Thursday, November 18, 2010

May I have the next nuance?

For most practical purposes and some on the impractical side, text--the written narrative plan of an article, poem, story, or novel--is more than what it sets out to be; it is also a metaphor for reality.  The fun starts when the author completes the text, then takes steps toward publishing it.  The fun increases when someone else--a reader, an editor, a literary agent--sets eyes on the text, absorbs it, then translates its meaning for himself or herself, such as the case may be.

Although each of us, writer included, reads the same text, the intent may differ among readers and even more certain, the meaning may be different.

I don't want you to interpret my story that way, the defensive writer says.  I'll interpret your story any goddamn way I chose, the reader responds.  It's my story, the writer counters.  Shouldn't that have some say in the matter?  Not if you're Tom Clancy, you say, or someone similarly offensive such as Tom Wolfe (the living one, although the dead one had some clangorous moments now and again).  And so the dialogue progresses between writer and reader over the issue of what the text really means, as though neither you nor any other reader were capable of discerning what the writer intended.

The mischief here is that generations of teachers and critics have made careers from venturing their guess as to the real meaning of the text, the author often too long dead to offer a word of defense.  It is in the classroom and workshop where the writer, perhaps emboldened by the more vitriolic and combative tones of letters to the editor (particularly in the Literary Supplement of the Times of London), waxes pre-emptively defensive.  My text is better than yours, and so when you read it for the first time, you'd jolly well better be on the lookout for my intent, nuances and all.  (Never mind that in recent years, we had a President of the United States who on more than one occasion said he had no interest in nuance, pulling along in his slip stream untold millions of supporters who also threw nuance under the bus, then backed up, just to make sure.

Does a thing mean what it's author intends or what you make of it?  Does a thing mean what it means or what you think it means.  Suppose you know the writer of the thing is wrong; does that give you license to change your version of the wrong writer's wrong thing?  After all, if you know a thing is wrong or has no nuance, why would you bother to listen to its argument?  Why would you even consider the possibility of changing your preconceived notion if your pre-conceived notion of the thing were that it was wrong in the first place?

Suppose you knew you were wrong about something and a critic disagreed with you, questioning the notion of your wrongness and insisting you were absolutely correct?  Then you would be called out for denying your true nature of being right or correct by proclaiming your own fallibility and confessing to being wrong.

Nothing related to text is safe.  Even grocery lists are subject to interpretation, the most common ones relating to gender, social rank, age, and ethnicity.  What do men know about choosing a rutabaga?   Women are too considerate to spend much time inside a space shuttle.  Having sex in a car should be limited to teen-agers, who mostly have sex in cars in the first place.

What it comes down to is that unless you are a member of some cult with stringent moral and ethical visions, you have a different vision of the universe, the differences articulated by your origins and attitudes.  If you wish to be understood by a wider swath of readers, you need to write about situations common to most of them, interpreting them in ways you believe they have been led to accept as falling within the general range of possibility, which is to say without venturing into nuance.  Each step away from nuance leads you closer to being misunderstood.

You know what I'm saying?

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