1. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Missing the forest for the trees

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by Wreybies, Dec 8, 2014.

    Hopefully @Lemex will swoop in and take me under his wing on this one with some terms and such that explain more concisely what I am asking.

    My question is, do you ever feel that after having read a novel that contains information about which you are familiar, that maybe, as a novel, you've missed the forest for the trees?

    I'm reading a set of sci-fi books now that were suggested to me by a fellow interpreter and linguist. He said I would enjoy "both the story and the story". He talks that way. We're all weirdos in my field. The story turned out to be great. Well written, very character driven, and the first of the three novels is a delightfully concise 200 pages in length. Imagine that. 200 pages.

    Halfway through reading the first of the trilogy I realized that the writer clearly either has a degree in linguistics or perhaps communication, possibly anthropology. Lots of linguistic theory is presented concerning signifiers, what they signify, the validity or need for signifiers, blah, blah, blah. Suffice to say, it goes into some esoteric territory. But it's territory I know, and as I read, I feel the characters fade in and out a bit until we get past the esoteric part and back to the story. Reading the second novel now, and it dives even more heavily into esoteric realms, and I'm still not out of my depth, but I'm wondering if the writer is selling me a story, or his CV in linguistics. I'm also wondering how someone else, not versed in these things, would read this novel and digest it. Am I unable to see the forest for the trees?

    The same happened when I read China MiƩville's Embassytown. Again, a sci-fi novel soaked to the bone in language theory, theory of language acquisition, how these create the venue for Theory of Mind to blossom. And I loved that book. I was like a raving Beatles fan-girl at a concert about to pass out from my near religious ecstatic moment at being this close to Ringo and John.

    But, again, were I to have been someone else who doesn't know those things, what novel would I have come away with instead, after having read Embassytown? If I had the chance to talk to China, would he himself say to me, "Look, mate, you seem like a bright enough lad, but you've missed the point, haven't you?"

    Thoughts?
     
  2. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    A lot of the reason why it seems people do not seem to like certain novels is that those novels are too busy talking about their own ideas than about telling a particularly interesting story. Story of an African Farm, for example, is a feminist novel with a plot so mind-destroyingly boring it is actually an odd art form.

    Are you looking for more information on the Signifiers/Signified to understand the novel? Does it play a major role in the story? Is the author suggesting that what he is saying in the plot is a metaphor for whatever he is Signifying in a very on-the-nose way? I've not read the novel you are talking about, but I do like it when if you don't understand one layer you'll still be able to appreciate the work and even understand it on another layer. Dante was a master of this, you can read his Commedia, and it can be a really fun ride, and you don't really need to know about Scholasticism or Thomas Aquinous, or medieval Christian politics to enjoy it. And I assure you no one understands it completely.
     
  3. GingerCoffee
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  4. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This reminds me - not of a book - but of Interstellar. Have you seen it? As someone who knows nothing about physics, quantum physics, time travel, or relativity, the film was utterly lost on me. Nolan himself claims you have you watch it several times alongside a physics handbook to understand it and complains that people are simply impatient. (and don't even get me started on his deliberate choice with the awful audio. Neither me nor my friend could actually hear half the movie - and considering it's 3 hours long - that gets a little dull. We were in a Czech cinema so my husband was reading the Czech subs all the way, and several times I, the English native speaker, had to lean over and ask him what the hell's going on! I can't even speak Czech and found myself desperately trying to read the damn Czech subs in the vain hope of gleaning some info from it cus I couldn't hear what the actors were saying.)

    But for me, I see that as a failure on the author's part. It's your bloody job to make it understandable and present it in such a manner that engages even if certain more complex parts might be lost on the uneducated. It seems to me that Nolan fancied himself a little too much this time round (and I loved Dark Knight and Inception - based on those films I think Nolan's brilliant, but Interstellar missed the mark big time.)
     
  5. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Aye, but if you're a dyed in the wool, Angry Difranco feminist, the book is probably orgasmic.

    Even though Mieville's Embassytown may have spent a long time talking about its ideas rather than the actual story telling (I don't think so, but there are plenty of reviews at Goodreads that disagree with me), for me, the book was like... like... niche or fetish porn. Not for everyone, but there's a knot of followers that will cut you if you talk smack. :) Mieville has other novels where he treads different esoteric realms that are of little interest to me and I found reading them a slog. His Bas Lag novels let you know the political animal that China is, but the last one, Iron Council... was just... a preposterous length of un-lubricated trotskyist polemic that I was meant take for hours on end, and I'm just not that kind of boy. :( It took me forever to finish that book off.

    But in the case of the other books I mention, I do enjoy the subject matter. It interests me. I spent more years than I should have studying that stuff as an undergrad (I was a pot head, fill in the rest...) I read the reviews from the haters at Goodreads and I clutch the proverbial old-lady pearls at my neck. So are these books actually good, or is it just that they play to a niche part of my persona like fetish porn, and is it wrong to write a niche "fetish porn" book meant for a selected audience? Maybe I'm less sure as to what I'm asking and more ambivalent about why I like these books and what that says about me as a writer. o_O
     
  6. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I agree. It's just not good practice to let the symbolism and philosophical position you hold hinder the story.

    Some stories literally cannot exist without the underlying things the author wanted to say. Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice cannot be properly understood without it's references to German turn of the century gay culture and the Apollonian/Dionysian contrast from Nietzsche's philosophy. However, I imagine if you didn't know Nietzsche, Ancient Greek culture, or know that around WW1 Venice had a reputation as a homosexually-friendly city, you'd still basically get the point that the novella is about homosexuality, beauty, and pederasty. It's not hard to miss, it is the story that an older man falls in love with a hot teenaged boy amid the canals and bustle of Venice.

    With The Dark Knight, yeah, you could pay attention to the allusions to Ancient Rome and the film dealing with the concepts of the value of civilization, and if it breeds anarchy or is anarchy bound to happen in human beings because some unique people just want to spread the 'fun', or you could just enjoy seeing a guy dressed in black punching people in the face. If you have to understand the subtext to enjoy the story then the story can only suffer, and really who cares?

    Really, it doesn't seem any different from assuming the audience knows what you are thinking.
     
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  7. Swiveltaffy
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    Swiveltaffy Contributing Member Contributor

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    I disagree with this. Sometimes, I think a reader, listener, viewer, what-have-you should have to step up sometimes or accept that sitting down is fine.
     
  8. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Ha! Well if dyed in the wool feminists want to orgasm over Story of an African Farm, I don't have to understand it. :p

    I've not read the book, obviously, so I can't actually say. What I will say is look at what it is doing in the novel. If it serves to support the story or novel structure in some way, even if you've not noticed it yet, then it would just mean you don't appreciate things being so hamfisted. If it's just there as fetish porn for nerds - you aren't ... a nerd. :p
     
  9. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    I agree and disagree.

    Using the Thomas Mann novella I mentioned above (I'm writing on it, it's been on my mind recently) the reader is, to fully understand the novella, required to know Nietzsche's philosophy, and maybe a little psycho-analysis concerning the death drive, and especially the German, and greater European gay scene around the time of WW1. Obviously with more time that passes this knowledge will become more and more esoteric, but the reader is still being asked to know this to truly understand the main character's motivations, and the nature of his desire for Tadzio the teenaged boy. You could likely still enjoy the novella without knowing all this, but it gives you a richer understanding of the novella than without it.

    Reading something like Gravity's Rainbow where knowledge of rocketry and physics is essential to the plot, or reading Mason and Dixon where knowing about American history and Enlightenment values is a basic requirement to even understanding the plot, if you don't have this information you can so easily become oh-so confused an bored.
     
  10. Swiveltaffy
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    Swiveltaffy Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree with balance; I don't think a reader has to be appeased, though. (I know you're not saying they ought be.) In your latter examples, then most people: Do keep walking.

    To create, though, it'd be smart for a creator to understand who they're likely ostracizing.
     
    Last edited: Dec 8, 2014
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  11. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Now I'd write/say that as not seeing the wood for the trees.

    Is this another of those UK/US differences?
     
  12. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Yeah. I guess. We sometimes call a forrest the woods. For us it implies something smaller than forrest, though. Why we pluralize it like that... no idea. Sometimes singular/plural dynamics don't answer to reason. Kinda' the way in the U.K. certain measurements are often left in the singular, even when there is a valid plural. "That'll be five pound, twenty." "I need to lose two stone by next year."
     
  13. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    On the one hand, I'd refer to "Badger Wood" as a singular wood, but "If you go down to the woods today" was written by an Irishman and, again, is a usage I'd be happy with.

    And, as an accountant, my pounds sterling are generally plural - if there are enough of them!
     
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  14. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    A nation-neutral one may be: we can't see the post's point for the writing quality. :p
     
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  15. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    But I am. That's my point. In Embassytown, the lead, a woman named Avice, is literally a living simile in the language of an alien race. This alien race, the Ariekei, and how they process language, is the meat of the book. Each Ariekei has two mouths that are both employed simultaneously in speaking (here we get symbolism of signifier/signified). The Ariekei are completely unable to even distinguish the fact that individual humans are speaking when they are doing so. They cannot grasp human language because their own language is a hardwired thing, part of their "operating system", and which they are born knowing. It's not learned. They are also incapable of lying or even talking about abstract concepts that they have not experienced. This is why Avice is a simile in their language. She was made to do a strange set of actions that was witnessed by the Ariekei, which then opened an avenue of things that could be compared to that action, opening a new set of things that could be spoken of. The only way that humans can speak to Ariekei is via paired identical twins called ambassadors (hence the title). Each ambassador pair is trained in the Ariekei language and each of the two plays the part of one of the Ariekei mouths when speaking to reproduce the language. The paired ambassadors are always referred to in the singular, as if they were a single being. A new ambassador comes to the planet who is not a paired set of identical twins. The Ariekei understand them perfectly well, but their speech is digested as a drug. The Ariekei become addicted and this addiction spreads. Whole swaths of the population become junkies. There is a faction in the Ariekei that is trying to learn to lie. They hear ambassadors produce lies in the Ariekei language, something they themselves are incapable of doing, but clearly recognize it when it happens. A revolution happens based on syntax and grammar. An actual revolution. Ariekei begin ripping out their ears in order to not hear and not change. Chaos is upon the land as factions grow and Theory of Mind begins to take hold. Avice takes on the challenge of finishing what the faction trying to learn to lie had started. She makes one of them understand that she is speaking, alone, and that her words have meaning. She makes the Ariekei understand that she is there and separate from it. She uses her "self as simile" and transforms into a metaphor, which, if you think about it, is a kind of lie.

    Other shit happens throughout and after, THE END.

    To me, as written by the hand of MiƩville, deeply fascinating and thought provoking territory presented in, of all things, a science fiction novel. To someone else who doesn't give a shit about how language functions and how it shapes and alters our capacity to interpret the world around us, possibly boring as all fuck. Am I an elitist for enjoying it? Is the other person a dolt for not? I ponder on..... o_O
     
  16. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Based on your outline, that novel sounds pretty good. I'm going to see if I can check that out at some point.

    Not an elitist, I know what you mean though. What it means to me is that you have a more sophisticated understanding of that novel over someone who doesn't. When I use the word 'sophistication' a lot of people on this site seem to think I mean that in a snobbish, I'm-better-than-you way when really I honestly don't. I'm just recognizing this distinction that you care more and understand more of what the text is clearly trying to do. (as a side note: if you have been offended by my comments in this area - now I've said I'm NOT calling you an idiot and I think I'm better than you, take this as a sort of apology, I never meant any offence at all. If you continue to be offended by my use of words like 'sophisticated' then please shut up and go away, please, I have no time for people who exist only to be offended by ghosts).

    If someone likes that book because they just like the characters and want to see what they do, not caring about the more complex things, then that doesn't mean they are idiots, they are either just not as sophisticated readers, or just not reading that novel in a very sophisticated way. It doesn't mean your reading is 'elitist' though I personally would think it is better because you are reading a richer novel than they are.

    A lot of this thread is circling around a problem in Literary Theory, that is called the 'Death of the Author', can you KNOW what an author meant exactly? Do you think so? I personally don't, and I also personally don't really care too much about what an author intends for his work, because sometimes you can have a richer experience of a novel than the author intended. Many poets find they are pleased when people interpret their work in ways they never intended, and I can't see why this is anything other than a good thing.

    There is that funny witticism that I think is from Oscar Wilde, 'An artist's greatest fear is being understood'.
     
    Last edited: Dec 9, 2014
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  17. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think it's fine for there to be things the reader may not get without some specific knowledge, but that knowledge shouldn't be required to understand the plot. It's okay for there to be unexplained things, or for things to be explained but for it to go over the reader's head - to some extent. But the basics of the plot has to be understandable to the audience without this knowledge.

    When I read novels, I read for enjoyment and sometimes I read to be made to think and ponder deeper things - preferably a good book would do both for me. If I wanted academic studies, I'd read a textbook or an article, or an essay, not a novel. (same goes for movies)

    But I guess there're stories where it doesn't work without all that more academic, complex things and as long as the author doesn't mind hitting only a very niche market, it's all right I suppose.
     
  18. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Exposition should be woven into the narrative, same with symbolism and philosophical position in an ideal world.
     
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