Monday, March 16, 2009

Literary Device

Reiji and Eon have both written similar posts about the LitCritters review group recently, specifically about how it seems that the critical discussions are going over their heads. I feel that this is actually a long-standing issue that emphasizes the gap between writers and critics; it's been around for quite a while, but I suppose that it doesn't get any attention until we encounter situations like the ones they've experienced.

To be fair, no one's at fault here. This, I think, is just a case of two parties not being able to engage in conducive discussion, and it's because there's a definite line between writing a story and critiquing one. I admit that I have yet to attend a LitCritters session myself (and therefore am unaware of the technical level of discussion taking place there), but I've served on at least one critical panel before, and I feel that I might be able to provide some enlightenment in this regard.

I'll start by putting my biggest argument on the table: I think that writers and critics look for different things in a story, really.

I feel that a writer just writes. You don't necessarily have to know every single technical or literary term out there, you don't have to have sixteen years of study or experience behind you, and you certainly don't need a formal degree of any sort to pick up a pen and start scribbling stuff on a piece of paper. When a writer does write a story, he does this in order to satisfy a plot or progression of events that flows through his or her mind; it's all a mental picture that we try to take down as best we can, so to speak. I don't think that most of us build our stories like we do houses, all blueprints and schematics and stuff like that. ("I guess I'll put the denouement... here.") I feel that writers just write, period.

On the other hand, an experienced critic can't just do this. She would have to tailor each of her opinions depending on the story that's under review; she can't simply come up with a set template of responses that can be stamped on each work as needed. A critic has to read each story, identify whether or not she likes it, figure out why that's the case, question why she thinks that such an opinion is reasonable, and continue trying to resolve the matter to the point where she has a final word about the piece.

This is why critics have a lot of terms that describe the various aspects of a story. This is why they discuss the effectiveness of a given plot twist, for example, or the presence of symbolism. This is why they can place strange emphasis on such things as foreshadowing and impact. As Eon notes, this is also where such things as ekphrasis, parataxis, pastiche, heteroglossia, stream of consciousness, montage, exposition, and dubivalutorianism get raised. (I made that last one up, by the way.)

And if there is any single point that I must raise in this article, it's that writers usually don't give a whit about any of the above items at all. I suppose that some of us will look back on our old stories every now and then and see those things where we didn't notice them before, but we sure as heck don't have them in our minds when we actually write the stuff.

But that brings up a second point, and this concerns the question of what sort of value a discussion panel provides for writers as a whole. And in this case, my answer just happens to be "not as much as you'd like to think."

I feel that critiques are just that: critiques. They're opinions for the most part — feedback from people who have read your work and who feel strongly enough about certain points to offer them up for your consumption. Whether these things come from your best friend or from a panel of faceless men in black suits, they're the same thing in the end: they're opinions.

But one important distinction involves weeding out those statements that are the actual opinions from those items that assist towards forming those opinions. An opinion can be as simple as the question of whether or not you like a story, of course. But regardless of how much we may agree on a final opinion, there's still the fact that we may easily use different ways of thinking to arrive at that conclusion.

In short, you can read a story and declare that you like it, just because you happen to like it. I can read a story, analyze its plot flow, dwell on its foreshadowing technique, figure out if the little plot twist had the desired impact, marvel at the poor choice of words on page three, chew my lip at the needless rhetoric near the ending, and eventually declare that I like it. The bottom line is that we both end up with the same relative opinion of the piece... but we just happened to take different paths to get to that destination.

There is a school of thought that says that critics who can surgically slice up a story and split it among its different aspects have far more "legitimate" opinions than those who can merely read a story and judge it without the same level of technical knowledge. I think that this is rubbish.

Ever encountered a situation in the real world where a movie gets lambasted by the critics for having no redeeming value whatsoever, then goes on to make hundreds of millions in the public box office? That's the best example I can give for this kind of conflict: You can break down a single story into its smallest separate components, but while that'll definitely make you sound more intelligent, it won't necessarily mean that your final opinion is completely aligned with everyone else's. Just because I know more obscure words than you do doesn't necessarily mean that my opinion should be taken more seriously than yours.

So what do you get from critical discussions, anyway? I would think that this involves a glimpse of how the critics will see a given work.

I don't think that panel discussions really exist to determine whether people like a given story or not (well, editorial boards do, but that's another thing entirely). I believe that panel discussions exists in order to point out certain aspects of a story that bear note — sort of like figuring out what seems to work and what doesn't. This is really what writers are looking for, I'll wager.

The trouble is that the discussions tend to get mired in technical terminology because it's not easy to describe exactly what makes a story tick. Saying that one likes an ironic statement, for example, is a lot easier than saying that one likes a certain line because "it feels like it's alluding to one thing but is really implying the complete opposite of that concept." To add to the confusion, there's the fact that some aspects aren't necessarily visible to each and every reviewer, and on top of that I'm willing to bet that half the critics in the world have no idea what they're talking about around half the time. (The next time somebody mentions ekphrasis to me, I'm going to ask them for a specific example. Or, failing that, I'm going to ask if it's animal, vegetable, or mineral.)

When this happens, it's not a question of intellectual capacity and the seeming threat of an opinion that's somehow "more legitimate" than yours. No, in this case it should be treated as an exercise where the aspect should be distilled to its essence. Just because one likes the "ekphrasis" of a certain passage doesn't make the analysis complete; you'll have to go into the question of why the "ekphrasis" is so effective, which will often lead to defining just what "ekphrasis" is in the first place. Frankly speaking, I wouldn't worry about knowing just what "ekphrasis" is, as much as I would wonder whether or not the others do.

A writer's task in the conflict of critique is to get the critics to bring down their arguments in such a way as to make them more rational and understandable. Otherwise, well... how else are we supposed to use these? As I said, it's not like we have such things as "ekphrasis" in mind whenever we write our stuff — only the desire to describe a physical work to such a degree that the reader can place it clearly in their minds, so to speak.

And if that doesn't work, if the critics persist in using their highminded terminologies... then the writer can just ignore them really. It's not like a knowledge of those exact same terms is a requirement for writing. Writers just write.

We're two kinds of people really, with a significant gap between us whenever we do our strange little things in our strange little ways. We don't even directly affect one another by doing the things we do. But we can try to catch a glimpse from time to time.


Pipe said...

Uwah, I missed this. I've always been intimidated by the more academic version of literary criticism that was front and center in college - not the terminology per se (Philo majors are used to that) but more because the methods that were used in College seemed to focus more on various (re)readings of the text from "perspectives" - deconstructive, feminist etc. - which, while admittedly they can add to the richness of the text, I had no intention of reading the story from.

That being said, as a writer I have no issues at all with dissecting the "craft" of a tale as opposed to its "meaning." I think it's an important skill to one's development since, while every rule has an exception, there are common elements which I think make a story good - they don't all have to be present, but when they are, they add to the appeal of a narrative. Knowing how to spot these in the works of others can help a writer - maybe not when he has his "writing" hat on, but certainly when he puts on his "editing" helmet.

Haven't been to Litcritters myself yet - though I'd really like to - but as long as the group is open to discussions of varied kinds then I think I'll be able to enjoy them.

Sean said...

Pipe: I actually see perspectives as helpful when analyzing a story. However, I'm also aware that not everybody can easily look at things from a completely different person's point of view, and therefore the effectivity of perspective analysis is limited. (e.g. I'm a technical person and I can look at things from a technical perspective, but that doesn't mean that I can look at things from the point of view of a feminist, an avant-garde nouveau, a policeman, a sailor, an American Indian, or a biker in a leather jacket.) :)

I think the question here is more of how we approach those story elements that you mention: they're instinctive, more often than not. But that makes them difficult for us to express in words, and the resulting terminologies can end up nigh-incomprehensible to some people. It would be optimal for us to find some balance, or at least admit that the grasp escapes us sometimes in order to reveal that we're still human.