Friday, December 10, 2010

Conventions and Oblivion

Norm Geras finds an otherwise enjoyable novel derogated by an off-putting literary device, and wonders at the ability to set such problems aside

... in order to focus on the 'guts' of the thing, and thus not let the formal features of which you're critical get in the way of appreciating what's good in the story. It's somewhat like... You arrive in the theatre to find a big arrow just in front of the stage pointing to where the drama is to take place and with a sign beside it reading 'Everything that you will see happen here will be real life'. You think 'Yeah, yeah' and watch the play, knowing it's a play, and judge it however you do. So, similarly, I liked The Rain Before It Falls despite its dodgy narrative device.

Is there something more general there? About being able to choose whether a literary defect spoils your enjoyment or not? I don't know. A huge implausibility in the characterization or the plot is harder to overlook. As is tedium. Those who do this for a living - studying literature, I mean - is there an answer?
I don't study literature for a living -- though I am willing to accept payment for it at any time -- but I answer the question with a resounding yes, there is something more general there.

The enjoyment, appreciation, and understanding of literature cannot get off the ground without a developed facility for bracketing away conventions of literary form: to get anywhere with narrative fiction, one must accept oddities not found in everyday life, such as third-person omniscient voice-overs, sometimes even first-person accounts of death (see Moses and the narrator of American Beauty); a tendency of characters to explicitly mention the names and histories of other characters; a peculiar absence of everyday necessities and realities (sleeping, eating, defecating, picking up the mail, the passage of time); an abnormally florid, sparse, or elevated manner of expression, and so on.

More than accept, one must learn to to be oblivious of these conventions -- to be swept up in the experience of a work of literature involves forgetting, to some important degree, that one is actually (say) reading words printed on bundled paper or sitting in a darkened room staring at a projected image.

People who study literature professionally are paid, arguably, to unlearn this oblivion -- to recognize the conventions when they appear, know something of their origins, development, and history, and appreciate how they contribute to or detract from attempts at well-crafted, artful storytelling. 

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