I was snot-faced in high school. I loved to sneer at novels in english class and say, “if the meaning is so deep and hidden, maybe it’s not really there. Maybe it’s just a story.”
Well, if myself today could teach a lesson to myself back then, it would be that “yes, it’s really there, and probably more than you think.”
Having written myself a good bit, I know that no one bothers to concoct a whole story and characters and plot points for no reason at all. Whatever conflicts and relationships the author finds compelling and powerful will be the plot and choices available to the characters. Writing a novel, play or movie is hard work, and no one undertakes it just for the heck of it.
Every choice of clothing, setting, tone, obstacle is selected to have a certain mood in order to create meaning and connection in the reader’s imagination. An author tells a story because he or she deeply believes that it is worth telling. And the things that we think are worth telling others are the most significant facets of reality.
When I was in high school, I wrote an email to Orson Scott Card, the author of Ender’s Game about the themes we had learned about in English class and whether or not he had really put them in there. It was probably a response from a publicist, but he did respond, and I wish I had kept the email. The answer was, paraphrasing, “while I do not intentionally put themes into my work, the elements of plot and character and setting are naturally things that I care about deeply, and so many of my values of course come out in the plot of the book.”
To put it simply, no avowed capitalist who hates Communism is going to write a novel about how wonderful living without personal property is. And no Communist is going to write a novel about a struggling start-up business who overcomes the odds to grow into a multi-national corporation and yet retains their values.
The point is, the type of heroes we select and the type of problems we give them are specifically designed to highlight the value of certain codes of behavior; reactions in certain characters tell us how the author sees things as good or bad.
This is not to say that a novel or story cannot speak about reality as such.
Often times, they do. But it remains in the mode of how the author saw it, no matter how he or she cloaks it. Clearly, William Golding, who wrote Lord of the Flies, has a much darker view of humanity than does C.S. Lewis who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia and Out of the Silent Planet.
Are those books just stories? Well, they certainly are stories, but they are stories for a reason and they say different things. Young boys killing pigs are obviously chosen for different impact than wood nymphs, children and lions finding ancient magic.
Now, do I think there are times when a reader takes something away that an author did not intend? Certainly.
But still, the author did intend some kind of take away, which is why he or she wrote it. It is our right and privilege as readers to take what we will from a piece. So the two come together, the author gives something and the reader takes something, and they may not always be one and the same.
But often they overlap and we can do a reasonable job at figuring out what the author intended to convey. Whether or not we agree or accept it, is up to us of course.
So where do you fall? What are your favorite or least favorite books and movies and what do you take away from them?