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Friday, May 25, 2012

Something about Something Else

Linda Holmes, who is the editor of NPR's pop culture blog Monkey See (and who also lives in the DC area), once mentioned the effect of college English lit classes had on her. She said, to paraphrase, what is written is not about the thing it is talking about but is about something else. An English lit student reading mainstream modern literature is trained to constantly looking for symbols. A solitary drink in the afternoon symbolizes a housewife's despair. The majestic mountains of Montana symbolizes the suffocating heritage of the American pioneers. A dead squirrel on the lawn symbolizes the collective White Guilt of American intellectuals or the death of the American dream, or whatever.

It struck me as astute. Modern English Literature with a capital L seems to be more of a product of academia and "the college English department" than a product of the storytelling history that goes back to the dawn of human consciousness. The overanalysis on literature in teaching and taking college English classes and writing Ph.D. dissertations tends to produce "academic" writers.

However, if you think I am going to bash modern Literature as I always have done, you'll be disappointed. The other day I thought of Holmes' comment and thought, "It's not wrong that something is often about something else." Over the years, I have learned that the human consciousness is indeed very much detached from the more primitive parts of the brain. The heart and the mind do not understand each other too well and tend to go on with their own delusions. What you get is that most people don't really know why they are who they are and why they do what they do. We don't understand our motivations or aversions. So, it is a real phenomenon that somebody may do something for reasons that are deeply buried in decades of "normal life."

It can be boring if every character's conscious thoughts, emotions, and actions are too consistent and logical, but too much symbolism can lose the reader quickly. How does one approach this? What is wrong with writing "flat" characters who usually do what they think and feel, and what they think do not conflict with how they feel? Lots of writers have figured it out for themselves, but I am still struggling with it.

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