Showing posts with label context. Show all posts
Showing posts with label context. Show all posts

Sunday, January 10, 2010


If you were going to embed in a character a sign or symbol that conveyed to the reader that this individual is not to be trusted, what would that sign or symbol be? Why, of course, it would be the lapel pin American flag.

Too bad you won't be around to see the actual results. Guess that means you'll have to do a story about it to fulfill that serving of curiosity about what is likely to be made when archaeologists of the future discover all those lapel pin American flags.

All you can tell of a politician's agenda when seeing such a pin on his or her lapel is a desire to be reelected. Not wearing such a pin implies one's anti-Americanism or lack of patriotism. Wearing one means a kind of perfervid orthodoxy or a sensitivity to wanting to defuse such criticisms as those that go without conspicuous advertising. If we extend the metaphor a touch, it is of a piece with those who wish to proclaim their religiosity by wearing the cross, the Star of David, the om, the Crescent and the Star, or whatever other sign they chose as proclamation that they have in a sense taken refuge behind the inherent power of a symbol. You do not distrust such persons to the degree that you distrust those who wear the American flag, although now that you think of it, you might be ready to change your mind, or at least look more closely at the image of the wearer that comes through to you.

And isn't that the way the matter devolves for you: Each thing needs to be seen for what it is in and out of context. You are most comfortable, it seems, wearing all your causes and beliefs as though they were pins or symbols or campaign ribbons, but not in such public display. It is helpful for members of the military or of law enforcement to wear designations of their rank, a sort of convenience when it comes to establishing who's in charge. As you know very well, you are not always aware of which mindset or emotional response resident within you is in charge; sometimes a hint is helpful.

Yesterday, on Andrew Sullivan's blog, you saw yet another kind of demarkation in a quote attributed to Bill Clinton on the occasion of his appeal to the late, lamented Edward M. Kennedy for Kennedy's endorsement of Hillary Clinton as POTUS. "A few years ago," Bill Clinton is quoted as having told Ted Kennedy, "a guy like that [Barack Obama] would be getting our coffee." You hope the reference related to Obama's relative newness to big-time politics, but since it could be interpreted as racist, the allegation is one more stroke of tar on Bill Clinton's reputation and an urgent reminder to you of the possibilities for interpretation, misinterpretation, and imputation, through words, deeds, signs.

There is no doubt of the human condition being class oriented and of the signs, symbols, and behavior that serve as markers. You don't need an American flag on your lapel to remind you of your citizenship or the obligations inherent in that citizenship. Nor do you need a medallion or device to remind you of possible religious preferences you might from time to time express. What you need most and seek most are the words and stories that convey dramas where the conundrums and outcomes of interest to you are played out and your own sense of devotion to articles of faith and catechisms and stations of crosses that are illustrations of your own quest for understanding, friendship, and devotion.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sarcasm Writ Large

sarcasm--pointed and exaggerated irony, intending to derail or deflect a status quo; a blistering overstatement of intentional underplay of a character's self-interest or agenda.

Arguably the most difficult emotion to convey in writing because of its heavy reliance on context, sarcasm found one of its most enduring modern spokespersons in Dorothy Parker. In a review of a book, she said, "This is not a book to be set aside lightly. It should be hurled across the room with great force."

Look at it this way:

The humorist pokes fun at himself.

The ironist pokes fun at the human condition.

The satirist is a moralist without the clerical collar.

The sarcasm maven wants to elevate his own status at the expense of yours.

Proceed accordingly.

A current sarcasm maven worth watching (because of his superb control) is Stephen Colbert. His targets are well articulated, his irony extends from verbal acuity to a perfected tone (see Dead pan delivery) and impeccable sense of timing. So deft is Mr. Colbert and, thus, worth study, that on many occasions even his targets of opportunity are convinced he is arguing on his side. Few persons are as repelled by his on-stage persona as they are by the persona and likes of Don Rickles.

Hint: Even if you find sarcasm attractive, spend some time crafting irony before you proceed into the print and digital worlds.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Butting in Line

intrusive author--an anomaly in narrative where the author intrudes on text, upstaging one or more characters; dramatic equivalents of footnotes being wrenched into the text; muddying the waters of narrative voice by allowing the author to appear in scenes with characters.

Unless there is some contextual or stylistic reason for the author or authorial spokesperson to appear in a story as, say, the Stage manager does in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, or in a deliberate and managed backstory, as in Junot Diaz's opening chapter to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the message is clear: author stay out. Delegate messages and devices to characters. Spend time considering what things you want to bring on stage, then spend more time considering ways to dramatize those messages. NB: dramatize means provide for readers to infer.

Writers such as Aldous Huxley, Ayn Rand, D.H. Lawrence, C. S. Lewis, George Sand, and William Makepeace Thackeray, although wildly diverse in their political and social attitudes, have remarkable and distinctive voices, enhanced to a degree but adumbrated to a greater degree by their incessant asides and obsessive commentary on what their characters happen to be doing at a given moment.

Writers such as Elmore Leonard, Louise Erdrich, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Tobias Woff, Christopher Moore,and Joyce Carol Oates do not steal scenes or upstage; they become prisms through which their trained and vivid imaginations cast a spectrum of color in which the beam of Reality is refracted. The reader is allowed to discern, to see without being yanked by lapel or shirtwaist, argued into compliance.

Hint: You have a favored author who is booked into a local venue to speak on his or her approach to storytelling. You have purchased a ticket for the event, arrive early to secure a strategic seat, and now await your anticipated pleasure, only to discover that there are immediate, disagreeable complications. Your author is to be introduced by a local literary wannabe who is by no means your favorite person. The program begins with this wannabe immediately confirming many of your reasons for disliking him; he spends a good ten minutes explaining how anomalous it is for him to appear on the same stage with your favored author, then lurches through another ten minutes of describing how his own work fails to rise to the level of tonight's guest, then perhaps another ten minutes of descriptive apercu of the favored author's work. The introduction is now well on its way into an hour's duration, during the course of which you see the favored author, perhaps sipping nervously from a bottle of San Pelegrino, beginning to look as uncomfortable as you feel. Will you ever get to hear your favorite author?

This is the feeling the reader will have brought along with the nourishment of grudge if in your stories the author appears to intrude. There are, however, novels and short stories told as if from the author's point of view, example Heart of Darkness, in which the character Marlowe could be argued to be Joseph Conrad's spokesperson. These are done with great deliberation and are not meant to be considered as authorial intrusion. The opening chapters of James Michener's Hawaii and Centenial are unabashedly (and successfully) told from the authorial point of view. The opening chapter of Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is seen through the authorial point of view, or perhaps not, perhaps it is through the character Yunior, or perhaps Yunior is Diaz' spokesperson. In neither case, the Conrad nor the Diaz, does the reader feel the frustration of being lectured to at the expense of the story, waiting to be read.

goes without saying--a frequent comment left in the margin of a manuscript by a skilled content editor; a matter or issue already made obvious by story points; a response so obvious that it does not have to be explained.

"If you come any closer, I will shoot," she said menacingly.

The place to cure GWS responses is on the manuscrupt, before it is sent out into the world.

over the top--an expression meant to imply an action or concept that has been overloaded with theme, symbolism, and perhaps even verbally excessive; activity done to the extent that the reader will resent its detail; a dramatic beat performed as if on steroids.