Monday, August 1, 2011

Literature, for the stupid

I wish people would use the comment feature *points to it* instead of the e-mail feature for discussions on posts I make. Do I need to write a post called "Blog Responses, for the stupid" as an appendix to this one?  Anyway, I appreciate the comments that have shown up in the comment section.  ERV's in particular.

Anyway, the point I was implying seems to have been too subtle.  Literature is where we explore the human condition. It's better there than, say, out of books because out of books we have to use real people. And real people are harder to bring back in the sequel than imaginary people are. It's sheer efficiency in that way. You know how it is when an actor dies and needs to be replaced in a movie series? It's worse when the people aren't imaginary.

Well, I'm going to explain a little something about literature to the stupid people out there. If a writing is worth anything, it has nothing extraneous in it. At all. Each word is important to the story. Each character is an element that adds to the complexity of the story being told. Even the seemingly trivial, bland characters do. They're usually called plot devices; they move the story along kind of the like the red alert in Star Trek. Instead of "alert" it should flash "plot complication".

When a major secondary character has traits you don't like, that means you're being told something. There's a quandary there for you to solve. Why don't you like that character? What is it about that character that makes you really, really not like it? Oftentimes, the thing you're not supposed to like about it is its defining traits. Say, a simpering person who blindly follows another around like a puppy does its child master.  There's a lack of dignity in being that kind of person. There's a forfeiture of one's innate worth. The character isn't what you despise; it's a stand-in for traits you despise in people.

Probably yourself.

When you see a woman character who's always playing the victim, or is always weak and in need of rescue, a spine, an ability be her own person, you're supposed not to like that. This doesn't make the story necessarily bad. That's a writing flaw, not necessarily a character one.  Each story being told is really two stories. You have the story you actually read, and the story, the lesson, the moral that's being played out.

It won't do well for a story to start out with a character sheet:
Frank: type a. asshole. don't treat people like Frank treats Betty.
Betty:  weak, simpering dullard, lacks all esteem and derives self worth from the cheap flattery of others, and considers Frank's abuse to be an estimation of how important to him she is. Don't be Betty. Betty is a character we shouldn't have to write, but there are real Bettys in the world; stop being Betty. Betty is wasting herself. Please, don't be like Betty no matter what you do or you'll wind up in a shitty story like the one you're about to read. Friends don't let friends be Betty - ya dig?

OK, I guess one could do that, but then there's no point in writing a story. You've said it all. You've bludgeoned the audience. You've lectured, instead of presenting the traits in a discrete, embedded way that lets others see the interplay and figure out why it's not good to be a Betty.  The latter we call good writing usually. The former we call being condescending and pedantic. Yes, I know that this post is an example of that. Hence the title.

But knowing this requires discernment and understanding of theme, plot, setting, character, development of these things, irony, humor, sarcasm, subtlety, implication, reading between the lines, allegory, metaphor, floating opposites and comparisons.  In short, it requires being able to analyze simultaneously what the words on the page say, and what the interplay of the words means.

If you just read a book and hate a character and then label that a problem, there is indeed a problem that book has sussed out.  It's to be found in the mirror.

What the hell are people learning in their literature classes anyway? How to gripe and complain that the characters are more complex than the cookie-cutter molds of an idealized world wherein everyone is the embodiment of only the traits we'd like to see?


The curious thing about reading a book and discussing it is that it gives one an entrance to an otherwise potentially awkward conversation to have with a child, a friend, a mentor or a lover.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is an excellent read. Charlie just isn't Charlie. He's an avatar, a phantasm, the ghost of all the children who are molested by those who "love" them since time immemorial.  If you read the book and fail to translate that to the current Catholic Crisis, you're not a clever participant in the world. If you read this book and fail to take away the fact that the vulnerable, who are very often and easily represented by children in stories, are to be nurtured and protected and taught their value and self worth even in the light of being abused by a parent, priest, neighbor, whatever, then you've walked away from a book poorer for having read it.

The fault doesn't lie in the book. The fault lies in thinking that work of fiction is a drama that plays out only in the minds of those who read the book. Literature is our way of experimenting cruelly on imaginary people as a way to appreciate how to treat their extant counterparts in real life when that person's dramatic writer needs a live stage to take a line.

Must things be so bluntly put so that people will get them? Why does this need to even be explained?

Oh, in case you've not read it, and are going to, here's a protip: the anonymous person to whom Charlie is sending letters . . . that's you. It's a direct plea from the imaginary victim to you, a real person. Who knows someone with kids. Who knows other kids. Some of whom will be abused. Some of them will become drug addicts. Some will kill themselves. Some will harm others. You can help. You can listen to an imaginary Charlie writing to you all the directions in the world how you can befriend someone in need; how you can mentor someone; how you can change someone's life by the onerous task of talking to them. Read a book with them. Discuss the book. Talk about the characters in there. Listen to what the person tells you about the characters. People read into characters the parts of themselves that are addressed to a large extent.

Be an active reader; be an active listener.

A book like this is a perfect way to introduce a conversation to young men and women without the whole, "say, um, I wanted to talk to you about child rape - gotta minute?"

Maybe I should be the next Dr. Phil.

[Edit: oh snap. Perks is being made into a movie to be released next year. I never thought of that when it first came out (I read it the day it became available); I wonder how this might play out - can't wait]


Anonymous said...

Fiction is dead to me now.
Spent nearly all my spare time as a kid and up till about age 30 just hoovering it up, any old stuff (not trash, I like to think). Obsessed, I was.

Grumpy old man disease has me in its grip.
Once in a blue moon I try and pick up where I left off, conscious effort, because I used to luurve it so much.
No go. Sincerely try the first few pages, lose it completely, and flip to the back searching for the (non-existent) bibliography and index, hissing "FFS just get to the point you were hamfistedly and clunkily trying to make, will you?" When of course that's entirely not the point.

I think it all stems from years way back spent chewing through hard-to-find technical reports and grey literature under a teeny bit of duress. I just choke. Sort of PTSD for dweebs.

Justicar said...

Publication: Technical Sourcing Disorder

I get so disappointed with lazy "cool" writing in literature. Maybe I should join a bookclub, but, you know, Groucho Marx.

Brad said...


You don't get fiction yet. The good stuff comes when you actually read and think about it.

By the way, I hope you know, I have not meant any disrespect to you. You're the alpha male.

I'm cool with that. I'm from LA. To me, all this crap happened 20 years ago.

This is the 21st century.

Times change.

Justicar said...

I don't get fiction?

Brad said...

Ah crap.

That makes no sense, does it?

I'm drunk. Time for me to go to bed I guess.

Brad said...

Sorry for being incoherent.

Soju (Korean alcohol of choice) is a sneaker.

And now I have a headache.

John D said...

I'm in a book club and my friend is making me read Kafka... fuck! Fucking Kafka.... it will be a tough couple of weeks.