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  Click here to go to the first staff post in this thread.   Thread: About interpretation

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    Retired Staff Frank LeRenard's Avatar
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    About interpretation

    One of the things that tends to bother me the most about modern literary fiction (as with modern art) is the overabundance of vagueness, the heavy, heavy reliance on symbolism and whispy language. There is absolutely a lot of merit in using such techniques; no one appreciates being lectured on a particular subject, and so a certain degree of ambiguity in a work's theme is required in order to make it impactful. But it seems like a lot of time authors take it way too far, to the point that the message is so wholly buried in the vagaries of the work's construction that it's impossible to find, or worse yet, the author didn't even bother putting a message in there at all. Now, stories without a message are great, but the kind of 'stories' I have a problem with are those that do this and otherwise have no plot and no characters to speak of (only simple constructs to act as representations of something). This seems to relegate such works to nothing more than a curiosity, a puzzle that may be intellectually stimulating to try and solve but from which no truth can ever actually be derived, because the author never actually got around to putting one in. The modern art equivalent would be something like this; just pretty colors, supposedly representing some kind of raw emotion but otherwise thoughtless in design.

    This seems to lead to countless essays or books or dissertations wherein people pick apart these works, grasp at any possible clue that might find to put together some kind of coherent message. The worst thing is when the authors of these deconstructions then go on to apply what they've learned to other, more clearly-written works (mostly older literature, i.e. Dickens, Flaubert, Dostoevski, etc.) and end up "discovering" new meanings that may or may not have actually been part of the author's original intent with the work. You'll note from the presence of such books as Family Guy and Philosophy (to give one of the more absurd examples) that this type of analysis can be applied to absolutely any work, no matter the author's original intent.


    That's my opinion, anyway. What I'm wondering from the community is, what are your opinions on analyses like this? Does it matter if, when interpreting a work, most of what's gleaned ends up being a fabrication by the interpreter? Or maybe in simpler terms, what's the line between a useful truth and bullshit, or is there one? And do works that have no clear message and no clear story have a purpose other than mild mental stimulation? Is it lazy for the author to write something that's meant only to spark discussion about what it could mean?

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    Didn't try, Succeeded Fay V's Avatar



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    Lol that example, I'm actually writing a paper for Bioshock and Philosophy and I think that leads into my own personal opinion. I don't actually care what the original intent of the author may be.

    Well that's a harsh way of putting it. I think that it isn't a problem when the interpretation goes beyond what the author intended, I actually seriously dislike analysis which focuses on author intent, because for a large amount of literature you'll never know anyway. The school of thought I was brought up with in terms of analysis is, it's valid if you can prove it. If there's actual evidence within the text, and in many cases you can use historical evidence to enrich the text, but I am also a believer in post historical context. Gulliver's Travels is written in such a way that it has a fairly clear purpose, and yet while i can pretty much peg the political ideas Swift is against, it doesn't mean it won't apply to more modern situations.

    Romantic literature and Gothic literature are good ones for me, because while there were written in response to the industrial revolution, you can see similar ideals now which it could apply to. Does that give it more meaning? Certainly, so long as you can back it up. Was the author intending for the point about science being applied to stem cell research or something, highly doubtful, but that doesn't matter. It only matters if they want to say absolutely "the author meant this"

    I do think over analysis exists. You see people applying the seven deadly sins to spongebob, and the need to twist definitions and stretch ideas. If you must assume something between the lines then it isn't really a true analysis to me. I simply believe that it isn't over analysis if it's beyond the intention of the author.

    I will say that I agree. Putting out something that's basically a literary Rorshaurch isn't my idea of high literature. I can't call it lazy as I am sure there exists an author that carefully crafted each word to be perfectly absent of meaning, in which case I suppose that is the point, but for a slew of others, it's lazy.

    Literature I think, reflects. It reflects the ideas of the author, the ideals of the society in which it was created, and the society in which it is currently present. All of these may apply to a greater understanding of the text itself, and a good work can survive through the ages to reflect ideas of humanity.
    A good work is like a sculpture of mirrors, shine light and it will reflect to make the image of a flower, but from another view it's a bunny. A lesser work would be a flat mirrored surface, whatever light you shine you get it back and that's it.

    This is all assuming semi-academic discussion. If someone is reading for fun and wants to believe that Harry Potter is about the rise and fall of Ghengis Kahn then whatever, more power to them. There's books I will always love because of their very private association to me, and I analyze them in that way to provide that meaning. It's not academic, but it's not wrong.

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    Retired Staff Frank LeRenard's Avatar
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    You know, it's kind of funny, Fay, but today for some reason I was thinking about the word 'gestalt', and you seem to be implying that the best kind of literature (the stuff that lasts) is a bit of a gestalt. And no, I don't know why I was thinking about the word gestalt.

    Quote Originally Posted by FayV
    If you must assume something between the lines then it isn't really a true analysis to me.
    I wonder if you could expand on that? Some authors seem to be quite clever at sticking things in between the lines to be read. So it sort of goes back to your point about being able to prove what you discover; it shouldn't matter really where you discover it, then, should it?

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    Didn't try, Succeeded Fay V's Avatar



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    Personally to me, there are context clues. A good author does not need to bash you over the head for you to understand something which has occurred. My classical reading is ridiculously lacking as of late, but something that comes to mind is "Stardust"
    Guy meets girl, doesn't return till morning, 9 months later a baby is delivered to his door. It's not wrong to assume that he had sex with her.
    Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf leaves a lot between the lines. You don't get a sheet that explains his history as a professor, but it is clear he is not particularly successful, etc, etc, so forth.

    The analysis that bothers me in that regard is overly specific and assumes a lot. It is one thing to say "snape knew this plan all along, and acted in this way" you can see parts of where people act and later note how he got knowledge. Then there is "Draco malfoy only attended one funeral for those that died in the battle, George's. He could never see fred again because it reminded him of how he was the cause to so much destruction" That is my best paraphrase of something I heard someone say. That has minimal foundation. it's reaching.

    The other thing that bugs me is when people will outright ignore text in order to fulfill the analysis that depends on between the lines action. The biggest being "Sherlock Holmes is gay for Watson". It becomes fan service that detracts from the character itself. If you want to focus on that you lose how much Watson was a foil for holmes to how that Holmes was a complete asshole. It really just destroys the character development Holmes actually goes through and reduces everything to "they want to bang each other"

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    Crabby Admin Term's Avatar

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    It's certainly something that's not just present in literature.

    In film and modern TV shows, certain choices made by a director regarding camera location, color scheme, and of course the writing all conspire to help create this fascination with hidden meanings behind certain scenes or entire seasons of television. As with your example of "Family Guy and Philosophy" there's "Breaking Bad and Philosophy" which touches on everything between the clothes someone wears, to why every time the White family sits down for a meal it's always breakfast, to the political commentary surrounding the relationship between meth cooking/dealing Walter White and his DEA brother-in-law Hank.

    Recently there's been a bunch of fan speculation surrounding what would otherwise be a "throw-away" scene in which a supporting character goes off on what his dream script for an episode of Star Trek would be with one of the main characters. It seems too long, clocking in at over 2-minutes of show time, to simply just be nothing. So people have begun to speculate regarding the symbolism of the script, namely the use of "blueberry pies" as the blue crystal meth Walter sells, which Star Trek character in the script represents what character of Breaking Bad and whether or not the whole thing is a commentary on the series itself and foreshadows the series finale coming up in a few short weeks.

    I suppose it's a sign of something that has some quality merits to it if fans are willing to read that much into a show. I think the fact that people can enjoy the production regardless of looking into the symbolism speaks more towards the quality of the production rather than say a pretentious writer/director who over-relies on people reading into certain things, either using certain context clues or by just wildly making a claim, as you mentioned Fay, "X is gay" and so on. Not to say that the best works are those that are dumbed-down and don't try to say anything, but that someone doesn't need to read into it in order to gain some sort of fulfilling experience that stays with them.

    And I suppose that goes towards the individual and how they approach their literature/movies/music/television/games as much as the creator. There's certainly those who authors who try to beat you over the head with a certain message, like Neill Blomkamp has with District 9 and Elysium (South African race relations and class warfare/racial relations of Los Angeles respectively). Then there's the more subtle approach like how Forrest Gump's life is a discussion on the concept ofate vs coincidence, which ultimately leads to Gump's assertion "maybe both is happening at the same time."

    As for the general questions you posed at the end of your OP, I suppose that the worst examples are those people who try to read into something that clearly isn't there as well as those individuals who attempt to be provocative without saying anything at all. South Park actually has a whole episode on this discussion that can be found here: http://www.southparkstudios.com/full...-mcboogerballs, and pretty much hits on my feelings on the subject, concerning the absurdity of people reading into things and attempting to use them to lend credence towards their own agenda. I think once you start taking things like literature or any other media and attempt to use it to justify some action or viewpoint you have in your own life, I believe that's when it starts turning from a healthy exercise in critical thinking towards just straight bullshit.

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    Could you post some examples of works that you feel are like this

    also hey do you remember that one time I posted an analysis of PON PON PON that said it was a criticism of Japanese "idol" culture

    that was a good time

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    Retired Staff Frank LeRenard's Avatar
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    Just about anything from the New Yorker's fiction in the last 5 years or so works as a good example. There was also a story I recently read in Stupefying Stories that qualified, but I'd have to remember which it was, and you have to buy their issues to read them (a few bucks for the digital download), so I can't exactly link to it.
    One of the reasons I wrote this is because I've been finding that such fiction is gaining in popularity in all genres. This is bad for me, because I tend to write things that are much more straight-forward, which means in the higher paying markets my work doesn't have a place. So, full disclosure, there is a hint of bitterness to my bringing up this topic.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Frank LeRenard View Post
    Just about anything from the New Yorker's fiction in the last 5 years or so works as a good example. There was also a story I recently read in Stupefying Stories that qualified, but I'd have to remember which it was, and you have to buy their issues to read them (a few bucks for the digital download), so I can't exactly link to it.
    One of the reasons I wrote this is because I've been finding that such fiction is gaining in popularity in all genres. This is bad for me, because I tend to write things that are much more straight-forward, which means in the higher paying markets my work doesn't have a place. So, full disclosure, there is a hint of bitterness to my bringing up this topic.
    It seems to me you're taking issue with works that have "the majesty of an iceberg" (to quote Hemingway on the style) and idk about the merits of such a style (I write exclusively in it) but I'd disagree that such work is more popular than "straight-forward fiction"

    I mean, if you look at the most popular books atm they're all "please get off on me" (50 shades, twilight, whatever), "I'm not lord of the rings I swear" fiction and Harry potter (lol)

    Much like with television, the average consumer would much rather have ideas predigested for them

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    Retired Staff Frank LeRenard's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tybby View Post
    It seems to me you're taking issue with works that have "the majesty of an iceberg" (to quote Hemingway on the style) and idk about the merits of such a style (I write exclusively in it) but I'd disagree that such work is more popular than "straight-forward fiction"

    I mean, if you look at the most popular books atm they're all "please get off on me" (50 shades, twilight, whatever), "I'm not lord of the rings I swear" fiction and Harry potter (lol)

    Much like with television, the average consumer would much rather have ideas predigested for them
    No, no no no. I'm complaining about the works that pretend to have 'the majesty of an iceberg'. In your writing, for example, I can tell you actually do have a message most of the time, that you took the time to think of one and then took the time to think of an elegant way of getting it in there. That's perfectly fine, and actually, it's something I'm trying to do a bit more in my own writing.
    I'm trying to recall the details, but I read a story fairly recently wherein just about nothing happened. The author described the protagonist's apartment, some people had a conversation, and then there was an abrupt non-ending. That's all I recall about the stupid thing. So part of the problem with finding examples for you is that most of these stories I've read like what I'm talking about are so utterly meaningless as to be completely forgettable. Maybe I'll take a deep breath and dive back into the New Yorker's backlogs and see if I can dredge one of these up for you at some point here.

    And I'm not saying that complicated fiction is 'popular', because it's not. I'm saying in the higher-paying venues (1 cent a word and up), more and more magazines are starting to fall into the pseudo-literary trap I've been talking about. This is coming from my searching for magazines to submit to and finding a number of them that pay at professional rates are full of prettily-worded stream-of-consciousness non-stories. It's becoming popular in publishing circles, is what I'm saying. Obviously it's still not generally popular, and thank Jesus for that.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Frank LeRenard View Post
    No, no no no. I'm complaining about the works that pretend to have 'the majesty of an iceberg'. In your writing, for example, I can tell you actually do have a message most of the time, that you took the time to think of one and then took the time to think of an elegant way of getting it in there. That's perfectly fine, and actually, it's something I'm trying to do a bit more in my own writing.
    I'm trying to recall the details, but I read a story fairly recently wherein just about nothing happened. The author described the protagonist's apartment, some people had a conversation, and then there was an abrupt non-ending. That's all I recall about the stupid thing. So part of the problem with finding examples for you is that most of these stories I've read like what I'm talking about are so utterly meaningless as to be completely forgettable. Maybe I'll take a deep breath and dive back into the New Yorker's backlogs and see if I can dredge one of these up for you at some point here.

    And I'm not saying that complicated fiction is 'popular', because it's not. I'm saying in the higher-paying venues (1 cent a word and up), more and more magazines are starting to fall into the pseudo-literary trap I've been talking about. This is coming from my searching for magazines to submit to and finding a number of them that pay at professional rates are full of prettily-worded stream-of-consciousness non-stories. It's becoming popular in publishing circles, is what I'm saying. Obviously it's still not generally popular, and thank Jesus for that.
    Perhaps they don't aim to write a fictive essay though

    To give a brief example, my piece Today from my book o.o (which you've read) might be an example of the sort of literature you are talking about. It's a short prose-poetry piece about a foreigner riding a train to Toronto. They explain in light abstraction their view of the countryside and then fall asleep with their face against the window, thinking of the last time they visited.

    To someone who would define literature as "containing a thesis statement", this piece would be disregarded. But just because the intention of Today was not to send a message doesn't mean it has nothing to be gleaned. The piece was instead written within the same mindset of an instrumental song; without direct dialogue (with the consumer, of course) it seeks to convey an emotional canvas

    A more recent example might be a piece I uploaded recently called James Sunderland. While the story itself serves as part of an arc involving the relationship between Miranda and James Sunderland, on its own it has very little by way of message. We begin with the two waking in his apartment and the word "faded" is used to describe much of it. James is confronted with an issue that he ignores, the narrative showing that he refuses even to think about it (the heavy use of description shows all the things James is thinking about to avoid confronting his relationship issues). In the second scene he is stood up at a restaurant and steps outside for a smoke. In the smoke and heavy rain he swears he can see hands coming out as if to touch him, and stands staring until he is woken by a vallet. We end on James turning to go back inside.

    While one could say the point is "don't ignore your relationship issues or else you might project your guilt onto something", the idea that James feels guilty is something the narrative doesn't even confront. We are passive viewers in regards to this relationship, which takes up such a proportionally small amount of the piece. The substance is not the message, but a tone, similar to Today (except in this case framed by the plot of the relationship). The goal of the writing was not to write an essay on why you shouldn't neglect your partner, but to expound on the colour grey. The heart of the piece is in its tone, its use of imagery, symbolism and word choice in order to evoke an emotional response in the reader.

    While this might not be the case (and if it isn't, I just about sounded like a condescending ass for no reason), I got the impression that the kinds of stories you are complaining about are tone-studies (think along the lines of character-study, where instead of a work that at its heart explores two / more characters, the work instead strives to explore a feeling or tonality) and if so, looking at them from the perspective that they're writing what they are for that reason may help you to understand what exactly the merit of their work is

    and on the chance that these aren't tone pieces you're talking about at all (I still wish you had given me one to read!), I think the same strong of thought should be applied anyway. There's a law in debating (I forget what it's called) which basically states "always assume people are doing something for a reason". If these guys are writing pieces that look to you like they shouldn't work, but magazines are sure they ARE, then perhaps you're just not looking at the works the right way. For all we know it might be a new kind of writing that focuses on something entirely different from Characters / Plot / Tone / Meaning, and that idea is really exciting because think of all the tings you could learn, studying this new kind of literature!

    okay TL;DR is basically broaden your perspective on what makes Literature (without of course changing your OWN goals as a writer) and even if you dislike this brand of writing it will offer you a huge swath of learning experience if you seek to understand the motivations of the writer and their work

 

 

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