More thoughts on reading & writing

In a comment to my last blog post, drkrisg writes

I have a few thoughts here, so here is my first one 🙂. Do you want people to take you “seriously”? Is that really the question you are asking? Or are you more asking if people will derive pleasure and/or interest from your writing?

My thoughts in that posting were a bit all over the map – some autobiographical, some a virtual primal scream at the frustration of trying to understand “the game” of academic literary analysis, some an inquiry into rhetoric and justification. Let me take a second pass at these and see whether it’s any clearer this time around.

One can “write” for a number of purposes. Entertainment/amusement, provocation, inspiration, persuasion, and literal communication all come to mind. (Edit: here’s an article that explores this question in more depth. And this book looks like an interesting treatment of the “why write” question.) I’m mainly thinking of writing with the purpose of persuasion or illumination, where the author has a definite point to make, be that though fictional or non-fiction genres.

First, just a little more personal background. My doctoral thesis studied how adolescents acquire different forms of “knowing” as they develop. I’ll use a taxonomy from Women’s Ways of Knowing as a way of summarizing what I mean (but read that linked Wikipedia article for more detail)

  • Silence (feeling deaf and dumb)
  • Received Knowing (knowledge as a set of absolute truths received from infallible authorities)
  • Subjective Knowing (the “inner voice”)
  • Procedural Knowing (methods for reliably evaluating knowledge claims)
  • Constructed Knowing (integration of subjective and procedural)

I was particularly interested in how/whether/when adolescents jumped between “received knowing” and “procedural knowing.” Some kids study math as “received knowers” throughout their K-12 careers, while others early on recognize that there is reason and logic behind mathematical claims. Others may treat history as a “received knowing” subject (memorizing names, dates, and places) while some treat historical knowledge as an integration of contexts, perspectives of authors, evaluations of historical sources and multiple perspectives, etc. (What did I learn? Stay tuned for a future post…)

Now, when I come across a blog post or editorial that is essentially non-fiction in nature, I feel confident in my ability to evaluate any claims being made and the warrants for those claims. There are assumptions to be made, for sure. For example, I generally assume an author is not deliberately lying or mis-stating facts (I know, a naive assumption in many cases, particularly with regard to foreign policy). But I can spot logical fallacies, question assumptions behind claims, and otherwise weigh the persuasiveness of an argument.

With fiction the waters become much more murky for me. In “serious” literature the author is often holding up a situation or event or relationship for our inspection. The classics of ancient Greece and Rome were held up as exemplars of good, virtuous living for generations of school children, for example. The “message” of the author (and yes, I’m thinking of cases where authors write to make a point, not solely as entertainment or artistic expression) should never be too overt or the piece comes off as “heavy handed.”

Fictional works need to be studied more deeply, in a sense, than non-fiction writing. With non-fiction you generally know what the author is up to; in fiction it can be more subtle (and yes, I do appreciate the artistry of good fiction writing – that’s not the issue). And here is my fundamental conundrum – fiction may be more or less grounded in reality. By that I mean the author can paint a portrait of a realistic-seeming situation, with realistic-seeming characters, acting in perhaps a not-very-plausible manner.

I guess I need an example, and I’ll pull from some of the criticisms I remember Denis Phillips making about treating fiction as social science research. Basically, the example goes like this: imagine someone telling a story of a teacher in a classroom, and the particular events of that day. They may illustrate what we call “good pedagogy,” student interactions that a seasons teacher would recognize as realistic – all in all, a fairly plausible story. Perhaps the author is illustrating the virtue of, let’s say, listening deeply to student arguments.

Phillips argues that in spite of its illustrative value (perhaps this narrative showcase a particular concept being taught in an educational methods class), the fact that it never actually happened is worrisome. That is, the story was not constrained by any real facts on the ground. It was plausible, but not strictly true.

Here is why I worry about this – let’s take that story one step further. Now the teacher is a bit impatient with the African American students in his class, and perhaps in the narrator’s mind we see his pitying of the genetic intellectual inferiority of these students. We would all (I hope) recognize this as ignorant racism. The expected narrative arc would show how the teacher eventually changes his mind or finds some other redemption.

But perhaps there is no happy ending to this story – the classroom dynamics are illustrated and this thick dollop of racial prejudice is sitting front and center of the narrative.  Worse still, the university instructor who assigned this story as a reading goes on to talk about the “well known” inferiority of Black students in his class. In that case, a fictional story was used to support a factually inaccurate and morally bankrupt lesson.

Here’s my point – I don’t think one can simply assume that students would necessarily see through this as “unrealistic.” I crafted this example precisely because in some regions of the US and in some social circles (if not now then certainly within the recent past) this is an entirely plausible scenario. The fictional work issued to illustrate a “point” that is simply not grounded in reality.

So when I pick up a piece of fiction – say, about Palestinian and Israeli teens falling in love – I’m going to absorb a lot of attitudes and situational inferences from the work. I’ll probably claim to have learned a lot about what it’s like to be a Palestinian living in Israel – and I won’t have any basis whatsoever for making that claim. All I have, really, is some naive trust in the author’s good intentions. I could be, for all I know, accepting either a sugar-coated version of reality or a horribly prejudiced narrative (or both), and with general ignorance of facts on the ground may find myself forming opinions – strong opinions, even – based on pure fiction.

I’m unresolved on this point – what do I dare draw from fiction as a “lesson,” and what do I hold tentatively, at arms length, as an “insight” for further exploration? (Obviously the latter is a safer choice) Again, the specter of confirmation bias looms – I certainly can’t use mere “gut check” to evaluate the lesson, for many Southern whites in the 1950’s would gut check the story about those poor Negro kids and find that it fits their world view perfectly.

Now if you’re reading this, and you were a literature major in college, or otherwise don’t share my blind spot about reading fiction, you may be chuckling to yourself about how I’ve gotten this all wrong, or how I’m fundamentally mis-understanding how one should approach the deep reading of literature. If so, please leave me a comment! I’d really like to wrap my head around what insights I can reasonably expect from fiction without being led down a “plausible” but otherwise unproductive path.