Friday, January 18, 2008

Late Night Literary Stream-of-Conciousness

So, first week back here has been fine. I could write an update, but I'm not interested in being more verbose on that subject at the moment.

I was thinking again of Octavia Butler. I'm probably picking on her more than I have any right to, given the extent of my reading of Parable of the Sower, but she is currently the unfortunate catalyst for my thoughts.

I described the aforementioned book as "really annoying," which it is, for reasons listed in a previous post. It occurred to me that this was a form of angering me, and further that couldn't it be argued that that is what literature is supposed to do? Pull one out of one's element, force one to think about sensitive topics--in a sense, make one mad?

I do believe that literature should make people mad, and that a book is intrinsically worth very little save light entertainment unless it offends someone. But, and here's the difference between Butler's book and, say, A Canticle for Leibowitz, bad literature pretending to be good literature is like an annoying little brother repeating "[your name] and [theoretical lover's name] sittin' in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g" over and over--annoying, yes, perhaps even angering, but not at all life-shattering, or at least contributing nothing new to the argument. A good book, on the other hand, is like having a trusted friend say to you, "I think you like [theoretical lover's name]," and outline exactly why they think this. They may not be right, and they may make you mad, but at least they have thoughtfully contributed to the argument and, if they're wrong, they've at least forced you to think about it, and think of reasons why they're wrong.

This may be literature's function, after all: to ask questions. I've heard it said that literature cannot be a persuasive argument-good literature is always interpretive. A novel that tries to force you to think one thing and one thing only is not a novel-it is, at best, a parable or a sermon. But what literature can do is force you to face those big questions-what is life? Is there a God? What is happiness? And so forth.

My analogy is imperfect, and except for the previous paragraph, I think this is mostly stuff I've said before. But it is where my thoughts have led me, this newly-minted morning.

(Exit, pursued by a bear)


Nat said...

Parables and sermons teach. Any "novel" which exists for the purpose of "forcing" beliefs is propaganda.

Every novel (within reason) advocates a particular viewpoint, either subtly or directly, and therefore to each novel there are only three logical reactions:

1. I disagree with this viewpoint.
2. I agree with this viewpoint, and see how I live it.
3. I agree with this viewpoint, and see how I live contrary to it. Therefore I must change how I live.

(This is not to suggest that we actually tend to follow logical reactions.)

Ethan said...

Parables and sermons teach from a specific point of view, to the exclusion of all others. My point is not necessarily that this is a bad thing, but to differentiate it from a novel.

Good generalizations, without going into the sub-headings: I agree with this part of the viewpoint, but not that part, etc. Further muddying the issue are authors who either don't know what they believe themselves, or whose seeming conclusions aren't what they believe.