Lyndon is not Thackary). There MUST be some relationship between Piggy and Oz, because Oz created Piggy. But we can't know that exact relationship. Maybe Piggy is based on personality traits that Oz hates, and he's enjoying portraying his nemesis. On the other hand, maybe Piggy is someone he finds endearing. Or maybe Piggy is based on his Aunt. Saying that Oz left his imprint on a fictional character is true, but it doesn't tell us much.

Imagine my wife comes home and sees that the TV is all smashed to bits. "How did that happen," she asks. I say, "I did it." That's the relationship FROM OUR POINT OF VIEW of an author to a book. We know that the author "did it." So? My wife presumably knows that I did it -- I'm the only person living here besides her. But she wants to know WHY I did it. And if I suddenly drop dead, she never will know. This is the relationship we have with authors. They may still be alive, but we don't have any access to them. (We can read interviews, but they may be lying in them, or they may not understand their own reasons.)

So my main point is that the relationship between author and book is murky. The author SOMEHOW produced the book and presumably various aspects of his live affected the book, but I don't know (and I don't care) how. But I AM conscious of a sort of personality that is telling me a story.

Sorry, I'm still really lost as to your second post (about context). I won't try to interpret it, because I've mangled this discussion before by putting words in your mouth.

All I'll say is this: What happens to someone of my tastes when I watch a movie like "Schindler's List"? Remember, I come from a Jewish family. I am keenly aware of the Holocaust. It's an important, emotional part of history to me.

On the other hand, I'm not interested in stories as history lessons, so that's not what I'm watching "Schindler's List" for. I really like that movie. I like it because I think Schindler is a fascinating character and I get all caught up in the drama of him trying to hide these people from the bad guys. I haven't said "hiding Jews from Nazis" because that's honestly not how the story affects me.

When I'm looking at my DVD collection and trying to decide what to watch, I think, "it would be fun to watch a movie about someone trying to allude bad guys." And I reach for "Schindler's List." That's WHY I watch it and what I care about. Everything else is, in effect, Al Pacino's shoes. It's incidental stuff that I don't really care about and that doesn't consciously impact me while I'm watching it.

I do NOTICE the fact that the movie is set during the Holocaust. And it makes sense to say that, since I care about the real-life Holocaust, this fiction version MUST have some affect on me. Maybe so. But it's not a conscious affect. (And we really can't discuss unconscious affects without hooking me up to an MRI or relying on pseudo-science, i.e. Freud).

It's actually very lucky (and a testament to Speilberg, who I generally loath as a filmmaker) that I like the film as-much-as I do. In general, if I find out that a story leans heavily on real-life events, I avoid it. "Based on a true story" or "Ripped from the headlines" are warnings to me. Nine times out of ten, I hate these movies. They tend to AGRESSIVELY point to the real world. They seem to say, "Hey, if you're enjoying this story, that's great, but please remember that it's just a story and that there are REAL PEOPLE suffering from breast cancer!" That's the exact opposite of what I want in fiction. I want "forget about the real people and come into this magical world!" And my claim is that I do just that when I watch "Schindler's List." Consciously (at least), I completely forget about the real world. "The Holocaust" in the film might as well be some event on planet Bleeb.
posted by grumblebee at 8:55 AM on November 3, 2005


Here's another thought about "Schindler's List": from what I've read, Speilberg was really passionate about this film, specifically AS a Holocaust film. If we assume this to be true, we have an interesting form of communication going on between Speilberg and Grumblebee, via the film:


S (passion about Holocaust) =========> Film ========> G (Wow! Bad guys!)


S might get upset that I'm not receiving his intended message (Or maybe he doesn't care. Who knows?). But I think I am receiving his passion. Well, not really. That's sort of a shorthand way of speaking. The passion is being generated in my own brain. It's not being "received." But it's triggered by the film. S's passion lead him to craft his film really well, and though I don't respond to the Holocaust stuff, I DO respond to the craftsmanship. The craftsmanship (which grew out of passion) triggers passion in my brain. So, speaking causally, we can say that S communicated his passionate feelings about his message but not the message itself.

[I'll be a little more specific with an example: S directed Ralph Fiennes to play a concentration camp commander. Fiennes did such a great job creating this scary character, that I will always remember him (the character). My guess is that S was trying to send me a message about the psychology of Nazis or the psychology of people in charge of killing other people. It was an important message to him, so in collaboration with Fiennes, he worked very hard -- very passionately -- to get all the details and nuances right. And I respond to those details and nuances. My passion is triggered by that character. But I don't think about Nazis. I think about that specific guy. I don't extrapolate from him to any bigger picture. So the Holocaust background is incidental to my passion. It was NOT incidental to S. It was the Holocaust that got him excited enough to make the movie in the first place.]

I find this also to be true when I direct plays. I MUST direct them with some goal in mind, or I have no way of making artistic decisions. When trying to decide whether an actor should wear a red shirt of a blue shirt, I can ask which shirt better furthers my goal. And I must feel passionately about this goal. If I don't, I won't attend to details and the craftsmanship will suffer.

My goal might be a message (i.e. didactic) or it might be simply to illuminate some character or plot that thrills me. But whatever it is, it had better prompt some passion in me, or I won't direct the play well. Luckily, I am usually able to find this passion, and when I do, I've noticed that the audience tends to respond with equal passion. The few times I've had to fake an orgasm (so to speak) the audience has been bored.

However, when I DO thrill them, they generally don't walk away understanding my goal. When I talk to them about the play, they get very excited and tell me what it "means", and their meaning is generally totally different than my meaning. But our passion is equal.

Some artists get very upset about this. They WANT the audience to come away with a very specific message. This is too bad. I think it's very hard to use storytelling as a medium for conveying a specific message. This is because stories contain all sorts of distractions -- characters, exciting plots, exotic locations, etc. -- that can distract from the message. You can try to push your message to the forefront, but this generally leads to horrible after-school-special stories, in which we feel like someone is trying to pound us on the head with a moralistic story. Or we can agree that plot and character are the real powerful aspects of storytelling and let the message go.

When I tell stories, I want the audience to FEEL. I don't care much what they feel as-long-as they FEEL. And I definitely don't care whether or not they can guess my intent. I pray they're not thinking about my intent at all. I pray they're not thinking about me at all. I pray they are thing about -- or rather FEELING -- my story.
posted by grumblebee at 12:28 PM on November 3, 2005


Great discussion (seems rare these days around here...) - like bugbread I feel it's late to get involved, but I am sympathetic to both of you and very much enjoyed reading these thoughts.

I will say I'm inclined toward grumblebee because being 'lost' in a book is absolutely central to me (whether fiction or otherwise - I must forget I'm reading, become absorbed by the experience of thought & imagination) BUT I am definitely able to get 'lost' in ideas and in language itself (in good poetry, in the feel & sound of words) so that in itself doesn't mean I stop caring about larger cultural / historical / aesthetic / etc elements of the book...
posted by mdn at 5:47 PM on November 3, 2005


mdn, I'm glad you've enjoyed the discussion. I hope you're typical and that we haven't taxed anyone's patience.

At this late date, I'll come clean and admit that I've exaggerated my personality a bit in order to make a point. I too can get caught up in biographical/cultural issues surrounding a story. It's rare, but it happens. (i.e. I sometimes enjoy speculating how events in an author's life might have affected his writing.) So I understand the feeling. When I partake in these activities, I like to do them well after I have finished the book. It's not possible for me to be lost in the book and also to perform an analysis of it at the same time (could anyone do that????). And, as with mdm, I must be lost in the book to enjoy it.
posted by grumblebee at 7:08 AM on November 4, 2005


grumblebee, thanks for the replies, they're very helpful and made it all so much clearer to me, finally. I am glad you also understood exactly what I meant. Yay, we have finally established communication!

If this is what you're saying, I agree with all of it. In fact, I LOVE those differences. I LOVE the feeling that a book has a distinct personality or point-of-view.

Yes, indeed, that's what I was saying.

I prefer to think of it as the book's personality, not the author's personality. I realize that it all CAME from the author, but the problem is (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not) authors are tricky.

That's an interesting way to put it and something I hadn't much thought of, perhaps because I do tend to personify the story a lot.

You're right, I don't think we're disagreeing on much here, in fact, I very much sympathise with what you wrote now that you explained it better (or, now that I understood it better -- I think I also assumed a lot in trying to understand, so, sorry about that. I think it was also the mention of "escapism" that confused me).

On the context thing, er, I don't think I explained it well, but what you wrote there and your examples about Schindler's List are still very enlightening. I don't much like the history lessons or didactic messages within fiction either, not when they're overt or in your face at least, so I completely agree on that. I just wouln't have thought of the reason I dislike it being that it breaks the fiction, just that it's usually heavy handed and yeah, like you say, you feel like you're being pounded on the head with a message.

I really like what you said on communicating the passion if not the message itself. I wouldn't have thought of it that way.

In general, if I find out that a story leans heavily on real-life events, I avoid it. "Based on a true story" or "Ripped from the headlines" are warnings to me. Nine times out of ten, I hate these movies. They tend to AGRESSIVELY point to the real world. They seem to say, "Hey, if you're enjoying this story, that's great, but please remember that it's just a story and that there are REAL PEOPLE suffering from breast cancer!" That's the exact opposite of what I want in fiction.

Oh no, I don't like that kind of thing either. I have enjoyed movies technically 'based on true stories', when the stories were just so engaging as such (like this for instance) and not trying to push a point or moral lesson at the expense of storytelling.

At this late date, I'll come clean and admit that I've exaggerated my personality a bit in order to make a point

That's cool, in the end the fact you were so passionate about something I wasn't getting just made more curious about your point of view (which also proves your point!) and you've made me think a lot about stuff I was taking for granted. So, thanks for being so patient.

It's not possible for me to be lost in the book and also to perform an analysis of it at the same time (could anyone do that????).

It's basically the same for me, more so for films than books, but at the same time, during or in between reading, I also start to think about extra stuff in between reading - not an analysis, more like curiosity, questions, stuff that I can relate to, etc. It's just something going on in the back of my mind, like, at another level, and for me it adds to the enjoyment. So yes, I too have to get lost in the story, I just don't think of that effect as separate. I enjoy the fiction as such at the same time it makes me think (think, feel, same thing to me here, a reaction to a story starts from emotions anyway, not theory or analytical detachment) about real life, experiences, views, etc. It depends on the story obviously.
posted by funambulist at 9:48 AM on November 5, 2005


Ah, and the way I was thinking about being aware of a real context impacting the story wasn't necessarily about historical context and definitely not about some didactic message being pushed. It was at a more basic level.

Maybe it's not that relevant to the discussion, especially now I get what you meant on this point. I just meant I like to notice even the smallest things that "signal" a specific cultural context as opposed to another. (Aside from language, that is, or knowing what country a film or novel is from or set in).

It can be different approaches to relationships between characters, habits, attitudes, or just specific references in a dialogue. Often a plot implies a certain shared assumption from its audience and it's very interesting to me how reactions can differ also on a national basis. Or what is considered realistic (in dialogues or characters, etc.) by one type of audience and not another. So for instance if I get used to watching a lot of US tv series, I realise I am getting used to both certain "conventions" of plot or characterisation, and mentalities or attitudes they may represent, and I often wonder where does one thing end and the other start.

I get more curious about that the more foreign the context is to me. I am aware it's fiction and I don't take any film to literally "represent" the society or country it comes from; but at the same time I do wonder what are the influences that come through in the story, insofar as I can notice. That's one of the things that I may think about later or may be going on in the back of my mind.

I'm probably saying something obvious but not sure I can explain it well.
posted by funambulist at 9:54 AM on November 5, 2005


mdn, that's how it works for me too, and you've put it more concisely than I could! see, you should have gotten involved earlier, that would have spared me a lot of frustration :)
posted by funambulist at 10:01 AM on November 5, 2005


Isn't it funny how hard this stuff is to think about -- or even to talk about?

I've been thinking/talking about it for years, but (unlike in this case) conversations about it generally don't go well.

The first problem is that many people have emotional baggage tied up with this stuff. They spent YEARS in school working with a specific critical approach, and if someone implies that this approach is wrong or doesn't make sense -- naturally they will be upset.

The second problem is that there are many similar objects that are not the same (the are just similar) that are easy to confuse: the actual author vs. the narrative voice, etc.

I find that when I'm discussing this stuff, I have to insist that people either differentiate these objects (admit that the author and narrator are related but distinct) or explain why they disagree with me that they should be differentiated. Without this dealt with early, there's not much point of going on, because the whole discussion rests on this point (and other points, like whether or not it's okay to read for escape and whether or not we can know the author's intent).

These issues are so slippery, that though I can get someone to agree that the author and narrator are distinct at the beginning of the discussion, they may forget this halfway through. All of the sudden they are arguing about F. Scott Fitzgerald's opinion of Gatsby instead of Nick Carroway's opinion of him.

I think I made a classic mistake of assuming you had all of these confusion when you didn't. You kept telling me (very patiently -- thankyou), "no I don't think that...." You know how it goes. You get in the same argument over and over, and after a while you start anticipating what the other person will say. I'm sorry that I did that with you. It just held us up.

Anyway -- great discussion! Thanks!
posted by grumblebee at 2:54 PM on November 5, 2005


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