Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dissecting Novels

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.


MeganRebekah said...

Yes!! I feel the exact way, about liking the illusion. To me that's part of the mystery and fun and escape of reading.
Great post!

(and I love Susan's blog too!)

Adam Heine said...

This is what fiction is for, actually. It sneaks questions and beliefs and worldviews into our consciousness that otherwise would go unnoticed or be outright rejected.

An essay on industrial pollution, for example, is far FAR less compelling than a story about a woman who loses her home and family because of toxic waste dumped upriver, or the corporate executive who must choose between employing 100 otherwise-jobless people or spending the money it will take to make his facility environmentally clean.

Just as an example.

Rick Daley said...

Oprah interviewed Cormac McCarthy regrading THE ROAD. ONe of her questions was about the thematic matter...was there a deep message, or was it really just a story about this man and boy.

From McCarthy's viewpoint, it was just a story about the man and the boy. It is very easy to read further into it and derive meaning from individual scenes and ancillary characters, and the ease at which this can be done is part of what makes the story so good, but that doesn't mean the author explicitly implied those meanings.

In ninth grade we read Steinbeck's THE PEARL. At one point my English teacher, in her drawn out manner of speech that is so stereotypical of English teachers, asked us "Now what do the two men on horseback with guns symbolize?"

My response was "two men on horseback with guns. They are a critical element of the plot, and they add excitement to the story and a reason for the family to run and hide. Why does everything have to be a symbol? Why can't it just be part of the story?"

She didn't like that answer.

Matthew Delman said...

Megan --

Yeah, I've always believed reading should be fun first and critical thinking second.

Adam --

Joseph Stalin once said "A million people dead is a statistic. One person dead is a tragedy."

Stories about people will always be more compelling than one written about abstract concepts for the simple reason that how people react is more interesting.

Rick --

That answer sounds like something I'd definitely say in English class. And you probably got some sort of answer back like "everything means something."

Andrew Rosenberg said...

And then you work and work to create a beautiful masterpiece and with only a few choice words a critiquer can turn it into mush.

Joshua McCune said...

Excellent post... the magic is definitely gone for me -- definitely a sad day when I realized this.

L. T. Host said...

GREAT post, Matt. Couldn't have said it better myself.

Shannon O'Donnell said...

This is an excellent post, Matt. I agree with much of this and love the way you put it. Illusion is a key part of enjoying what we read. :-)

Susan R. Mills said...

I prefer the illusion as well. When you lose that, it's not nearly as fun to read. Thanks for the mention.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I agree, and I'm torn whether I enjoy reading MORE because I see the brilliance of the craftsman behind it, or I enjoy it LESS because I can't fully get immersed. I guess it's when a writer can still pull me in, in spite of my heightened awareness of writerly skill, that I enjoy it even more.

My mom recently read my story (believe it or not, she was the LAST to read it, after many a reviewer). She liked it (she is my mom after all) but she paid me a high compliment when she was through: "There were times when I was reading that I completely forgot that you had written it."


One other point about themes, though: Do you think the idea of not having explicit messages applies as well to MG fiction, where the readers may be a bit more literal? I keep vascillating on the answer to this question, so I'm interested what you think.

Gary Corby said...

The implied analysis might be one reason why many writers can't work with an outline. (And I'm one of them.)

By the same token, it's a rare (successful) book without a consistent theme to hold it together.

dolorah said...

I quit watching that magic breaking show after only a couple episodes. I don't really care if its all fake. I like how the fakery makes me dream and wonder.

Same with books; if I get the message, that just icing on the cake to enjoying the novel. Especially in fantasy. Psychology, socio-politics, mysticism and philosophy. Yep, I love all that, and making up my own mind about the author's message; or lack of.