Anyone who follows Susan R. Mills's A Walk In My Shoes will remember her post series about literary agent Donald Maass's The Fire in Fiction from awhile back. After reading that series, I purchased both that book and Maass's other tome -- Writing the Breakout Novel. I finished the breakout novel book, and I'm currently working my way through the other one, but that's neither here nor there.
Over the past few days, I've been discussing "literature" and my dislike of many of the classics because I was forced to dissect them in the classroom. Iapetus999 mentioned yesterday that he does this to his own writing and comes to loathe it because of this. He also says this is probably true of any writing -- a fact I agree wholeheartedly with.
I liken it to learning the secret behind a magic trick. There's a TV show called Breaking the Magicians' Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed that aired on Fox awhile back, where this man calling himself the Masked Magician showed the secrets behind a lot of the stage illusions currently practiced. Now, I love illusions and stage magicians (I wanted to be one at one point, but then I'm a sci-fi/fantasy fan so that should come as no surprise), but I don't want to know how they make the rabbit come out of the hat or stab the box with swords and have the lady come out fine. I only want to marvel at the brilliance of it. I know it's a trick, but I don't want to know how it's done.
A skillfully executed story is a magic trick. You become convinced that you've been transported into this other world, with characters and settings that are larger than life (because they need to be), where stories have a powerful message that need to be told. Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card is over-mentioned as an example, but it works so I'll use it here. Card weaves a tale about a genius boy named Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, who wins a real war through winning a video game. Card's story then is about violence in video games, war, and how it all effects this lone boy. But because we don't see the magician pulling the strings, we get drawn into the story and come to the conclusions ourselves.
When we dissect a novel to figure out its message, we're tearing away the layers of illusion protecting the secrets of the magic trick. What does this tree mean? What does this apple mean? What does every symbol in the story mean? What did the author mean with this turn of phrase? With this sentence? What was the message of this paragraph? Of this chapter? Of this entire act of the novel?
In Writing the Breakout Novel, Maass argues that breakout novels all have a message behind them. Anne Perry's Slaves of Obsession has the characters proclaim the message (that love for each other is important, even when a Cause calls us to arms), but others like Ender's Game never actually have anyone state the message explicitly. Rather, it is how the story is told that communicates the message to us. If we dissect a novel into its constituent messages, the novel loses the power to affect us. We see the strings holding the illusionist in mid-air as it were.
Just like that TV show shattered my illusions about stage magic, so too does dissecting a novel shatter my illusions about that story. And I like having the illusion. That's the fun of reading, after all.