Thursday, August 10, 2006

Deep

I was having a discussion yesterday with someone who was claiming that in order for fiction to have value, it must have deeper meaning. The reader must be able to not only relate to the characters, but recognize themselves and the human condition in them. More, to have real, lasting worth, fiction should try to show something "new", at least a new take, on the world and people. That without this, fiction is "empty" and "mind candy", a recitation of events.

I argued that it's great for fiction to try for this--at least some types of fiction--but that it's absolutely not necessary to have deeper revelations about humanity in order to be valuable. That sometimes it's enough just to have a good STORY.

But I wonder if the arguer is right in one sense--that the books that stand through time, that we still go back to and re-read in spite of the decades or centuries that have passed since they were written DO include a true reflection of life, and possibly also new thoughts about living. Or maybe this is what makes great books great--that the characters are real because they reflect the complexities of people.

What do you think? Does fiction need to strive for the deeper, richer, truer vision of life to succeed? Or are you attracted also by fiction that tells a story, more simply?

Medieval Word of the Day: sye: To sink, fall, descend (lit. and fig.); to collapse.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Susan,
Hmm, good question. The thing is, there are thousands of good stories. The question is, what is it about a story that makes you pick it up and invest your time in reading. I think it all depends on where you are mentally and emotionally. Sometimes you want to read something that requires no thought, and fluff is what you are after. But the stories you return to generally do have something deep that touches you. So, I think both are necessary and both serve a purpose. Just my opinion.
Carol

Susan Adrian said...

Carol:

I agree. I'm just not sure if something necessarily is of lesser (or no) value because it doesn't have that something deep.

Anonymous said...

Susan,

If something fills a need, it is of value. How much the value is depends on the size of the need.

Have you ever seen something that was of total insignificance, and it brought you to tears because it reminded you of something important? Just like a fragrance in a breeze can calm a troubled soul. When we read, it is the same. Something that can be frivilous in meaning can touch us in a way that the greatest written essay never could.

It all goes back to what you are needing at that moment in your life.

Lorraine said...

This is a great question, Susan!

You know, I think there are many great storytellers that tell seemingly simple stories that actually touch on some very human truths and illuminate them brilliantly. I think doing that subtley and not being obvious about it is MUCH harder sometimes than writing an acknowledged "deep" book!

Often when writers set out to tackle life's issues, the stories feel overly contrived or pendantic--in other words, they fail miserably.

I think they other thing that's really important to keep in mind when talking about this issue is that one person's brilliant piece of fiction is often another person's empty dreck. Different stories will touch people at different levels. So to say something like Sophie Kinsella's SHOPAHOLIC is empty or mind candy (not that you did, mind you) completely dismisses the millions of women who find a reflection of their own life truths in her work.

And just because the themes explored in THE ILLUMINATOR didn't resonate with me, doesn't mean they didn't shed some light on the human condition for others.

Reading is just so darn subjective and people are in such wildly different places mentally and emotionally, I don't think certain works can be classified as empty.

Now, whether fiction should strive for deeper richer visions in order to succeed? No. I think the minute you strive for something the writing becomes about your message not about the characters or the story, which is what should, IMHO, come first.

ChrisMac said...

I agree that the world needs both. Too much deep introspective works could drive a person crazy. On the other hand if all you read was fluff than I don't hink that would make you a well rounded reader either. I like to read the classics. Generally, if a book stands the test of time, then it does have some universal truth. But on the other hand books like Pride & Prejudice are also a lot of fun and romantic. What you get out of it, is whatever you want to get. It depends on the reader.

Diana Peterfreund said...

Eh, I've read HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY many, many times since I was in middle school,a nd it's nonsense. But it's hilarious, wonderful nonsense that never fails to make me smile.

The point of fiction is to entertain, which, at its root, means "to hold" -- to hold the attention of. Whether that be through lessons or philosophy or humor or just sheer, unadulterated titillation -- it all has its place.

Great post!

Amy said...

I blame the idea that fiction must have deep meaning on High School English classes.

I loved High School English - I was the kid who had her hand raised all period. But it always annoyed me when we'd study symbolization to the point where it got a bit drastic, or pointless. Yes, the fact that Character X slammed the door on Character Y meant the ending of their relationship - but that's not symbolization, that's a plot point.

I do think a lot of stories can have deep meaning, even seemingly goofy ones. I've re-read a book series I loved as a kid, the Wayside School series. At the time, I didn't realize that several of the stories actually taught a lesson. However, many others were just there to make the reader laugh.

A story can have deep meaning, including silly kid's books and adult beach reads. But sometimes, a story is just a story.

Susan Adrian said...

Anon:
[Have you ever seen something that was of total insignificance, and it brought you to tears because it reminded you of something important?]

Yes, of course! I think this happens often when you have children. Good point, and one I was also trying to argue with said person. There is no objective judgement for what is or is not meaningful or deep.

Susan Adrian said...

Lorraine:

I still need to read ILLUMINATOR--it is in exactly the same period as MURDERESS. So far I've only gotten 10 pages in, but I'll try again soon.

Anyway, back to your point. This, I love:
[I think the minute you strive for something the writing becomes about your message not about the characters or the story, which is what should, IMHO, come first.]

Aha! This is likely very true. I have read, and been turned off by, many pieces where the message takes over completely (some "literary fiction" seems to me to have this problem). The deeper meaning, if there, needs to arise organically from an understanding of human nature and an effort to portray rounded characters.

Susan Adrian said...

Chrismac:

[Generally, if a book stands the test of time, then it does have some universal truth. But on the other hand books like Pride & Prejudice are also a lot of fun and romantic.]

Yes, and there is also the issue of universal themes. Pride & Prejudice, for just one example, touches on several important recurring themes that people like to read about. (that will be another post for another time!)

Susan Adrian said...

Diana:

Ahhhh, HITCHHIKER, one of my favorite series of all time. Proving Lorraine's point, I might even have to argue with you that it's nonsense--I wrote a perfectly good essay on it in college (mind, it was on Douglas Adams' novel use of metaphor, not deep meaning, but...)

[Whether that be through lessons or philosophy or humor or just sheer, unadulterated titillation -- it all has its place.]

I agree. Well said! If we all only looked for the "deeper meaning" books, and we all liked the same thing, we'd end up with 10 books published a year. {shudder}

Luria Bertani said...

Depth of meaning in fiction is not a factual absolute that can be quantified. One person sees depth, where the other just sees a nice story and there are varying degrees in between. That is the beauty of the diversity of stories, and of people’s perspectives.

Cindy said...

Susan:
Just finished reading THE SWALLOWS OF KABUL. It's Literary, and Depressing with a capital D. (Yes, the plight of the Afghan people is terrible) But why is it that Literary novels so seldom have a good feeling? At least that's how it seems to me. Check Oprah's list, very few chuckles there.

This is why the "Thumping Good Reads" section is so important to me. I do read to learn, to experience new things through the words on the page. But in between my lessons I need a lunchbreak. Vacations are important, and so, to me, is the "lighter" fiction.

Susan Adrian said...

Luria:

(Luria Bertani as in LB Broth?)

Yes, I agree. I find it hard to believe that anyone can think there IS an absolute. But ask most English Professors--they'll tell you.

Susan Adrian said...

Cindy:

You know, I have a hard time even trying to read what is often classified as "literary fiction"--I just don't often enjoy it. There are always exceptions, of course, but I tend to enjoy historicals, general "fiction", and YA the most. Go figure. {g} Oh, and Jane Austen and Douglas Adams...

Luria Bertani said...

(Yes it is as in LB broth!)

And yes I have always had a hard time with English Professors and their absolutes.

Precie said...

Excellent question. I think perhaps the issue of depth (or weight or meaning or whatever one calls it) is maybe what separates "good" stories from "great" stories. It's not necessarily, to me, a "deeper, richer, truer vision of life" but there are definite differences between a good story that I can identify with and a great story
makes me look at or feel the world differently.

I'll use my most recent favorite novel: Niffenegger's Time Traveler's Wife. I don't know that I could point to "deeper revelations about humanity" in that novel. And yet I do think it has great depth. I also think it changed the way I look at literature. For all its fantasy and un-reality, it felt rich and made me feel deeply.

I also, though, agree with lorraine that striving for that depth is likely to backfire and seem pedantic.

So much to consider...