Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Looking Past the Surface: Depth Beckons

I try to explain to my students that the more fully educated they are, the more fully they can understand or appreciate or realize an author's art. After all, one purpose of education is preparing the student to "enter the dialogue" by giving her a background in universal themes, cultural symbols, the hero's journey -- not to smother her with knowledge, but to enhance her vision and to provide her with a 4-D view of the world with all of its textures and shades and scents and illusions of time.

The ones who want to write need to know more.

(A teacher's art is to make the exploration an adventure -- not a beating over the head with symbolism and metaphors and character development.)

Sometimes, it's simply the ability to capture a flavor, weaving it through your sentences. In a story many of you, no doubt, read back in high school, James Hurst accomplished this. When selecting just a few sentences of his, I found I wanted to bring them all to you, but these will have to do. They're from the first two paragraphs of "The Scarlet Ibis":
"It was in the clove of seasons, summer was dead but autumn had not yet been born, that the ibis lit in the bleeding tree...The five o'clocks by the chimney still marked time, but the oriole nest in the elm was untenanted and rocked back and forth like an empty cradle...

It's strange that all this is still so clear to me, now that summer has long since fled and time has had its way. A grindstone stands where the bleeding tree stood, just outside the kitchen door, and now if an oriole sings in the elm, its song seems to die up in the leaves, a silvery dust."
Sometimes, it's the allusion to cultural or religious beliefs that creates an older, wiser, more deeply embedded echo within our beings. There are many Judeo-Christian references in Western literature that provide a sense of Eden or Judas or a Christ figure, dredging up emotions or understandings even if we can't quite put our fingers on them. In Lord of the Flies, yet another piece you might remember from high school, Simon represents the spiritual being who is persecuted and ultimately martyred for his attempt to bring "truth" (the beast is only a dead pilot) to the masses.

Of course, once you pwn the process, you can tweak to your heart's content: In The Waterboy (1998), we never see Adam Sandler's character make the trek to the north or earn the elixir from the Eskimo healer. But 'Bobby' Boucher still makes the ultimate sacrifice when he chooses to stay at his mother's hospital bed instead of playing in the championship game. He receives the reward of love ("one of the most powerful and popular Elixirs," according to Vogler), and this love, the crime-crazy Vikki Valencourt, remembers the Eskimo elixir and produces it at the critical moment -- reviving Bobby at the last second so that he can win the day.

And yet.

Is it worth the time and focus and study? Does anyone look past the fast action and pretty faces, searching for deeper meaning?

Or are those questions pointless -- like asking, "Does anyone truly appreciate oxygen anymore?"

Are all of those elements simply part of the invisible armature that provides support and structure? Beyond the trite, write what's in your heart, is there a higher calling that authors should respond to? Do storytellers have cultural or societal responsibilities that transcend preaching or shoving beliefs down readers' throats? Should even our "beach" reading (or writing) aspire to layers of depth?


  1. Alex - You raise a really interesting question! Should authors address society's larger issues in their novels? In my view, the answer depends on the plot, setting and characters. A well-written novel has a focused plot and believable characters. Real characters face real issues, so to that extent, addressing larger issues makes sense. They add depth and texture to a story and make the characters more real.

    That said, when the issues start to take precedence over the story itself, that can weaken a novel. Anything that distracts the reader from being engaged in the plot detracts from the story, so if the author addresses larger issues, it's best to do so in a way that's integrated into the plot and doesn't preach to the reader.

  2. All of my favorite novels, the ones that stick with me years later, have depth. They are full of allusions and echoes. It doesn't have to be part of the plot, and often isn't - it's something that lies underneath. I know it when I read it. Writing it is another thing, and something I'm struggling with right now. It all comes down to that armature thing, doesn't it?

  3. In my preferred field of writing (vaguely silly stuff) allusions and layers of meaning are frequently an important part, because they provide so many more things to make fun of.

  4. I agree with Margot in that I think it depends on the genre of the book. Greater issues can be addressed but not to the detriment of the plot. As a reader I would like to acknowledge the issue without getting continuously hit over the head by it. I find subtlety is the best approach.



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