Sunday, November 10, 2013

How do you talk about fiction?

I recently attended a book club meeting here in Syracuse.  It was my second visit, and the book under discussion was I Am No One You Know, a collection of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates.

The meeting was okay, but largely dissatisfying.  Most participants expressed their approval or disapproval of the book and left it at that.  There really wasn't much probing as to why people either liked or disliked the book.  Most disliked it.  Reasons given as to why they didn't like it appealed to aesthetic or moral sensibilities.  (The stories are very dark, touching on issues like rape, molestation, murder, loneliness, etc.)

This made me wonder about how we discuss fiction.  How are you supposed to talk about fiction?  What sorts of questions do you ask?  Talking about most non-fiction seems relatively straightforward.  Are the author's claims true?  Are the author's arguments sound?  (i.e. Are the premises true and is the argument form either valid or inductively strong?)  These questions seem inappropriate when directed towards works of fiction?  So what do we ask?

I have the same problems when trying to talk about art, poetry, film, music, theater, or dance.  What more can I say, other than I liked it or disliked it?  Here are several possible directions.

First, you can always talk about what happened in the book, but these questions are mainly for clarification.  They serve to clear any confusions about plot.  They don't really make for much discussion.

The second route is to discuss more technical aspects of the book.  This would include discussing elements of style, narrative, character development, plot structure, etc.  I'm guessing that discussions of this sort revolve around the aesthetics of writing.  These discussions seem largely academic.  You'd have to know a good deal about writing techniques in order to make informed judgments about how well executed a book is.

Third, a group can speculate on the nature or purpose of a story.  Is the author promoting some sort of ideology?  Are there norms that are reinforced or subverted?  Is there a "lesson" or "moral" of the story?  Sometimes the moral perspective of a story is easy to spot.  Often there will be multiple perspectives, either embodied in different characters, or instantiated in the same character at different points in the story.  Sometimes the perspective can be difficult to spot, and perhaps projected onto a story that may not have intended to promote any kind of worldview.

I have little to no knowledge about literary criticism.  But I'm guessing that it involves some combination of the second and third types of book discussion.

Fourth is what might be the most personal form of discussion.  Many stories, especially in literary fiction, are explorations in phenomenology. (Phenomenology is the study of conscious experience.)  People tend to enjoy reading certain stories because something about the story resonates with them.  This could be the way in which the author describes points of view and other psychological details.  It could also be the way in which important characters develop over the course of the story.  My guess is that when people say that like or don't like a book, it's probably because of reasons that fall into this category.  Being able to participate in this form of discussion in any substantive way will require a good bit of self-awareness and the willingness to engage in some non-trivial self-disclosure.

So, unless there are other forms of discussion that I'm overlooking, book club discussions can either involve literary criticism or self-disclosure.  Most lay folk are probably not informed enough to do the former, and a typical book club may not have gotten to the level of intimacy to the latter in any meaningful way.  This is my guess as to why book club discussions seem dissatisfying on average.

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