Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Getting" a Story

How do you know with assurance if you've "gotten" the author's intent when you've read a novel?  You're more likely to get such handholds and guidelines in the form of Introductions, Prefaces, and Prologues in history or other nonfiction narrative.  You're also more likely to get tables of contents, which suggest some through line of the author's intended direction.  Many novels, particularly genre fiction, begin with the literary equivalent of a scope statement or premise as it is being dumped in your lap.  Alas, many others are literary novels or novels of ideas whose premise is not so readily apparent.  This is where the trouble may begin.  The content is up for the grabs of individual interpretation.

Take a literary novelist for an example, say Kazuo Ishiguro.  Take his major work to date, The Remains of the Day, or Never Let Me Go.  Each in its way features a narrator with a recognizable goal, but not only does all similarity stop there, so does the reliability of the narrator.  With the loss of absolute reliability comes enhanced sense of reality because, when you think of it, how often do you consider those about you completely reliable and, indeed, how often do you consider yourself reliable?  True enough, you are working at being reliable, but isn't this a subjective grading scale?  Isn't everyone trying to become more reliable in his or her own eyes?

When we come to read, we come equipped with more baggage than we realize.  Among our toys and tools are attitude, background, social class, and political orientation.  This baggage is in effect the area of frustration between reader and writer, perhaps extending even from reader to characters and certainly writer to characters.

It becomes a tense atmosphere, this business of telling a story.  You are believing at the moment that the safest way through this mine field is to take off the snowshoes of trying deliberately to construct an atmosphere in which actions and objects are intended to stand for things other than what they already are.  Let the characters do that.  They require no assistance from you.

Create your own world, brick by brick, haled in place with the mortar you mix, taking some time to decide for your own purposes what the differences and similarities are between mortar and cement.  Then it is time to step back, not so much to admire your work at a distance as to allow it to stand for itself under circumstances beyond the point where you are constantly worried enough if you'd done too much or too little.

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