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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The summer of story: message vs. meaning

Why are we putty in a storyteller’s hands?

Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor and writer about evolutionary psychology, asks this in his 2012 book The Storytelling Animal, in the chapter “Ink People Change the World." He has just described how research shows we’re influenced, a lot more than we normally realize, by the fictions we absorb — not just by books but by sitcoms, films and so forth.

In sketching how pervasive this influence is, how much it shapes our choices and even our prejudices, he follows the above sentence with these:

One possibility, to borrow the words of Somerset Maugham, is that fiction writers mix the powder (the medicine) of a message with the sugary jam of storytelling. People bolt down the sweet jam of storytelling and don’t even notice the undertaste of the powder (whatever message the writer is communicating).

I read that and wondered: did this guy, who did a whole lot of reading for his book, actually talk to any fiction writers? I somehow can’t imagine an honest or serious writer ever thinking of a story or novel as a medicine, in the form of a message that you slip into a story so people will swallow it. Message is the death of story.

I used to do an experiment, on my visits to middle schools to talk about The Revealers in the first years when schools were reading and working with it — and the experiment always worked out the same way. I’d ask: How many of you have ever started reading a book that’s fiction, that’s a story, and you pretty quickly figured out that the writer was trying to teach you a lesson?

Predictably, between between half to three quarters of the kids would raise a hand. Then I’d ask, How many of you finished reading that book or story? Now, about one in ten kids would raise a hand. The difference was always that dramatic. No one goes to a story for message; along with being entertained, we go to a story for meaning, but that is very different.

Message is something a writer tries to slide into a story, and it makes for a bad or boring story. Even if the writer was clever enough to disguise the message, when you realize it’s there it’s like you’ve been fooled. To go with Gottschall’s analogy, if you pick up the bad aftertaste of the medicine in the jam, you’ll spit it out — or wish you had.

Meaning, in contrast, is what, beyond good entertainment, we most hope to find in a story — but it’s not a thing the writer can insert or disguise. Meaning can only develop inside the reader, when his or her emotions and experiences connect in some deepening way with the story as conveyed by the words on the page. It’s not something that any story will ever make happen inside every reader — because every reader is different, and the reader is half of this connection.

If you’ve ever read, say, A Catcher in the Rye 30 years after it exploded inside you as a teenager, and this time you find it snide, annoying, and without any meaning to speak of ... Well, the story hasn’t changed. You have. What you’ve brought to the story this time is different, and the combustion no longer occurs.   

I’ve noticed that writers of stories tend to think differently than teachers of stories. Just last week, on a visit to a high school, I saw the rubric that a wonderfully good teacher, whom I’ve known for many years, had developed to help her students write their own pieces of fiction. One of the steps was that the writer should decide what is the theme. I had to wonder, How many working writers even think about theme?

I understand that educators have to break things down, help students analyze and understand; but the creative process is usually different. It’s much less analytical or compartmentalized, and I think theme is generally something that is noticed more after the working process is complete.

I mean, a good story deals with things that are difficult, challenging, meaningful in life — and this dealing-with later looks like a theme. But really it’s just what the story, its writer, its characters, were contending with, what brought tension and suspense and coherence to the narrative. The writer didn’t choose it, I bet, as a component part. He or she just built the story, draft by draft, from the seed of an idea, and that tension was there in that seed.

Anyway: to a decent story, message is death. Meaning is life — the thing in life that we most hope to find. And it’s always personal. This is, I think, why stories matter so much: not because they preach at us, but because they speak to us.

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