Storytelling & Community: The Same Sociality…

On fast Sunday, my business plan was preached over the pulpit.

OK, it wasn’t technically preached. More just shared. And it’s not so much a business plan as a running joke. But it was still a surprise to hear the second counselor in the bishopric tell the ward about how I dream of opening a gas station in Las Vegas where, after inserting a credit card and pumping your gas, you pull a giant lever on the side which makes the numbers spin and spin, so that you never know in advance whether you’ll get gas free, at a discount, a bit higher than usual, or at double the ordinary rate.

What was more surprising was that the counselor was making an important spiritual point. And no, it didn’t have to do with the evils of gambling. He was talking instead about how after a recent, very spiritual and Christ-centered activity, our families had gotten to talk on the car ride back home. He was grateful, he told the ward, not only for the opportunity we’d had on that day to study and worship together, but also for the opportunity we’d had to get to know each other. He went on to talk about the natural awkwardness of getting to know new people and how in the church, we are sometimes blessed with ways to break through that awkwardness to receive moments of unexpected fellowship. For our second counselor, the genuine connection of being able to talk to each other more deeply matters deeply, even if the form is a joke.

If we are all God’s children, we should learn to love to be together. And perhaps in these last days, when so many cultural and economic shifts make stable community-building particularly rare, our need for ways to break through awkwardness and enjoy the blessings of socialization is more acute than ever.

All of which has me wondering: how are we writers doing at serving in this area of need? I often think about my works telling the right story or sending the right message: how do they hold up if I want them to get people talking instead? I know my play Prodigal Son was very moving to lots of people–but I’ve heard more people talk about my strange little piece “Book of Mormon Story” about an investigator who insists that the Book of Mormon is true “as far as translated correctly” but that if you read carefully, it’s clear that King Noah was a cokehead, not an alcoholic. There’s something about that piece that has been able to get people sharing their own thoughts and perspectives in ways some of my “better” plays maybe haven’t.

I doubt anything I ever write will hold a candle to Twilight on this scale, though. Several times this semester the subject has come up among my students: many of them don’t like the book(/s–but several had only read the first). What fascinates me, though, is the way that both criticisms and defenses of the book get people talking quite seriously about what they believe about relationships, about the influence of media on our thinking, etc. Part of that is, of course, because the book was successful. But part of it is the delightful complication of the narrative. People don’t know quite what to make of where it stands on values of sensuality and chastity. They can’t decide whether Edward is an ideal guy or patronizing and controlling, whether the books put desire over relationship health when she chooses Edward over Jacob.

My question is this: to what extent is any book’s value in what it says, and to what extent is the value of a book in the conversations it elicits and the way those conversations draw people out of their ruts and toward each other? From Twilight to the Bible, how much weight do we give to the part of literature that just gets people engaged and talking?

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20 Responses to Storytelling & Community: The Same Sociality…

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    PET PEEVE ALERT: Nothing drives me more crazy than hearing readers/students talk about "what the author is saying." I don’t understand how mind-reading came to be a part of literary criticism: We see it in professional, scholarly articles all the time. For instance, I use the graphic novel [i]Maus[/i] in my curriculum. I send my students to the databases, and they inevitably come back with articles, mostly written by literature PhDs, that invest paragraphs, if not pages, in the psychology of the author and what s/he means to say. None of this psychologizing, however, is supported by professionals in the field of psychology. I wish we’d practice what we preach regarding proving the credibility of our claims with authoritative sources. If it isn’t clear yet what side of this I come down on, here it is: What is valuable is the conversations that grow from literature, not what it [or the author] says [with his/her text]–especially since knowing that is often unclear.

    This doesn’t mean I don’t care about how well-written something is. I do, but obviously many [who buy books] don’t. If I don’t want to talk about the book when I finish it, I don’t consider it a successful read.

  2. Th. says:

    .

    What the author allegedly thinks and what the critic thinks are both whippable offences in my AP class.

  3. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    What school lets you bring a whip? I wanna work there!
    I stick to tongue lashings.:)
    Love ya, th.

  4. Moriah Jovan says:

    Lisa, he threatened to come to my house to smack me for too many repetitions of my favorite phrases. He’s very scary.

  5. Th. says:

    .

    Let this be a lesson to you all.

  6. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’d literally throw things at my students. :)
    But back to James’s question…

  7. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Well, when I hear someone try to tell me what the author is saying, I impose my own interpretation on those kinds of someones, and tell myself what THEY are actually saying is "this is what the author said to ME."

    Of course, if people would admit that I’m right about what they are actually saying, and we all talked about what the author said to us, instead of what we psychoanalyze about the author based on what the author said to us, the conversation might be healthier.

    Until everyone does admit that I’m right about things like that, however, I’m willing to "hear" them saying "this is what the author said to ME" when they try to tell me what the author intended, and go from there. Unless, of course, my grade depends on accepting said "interpretations" as fact, and I can pretend that they are if I have to.

    On the other hand, I also believe that the author doesn’t know what he or she is saying any more than some self-proclaimed pundit. I submit that every time a story is read, there is a collaboration going on between the author and the reader, and a different experience comes of that collaboration every time (even if we’re talking about the same reader on a different day–as in the "not stepping into the same river because different water is flowing by" kind of thing).

    As James said, if we could bring "what I heard the author tell me" to our discussions of written works, it could be very community building. But, after all, isn’t that what book groups and reading groups (I belong to three of them, by the way) are for?

  8. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Well said, Kathleen. And very generous of you. I don’t have a successful book group, so I hear "what the author is saying" mostly from freshman college students. I understand from them that this is a phrase they pick up in high school from their HS teachers.

  9. Th. says:

    .

    Well they didn’t get it from ME, grumble grumble grumble…..

    And I agree with Kathleen. Once the book’s in print, the author’s opinion’s no more important than anyone else’s.

  10. Scott Parkin says:

    I’m just trying to figure out what we’re going to converse about with literature if we’re not permitted to interpret the text or attempt to discover the author’s intent in choosing detail or crafting character or selecting contexts and conflicts.

    That seems to reduce literary discussion to unsupported opinion (I think The Metamorphosis is about the dangers of fruit–specifically apples) or highly subjective analyses of constructive technique.

    I’ll accept the role of troll here (though I don’t think I quite qualify), because I just can’t accept the irrelevancy of the author. I believe the author is *not* an unquestionable font of Truth, but the fact is that the author crafted a specific story, using specific characters and contexts and setting and conflicts and details intended to present a specific picture (and possibly even an idea).

    What the author intended is a very useful thing to debate. How both the author and the story fit into a larger social context are also useful to debate. Meaning has always been an individual thing, but intent does matter if only as a starting point or argumentative framework for the reader to consider 1) whether that intent is clear, 2) whether that intent is engaging, 3) whether that intent is useful, 4) whether that intent is compelling, and 5) whether I as a reader agree with/accept that intent as valid, accurate, or true.

    The disconnect between intent and execution/delivery is a rich vector for all kinds of useful and interesting discussions. That the idea may be much larger than the author intended is part of the fun of reading in the first place (and is one my baseline assumptions).

    The author’s intent is merely one of many areas of exploration, but it’s just as useful and interesting as any other. The author created the text that we’re now debating, and as such deserves at least a little bit of respect as the facilitator of our feast. It doesn’t make the author’s opinion more correct, but it does make the author’s opinion more important because the conversation never happens without it.

    (Being clear that there may well be a difference between narrative intent and authorial intent, just as authorial intent may well differ from the author’s opinion. If you don’t know that Jonathan Swift is writing satire, then at least one of those essays is alarming and potentially criminal. Which requires discovery of author’s intent as distinct from narrator’s intent, which makes the author’s intent not only relevant, but critical.)

    I find Lord of the Flies to be dreary, hopeless, and fundamentally inaccurate about the inherent nature of people. I don’t know whether the book represents the author’s opinion or not–I would need to read the author’s own statements on intent to discover his opinion. But the text does argue a viewpoint, and discovering that viewpoint is my primary intent in reading. I can then agree or disagree to varying degrees about the particulars, but the effort of identifying intent is (for me) the fun of reading. It turns out that I simply disagree with the core argument of Lord of the Flies though I appreciate both the literary and argumentative techniques supplied by the author in the text. I have no opinion about the author’s quality as a human being because that’s not relevant to how the author’s text succeeded or failed to meet its own goals, or whether I found those goals useful, accurate, or relevant.

    (The Poisonwood Bible is one of those where I love everything about the creative presentation while absolutely disagreeing with some of the fundamental assumptions and arguments. I accept the arguments as compelling and meaningful and true to the characters’ beliefs even as I disagree with them on a personal evaluative basis. I accept them as real, if not specifically as true.)

    All of which begs the question of whether those discussion create or destroy community. Some of the most vicious personal attacks I’ve ever heard were based on differing interpretations of literature, because in order to express an opinion you also have to express a bias, which then often moves the conversation from abstract analysis to personal testimony.

    Difficult stuff, that. Fun and useful, but difficult.

  11. Wm Morris says:

    Isn’t this debate exactly why our dearly departed co-religionist Wayne Booth came up with the notion of an implied author? See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Implied_author

    I find the term a bit unwieldy, but I also always assume that when someone talks about the author in the ways outlined above that they are really talking about the implied author or the author’s persona or however you want to describe it.

  12. Scott Parkin says:

    Agreed. That idea that we may not know what the actual author’s opinion or intent is–and that said intent is functionally irrelevant to our own approach as reader to the text–is a foundational concept. All we can approach is the text itself, and it’s neither useful nor fair to make assumptions about the person of the author from the text (unless the author addresses the question directly in separate, nonfiction texts, at which point they invite a different level of debate).

    It’s a knee-jerk reaction for me (not unlike Lisa’s initial pet peeve alert), because I think in our zeal to recognize that meaning is a function of the reader, we undervalue the importance of the author in creating the text and initiating the discussion through the persona of the implied author.

    I think people comfortable with literary discussion can separate those two ideas, but to Lisa’s point it also seems to have become fashionable (at least in pop literary discussions) to make sweeping condemnations of the author’s worldview or moral fitness. Perhaps that’s intended as polemic by those critics to make a broader point about the idea that texts appear in a larger moral context, but I’m honestly not sure they’re thinking that deeply.

    Which is where I think those freshman English students get sideways–we assume the implied author but don’t explicitly invoke him/her, so the student hears the comments as though they applied to the actual author. I think we do those participants a disservice by not clearly separating interpretive analysis of an implied author’s intent from declarations about the actual author’s intent. Yes, it makes conversation unwieldy, but keeping those ideas separate seems very useful to me.

    As an amateur at this sport I’m sure I’ve embarrassed myself by rehashing very old ideas. My only defense is that I have fallen victim myself to failing to make or understand this distinction, and so I tend to be very sensitive to it.

    I don’t believe authors are irrelevant or that their opinions are equally irrelevant.

  13. Wm Morris says:

    I don’t think you’ve embarrassed yourself at all, Scott. In fact, I think you’ve expressed things quite well. In particular, you have put your finger on one of the issues with the implied author — critics tend to limit the implied author to what can be gleaned from the text, but authors tend to act as if they have intent and some of them say things about that or about themselves or about their writing process, etc. That then has an effect on how readers read the author through the text and sometimes even how they read the text itself. Delimiting things in order to do in-depth scholarship may be useful. But for what must of our doing and what most freshmen English students are doing, the text exists in a complex matrix of other texts and attitudes and assumptions. I fully agree that making something of that more apparent is a good idea.

  14. Kathleen Woodbury says:

    "And I agree with Kathleen. Once the book’s in print, the author’s opinion’s no more important than anyone else’s."

    Th., did I say that, or is that just what you heard me saying in your own reading of my words? :)

    I submit that if authors were to actually make their intents (so far as they are able to describe them, of course) available for discussion, then their intents actually should have a little more weight than whatever anyone else who has read their works may have heard those authors saying to them in the works.

    The problem of authors explicating their intents is at least two-fold, however. Because first of all, there may be things going on during the writing, that the authors may not have been aware of. (I remember asking Orson Scott Card about something he’d written one time, and it made him think about what had been going on it his head as he wrote it. His response to me was along the lines of "don’t make me think about what I’m doing–you’ll ruin me as a writer.") I have my own theories about that, but I won’t go into them here.

    Second, even the authors, upon going back and reading their own works later, can discover new interpretations that may vary from what they may have intended in the first place, (because, like the river, the author would be a different person later and will bring different things to the reading experience).

    Which brings me to what I remember the above-mentioned Card calling "the first and final cause"–and what I heard him saying about it was that the first cause is what you are trying to accomplish when you do something, and the final cause is what actually ends up being accomplished–and all too often, never the twain shall meet. I submit that this can apply to absolutely everything we mere (and fallible) mortals may try to accomplish, including our writing.

    But, as Scott has said (or so I understood him to say), it’s fun to talk about, and (in my opinion, anyway) the challenge of producing more light than heat in such a discussion can be part of what makes it so stimulating.

  15. Th. says:

    .

    The experience a reader has with a book is just as valid as the author’s, imho. Which is not to say that what the author says about his/her intention is utterly unimportant, just that that discussion is a distinct one from what the book itself says to the reader. They’re two different types of criticism. For one, the book is one piece of evidence (even if the primary piece) in a work of biographical or historical criticism. The other is a more purely literary criticism. (Three types of criticism, really, if you add back in the reader’s experience as its own option.)

    You’ll have to forgive me if I come off irritable on this topic. I’m trying to train AP Lit students to realize that literary criticism is not about them and their experience with the book, nor is it about what the they think the author was thinking. Once they learn to cut those two things out of their writing, to see the book as the book along, then someday maybe they can add those things back in. Maybe.

  16. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Well, I guess I’m at a disadvantage, because the only AP class that was available to me as a high school student was a two-hour AP English class that would have prevented me from using one hour for one of the other classes I wanted to take, so I took College Prep English instead.

    And I never took any Lit Crit classes in college (unless you count a poetry class that examined song lyrics and why they didn’t count as poetry–from what I remember about the class, anyway).

    I am guessing that you have explained to them that literary criticism is One Way to approach written works, and that in order to learn about it, they have to try to not use any other approaches they may have learned.

    Perhaps their confusion relates to why any particular approach to written works (in this case, lit crit) has more validity than any other, and why what they hear the author saying to them is not as valid as what someone else (no matter how well educated) apparently heard the author say to that well-educated someone else.

    Surely literary criticism isn’t something that is even agreed upon by those who approach written works in that way–if it were, wouldn’t it be monolithic?

    Maybe I’m too technically trained (and like the pre-med student in Annette Lyon’s post, "English as ‘Fluffy’," would have trouble even wrapping my mind around such an approach), but I’m very interested in trying to learn how. Is it too late for me?

  17. Ross Wright says:

    I will never forget the movie where Rodney Dangerfield is a successful businessman who goes back to college to get closer to his estranged son. He uses his business experience by hires the author of book his English professor assigned the class to analysis as to what the author was saying. Rodney turned in the paper as his own. The professor awarded him a "C". In a rage, Dangerfield fires the author stating that the author didn’t know what he was writing about. It reminded me of my Freshman college English experience in understanding what the author is "trying to say." As an Engineering student, it was my first experience with learning the art of (suppose) sophistry. As a writer, I now look at a story for what it is, first a good story, and second, how it was put together.

  18. Kathleen Woodbury says:

    Maybe we’re getting a little far afield from the original topic question James asked.

    We’ve been having a conversation about books and their meanings, but it hasn’t been about any particular book. So this conversation hasn’t really addressed James’ question about whether a book is more valuable for what it may say or more valuable for getting people to talk about what it may say. (If I misunderstood you, James, I apologize, and I hope you will correct me.)

    I have to say that in each of my three book groups, the amount of actual discussion of the book for each month varies. We may enjoy the books we pick to read and "discuss," but I’m not sure there is very much actual discussion of the book per se.

    In one group, most of the members seem to feel that the person who chose the book needs to lead the discussion, and that leading ends up being a presentation of the author’s background and history. I find myself talking about the writing (characterization, structure, plot, point-of-view handling, etc) in that group more than in my other groups, perhaps as an attempt to counteract the emphasis on the writer’s "biography."

    In the other groups, we end up talking about all kinds of other things going on in our lives, and not so much about the book. As if the book is only an excuse to get together and chat. But at least there is chatting.

  19. Moriah Jovan says:

    [b]Maybe we’re getting a little far afield from the original topic question James asked. [/b]

    That is the nature of blogs and subsequent comments.

  20. Katya says:

    [b]Maybe we’re getting a little far afield from the original topic question James asked.[/b]

    Yep, sometimes that happens. It’s a problem if the threadjack occurs early enough in a conversation that not everyone gets to weigh in on the original topic, but this blog post is a week old, so I don’t see any cause for concern.

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