So today should be a blog about Reading but NOPE. I’m saving that for May 12 because we have a guest blogger that day, so today’s theme is Writing. I mentioned Reader/Writer Nancy–I’ve actually mentioned her frequently–in a blog entry a few weeks back and she popped right up with a series of interesting questions that pertain to writing. Sort of. I have always maintained that if you want to be a good writer you have to be a good reader. An English degree, while absolutely not necessary, is very helpful. It teaches you how to talk about what you read. And if you can talk about what you read, you can talk about what you write.
So, here are Nancy’s questions:
1. Your thoughts on deconstruction (and other literary theories, if you care). It’d make for lots of meaty blog posts.
2. Your specific thoughts on [Flannery] O’Connor. (And stories like hers. I suppose they have their place, but they grate so much that I cannot will myself to give credit yet where credit may be due.)
3. What’s the deal with some of the anthologized works? In fact, I haven’t read anything yet this semester I like (aside from the works I got to choose for myself). So far they’re all swill—including Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants.” (And again, I ask myself then what the hell do I like?!) Which brings me to:
4. Your thoughts on knowing what you like, specific things to look for to figure out if you like “it” or not, why it matters.
Alright, let’s tackle them in order. First, nope. Not going to do a series of posts on deconstruction because OH MY GOD, THE BOREDOM. (Deconstruction is one of those nifty philosophies they make you study in college that most folks outside of academia aren’t too concerned with.) Second, I’m not actually that conversant with deconstruction for the simple reason that it was not a substantial part of my university’s curriculum. (Jacques Derrida is the grandfather of deconstruction; he wrote a series of books in the late 1960s that have been extremely influential in literary criticism, philosophy, architecture, law. My professors barely mentioned him. But then again, they never taught Jane Austen either…)
Anyway, here’s the most basic reason I’m not going to natter on about deconstruction besides my woeful qualifications: I find it pointless. It’s like Zeno’s paradoxes. (You know Zeno. He’s the dude who basically says that since you can split time down to infinitely small parts, there’s no opportunity for change to take place, so it never happens.) You read Zeno’s paradoxes and you eventually just walk away and say, “Eh. Whatever.” That’s how I feel about deconstruction. Whatever. For people who love sitting around discussing whether writing is derivative of speech (and therefore possibly secondary in importance), post-structuralism, nihilism–KNOCK YOURSELVES OUT. That’s what those sorts of ideas are for: the edification of people who fell compelled to sit around and chew those things over. Personally, I find I achieve clarity in writing that sometimes eludes me in speech, so I’m less inclined to be interested in a set of ideas which tend to promote speech as the primary signifier of meaning. But as I said, whatever.
Second question. I should point out that Nancy wrote a lengthy email with lots of thoughts about Flannery O’Connor. STRONG THOUGHTS. She was particularly put out with “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” I get it. Here’s the thing: stories like this are anthologized a lot BECAUSE you can get various interpretations. Teachers want stories that will spark discussion and debate, and you can talk endlessly about what this one means. Professional critics can’t agree; professors can’t agree. The whole point is to choose a view and argue it. That’s all. No one expects you to know the story because the STORY IS UNKNOWABLE. It is unique to your interpretation. There is no universal experience of this story–or any story for that matter–because readers bring their own baggage, their own experience, their own expectation to everything they read. You give this story to thirty students and you’ll get thirty different opinions. (Personally, I have always remembered the little points of the bandanna sticking up like rabbit’s ears…) And like her or loathe her, O’Connor gives you scenes you can SEE, something you will find frequently in literature that’s anthologized. If a writer has a knack for creating a story you can clearly see, characters with whom you identify, settings you feel part of, then the rest of it–theme, symbolism, conflict–are much easier to teach in isolation. Everyone knows an irritating, chatty, petulant old lady. Everyone reads that story and recognizes the grandmother. So they can move beyond her to arguing about the ending.
That hit on the third question and leads me nicely into the fourth: no, it’s got nothing to do with liking. I only remember liking three things I read in all the years I studied literature: REBECCA, one Bronte novel, and “The Hound of The Baskervilles”. Everything else, nope. Didn’t like them, wouldn’t read them for pleasure. But I LEARNED from them. I learned structure, narrative voice, pacing, imagery, symbolism, and about a million other literary devices. And I find it easier to learn from things I don’t like. If I like a book, I’m carried along by plot and/or character and I don’t pay attention to the structure. I am too busy being dazzled to watch the conjuring trick. If I don’t like a book, I can easily pull back the curtain to look at the mechanics. (The one exception to this is poetry. I liked most of the poetry I studied just because I think poets are unsurpassed as manipulators of language. Any prose writer can learn from a poet.)