Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Interpreting Fiction: Step 1

Through the end of March, I'll be blogging a crash course for beginners in basic narrative interpretation, which is a super cool thing with a deceptively boring title. Super cool translation:

I'm gonna put things inside your brain that will make you feel like you're wearing magical glasses while you read. By the end of the series, you'll be reasonably prepared to stand around at dinner parties smoking a pipe and using literary terms over the tones of clinking wine glasses and soft jazz. (That is what it's like at a dinner party, right?)

Warning: When taken to the extreme, information from this short series could put you into the habit of dissecting a book's parts instead of just enjoying a good story. But when it's a great book, I mean a really great book, that'll only make it greater.

Step 1: Look where you're standing. Now look where she's standing.

To begin interpreting literature, whether in narrative form (i.e., a story) or not, you must first recognize that you have a particular point of view and that other points of view can open up areas of a story you never knew existed. You may be proud of how well-traveled you are, how open you are to new ideas, how absolutely amazing you are at avoiding tunnel vision, but none of us can be everyone at once. 

For better or worse, you're a bundle of experiences, choices, beliefs, fears, hopes, and curiosities, and they all inform your perspective on the world. That's not to even mention the people you've known, places you've seen, jobs you've worked, or hobbies you've loved. Or all the things you've never experienced. You are incredibly and beautifully individual.

This can be both good and bad.

It's good if you've learned to appreciate other perspectives. It's bad if you're either so open you're living in the Land of Meaninglessness or if you're at the other extreme and believe you've discovered the only possible reality in the universe and go around trying to assimilate everyone else.
I know it's hard to find a balance between trusting our conclusions and floundering around in the confusion of endless possible interpretations of the meaning of life! But try. Literature can help you do that, and doing that can help you better appreciate literature.

[Note: If either one of the extremes above describes you, you're gonna need a prerequisite. It's self-lead. All you do is find twenty people way outside your social/cultural group and ask them the following: "What do you think life is all about, and why?" Resist letting the varied answers push you further into meaninglessness. Instead, let them confirm that life is full of possibilities. Or, for those on the other extreme, resist the urge to change the twenty. Just listen. Listen for possibilities.]

What's this got to do with reading a story? Point of view reveals meaning.

Think of it this way. You and six others are sitting around a table. You've all been given 10 seconds to study the same exact specimen. You look at it and say, "Aww! A fluffy orange kitty like on the internet! It's so sweet." The first person to your left says, "That was the softest thing I've ever touched. I shall order a coat made of that." The second says, "My cat had great blue eyes like that as a kitten. She was <sniff> run over last week." The third: "It smelled fishy to me. How can we be sure that wasn't a fish?" Fourth: "Poor thing. It seemed frightened. I think purring means they're frightened." Fifth: "Purring means they're happy. Everybody knows that." Sixth: "Achoo. I hate cats. Always have."

Now tell me: Who's right? Who has given the most accurate interpretation of the specimen? No one. And everyone. That is, everyone has given their personal impression, which is true to them. But no one has or truly could give a whole impression, even if the group came to a consensus about it being a cat. Still, we're more likely to get a clearer picture if we bring all of our observations together. In class, I discuss this idea using examples like the Rashomon effect and the blind men and the elephant story.

So, we're different and would benefit from some perspective. Fine. But that's only one side of the point-of-view coin. There are two fascinating things to consider that exist outside of us as readers. The first is the fact that well-written fiction connects with lots of different people by means of universalities--these are things most humans have in common, like loss, hope, fear, friendship, family, change, or the burning need for revenge. That's why so many people can like the same book even if those people are majorly different from one another. It's why old stories can still be so relevant. And it's why the tale of the underdog who shows courage in the face of almost certain destruction, defeats the bad guy, yet somehow maintains his humility, is such a success. We all read the story differently, but we still connect to feeling like we're full of potential if only we were given the right set of circumstances. And a wand.

So, when reading, recognize that there are lots of ways to look at a thing, but also know that massive numbers of people camp outside bookshops the world over dressed as witches, wizards, and muggles because, for all our differences, we're connected by universalities, and those are how great stories connect and enlighten us.

The second thing is something I'll elaborate on later, but it belongs here too. It's that the literature we read was created. By a human. On purpose. On. Purpose. The words, scenes, characters, conflicts, symbols, and messages in well-written fiction are not on accident. Even stories written as unpurposefully as possible are written to be unpurposeful on purpose. Even when writing comes naturally to the author and she doesn't try to contrive connections or manipulate you, she still pulls you along her created path. This is storytelling. And knowing this makes all the difference when it comes to interpretation because you aren't just examining an independent, uninterested, furry cat creature. You're interpreting something that has been carefully created to take you on a journey. (Some of you may note here that I'm carelessly jumping back and forth from the mystery of authorial intent to the freedom of reader response. We've all got a personal approach. This is mine.)

In review: There is meaning in the text (in the world!) that we miss because we have a limited capacity for juggling perspectives, but thankfully we have the power of common connections and the power to see other perspectives, and both can enlighten our reading. We also have the power to know the parts of a story like a doctor knows the parts of a body. But that's for next time. Till then, in your own minds, through research, or in discussions with other readers, practice opening literature up in beautiful ways by standing somewhere new.