This week I’ve been reading Charles May’s book The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice. I thought it might fill in some of the gaps in my background knowledge of literature.
It’s an intimidating book. I actually had to look up two words. The first was mana characters. The word mana is borrowed from anthropology and means “a generalized, supernatural force or power, which may be concentrated in objects or persons.” The second was bathos, which I encountered when I was reading in a Starbucks near a naval air station this morning. I’d neglected to bring my netbook and couldn’t look the word up right away, and perhaps because of that, it had a resonance – let’s call it a sonar echo – from my first duty station in an antisubmarine warfare operations center. The “bathy” (bathometer) was a kind of buoy that measured the depth of the ocean and other oceanographic data in the location where we dropped it, and a “bathyscape” was a cool, deep-diving submersible. Both of those words are derived from
a Greek root meaning “depth,” so the best definition of bathos I could invent was “deep pathos.” Not too far off: bathos, originating from the same Greek root ca. 1630-1640, means “a ludicrous descent from lofty to commonplace; insincere pathos; triteness.” Now that’s deep.
I’ve also had the pleasure of engaging with The Reading Ape a little this week on the question of whether or not to read an author’s biography – and just read a recent post about the same topic on Reading the Short Story. Although I’d already posted on the topic earlier this month, both bloggers offered me the opportunity to reflect more deeply on how I intend to read short stories. As I’ve said, I agree with both Professor May and The Ape that it’s not productive to infer authorial intent from context, or to attempt to make direct correlations between the author’s life and work (unless the author has said that such correlations exist).
But to say that context – biography, history, etc. – can’t help any reader to engage with a literary story strikes me as an overly narrow perspective.
Who makes the rules on the validity of ways to encounter a text?
If no context is useful, why bother to read literary criticism? Why is knowing if a story is “modern” or “postmodern” more beneficial to me or more useful when I engage with the story than knowing a bit about the author’s bio, the history of the time, or the social and cultural context in which it was written? Why would I automatically be incorrect to perceive a story in a particular way because I cared enough to “ferret out” some context for it?
What is truth, anyway, other than a perception of a particular reality?
Other disciplines (e.g., biography, history, society, culture, politics) are – if they’re done well -different, but not necessarily less valid, ways of engaging with “the complicated human heart” and “the ambiguity in which we live” (Ron Carlson, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, quoted by May). I believe that considering ways in which disciplines other than literature tackle the Questions of Being Human can amplify one’s understanding of what’s happening on an artistic level in a story. The trick is not to take a simplistic approach: there are no easy answers – or at least there shouldn’t be. The business of being human is complex and multifaceted. Ruminating on the ways that other disciplines’ approaches to The Big Questions reflect on, or are echoed in, a literary short story, can be interesting and pleasurable. It can make the reading experience, like the business of being human, more complex and multifaceted.
There may be no need for a reader, especially a student or a literary critic, to go beyond “understand[ing] and respond[ing] to [a story’s] thematic significance and how it is integrally embodied in the details of the story” (May). But why make a value judgement that this type of engagement is “better” for every reader or “more difficult?” Why is the “truth” derived from this kind of reading (which is an imperfect understanding at best) any more valid than the “truth” apprehended after an examination of the story in the context of some other discipline or disciplines?
If there’s something innately and fundamentally wrong with a multidisciplinary approach to reading fiction, why does the term mana, which properly belongs to the discipline of anthropology, appear in a book of literary criticism?
Why limit myself to one way of engaging with a story, if I’m reading for my own pleasure and attempting to do so critically and analytically? Why would following a rabbit down the hole be an avoidance ploy, a way of running from doing the hard work, instead of a search for a new adventure or insight?
If there was only one valid way to tell a story, what would be the point of doing it at all? And if there’s only one valid way of reading literary fiction, why bother? The mysteries of art and fiction are solved. We all live happily ever after. Might as well just go back to a steady diet of Carole Nelson Douglas and Nora Roberts – at least they’re entertaining, and I don’t think I’ve ever had to look up a single word written by either author.
With all due respect and gratitude to Professor May and to The Ape, whose posts I thoroughly enjoy, I think I’m going to make my own reading rules – to decide for myself what has value and what is valid.