Reading Between The Lines … and the letters

One of the subjects I most enjoyed at school was English literature. Reading a book in that much detail, and with a knowledgeable teacher, is a totally different experience from reading the same book on your own with only your imagination to guide you. Not better, but different. And I relished the challenge of looking at writing in that much detail.

An exercise we did often would be to dissect a short passage of a longer work (usually a novel or a play) in response to a question like “How does the writer show tension in this passage?”. We looked at everything: large-scale elements from pathetic fallacy to pace; details like speech attributions and clipped sentences. Alliteration or assonance almost always came into it, regardless of the question – I’m fairly sure they could be equally responsible for showing romance and aggression!

And I enjoyed it, but my friends and I would sometimes take a step back and ask each other, in frustration, “Do you think the author really sat there agonizing over word choice to that extent?” Did Jane Austen stop and check Darcy’s alliterations every time he spoke? Did Emily Bronte really make the moors bleak and stormy to show Heathcliff’s mood? Was Shakespeare honestly trying to write a great big allegory for English government when he claimed there was something rotten in the state of Denmark?

Well, now I write. And I might not be representative, but in case I am, here’s my answer. A resounding YES. And a resounding NO as well.

Sometimes when I write, I’m being clever. Sometimes, especially in my FF stories – where I have time and energy to pour real thought into each word – there are layers and layers of meaning and implication beyond the surface. And then I read the comments, hoping some people saw them. And I wonder about posting a detailed explanation on the Monday after, but it feels a little like showing off to do that, so I just wait until someone posts a comment remarking on the double entendre of the title, puns, or clues in the wording.

But other times, No, No and No. Pathetic fallacy, for example, is almost always accidental. Maybe I’m feeling dark and stormy, because I’m writing a tense or miserable scene, so the weather in the story is dark and stormy, but that’s by accident, not design. I write the stories the muse conjures in my head – the characters speak that way because it’s how they speak in my head, not because I think it would be clever for them to use clipped sentences, or slang, or alliteration.

What about you? Do you write like the first or second style, or a mixture of the two? And where do you think your favourite authors fit in?


1 Comment

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One response to “Reading Between The Lines … and the letters

  1. Jennifer, I love literature. In fact, I got my bachelor’s degree in literature and received awards for excellence in literary criticism. Then I met one of my favorite living authors, Orson Scott Card, and made the mistake of asking him a detailed, critical question about a short story he had written some 30 years prior. I’ll never forget his response. Basically, he responded that in order to answer my question he would have to engage in a level of introspection that he had no inclination to ever experience.

    Since that time, I’ve discovered that, while the world contains many great creative writers and many great literary critics, seldom is one person great at both pursuits.


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