1. Program
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    Reading Fiction

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Program, Oct 22, 2012.

    As silly as it might sound, I find that reading the works of great authors of fiction is at least as difficult as, if not harder, than writing, but necessary in order to write fiction well. By reading, I refer to considering the author's choices in everything - from images to words to sentence structure - in addition to taking in the words printed on the page. By great authors of fiction, I refer to people such as Faulkner, Fitzgerald, or Hemmingway.

    However, I've recently discovered it's extremely difficult to "get much" out of the writing of these authors. Even in a discussion group with around ten other students and a teacher every class, I notice it's very hard.

    Take The Great Gatsby for example. I was nearly certain that Fitzgerald consciously chose to put in his descriptions of The Sound, the moonlight, T.J. Eckleburg and other things, but I could not find any solid relationships of those descriptions with other things mentioned. For example, one of the descriptions I remember very well was the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg being blue and peering from behind yellow spectacles. The eyes were on a billboard outside a man named Wilson's house. Later, Gatsby and his girlfriend, driving a yellow car, happen to run over Wilson's wife. There's a misunderstanding and Wilson thinks another man, Tom, who drives a blue car, ran her over. Unless I'm crazy, there would seem to be something fishy about the blue and yellow... (I've seem some really "subtle" things, such from another discussion group where we found that Faulkner went as far as to suggest his main characters were like monkeys by having them eat bananas in context with the rest of the book...which is why I'd think there's something suspicious about blue and yellow)

    The problem is that the discussions don't seem to get anywhere deeper than character development and I'm not sure if it's just I'm not seeing something obvious, or is there a more effective way to read? And I'm also curious how other people go about reading this type of fiction (I believe it is called "literary fiction").

    Although this may seem like a reading question instead of a writing question, I feel that developing good reading skills is a direct factor in improving writing skills, but if you are a moderator and would like to delete this thread, feel free to.
     
  2. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    "Literary Fiction" is really kind of a catch-all term that means a work of fiction that is not genre fiction. That is, it does not fall into one of the commonly recognized categories of Sci Fi, Romance, Mystery, Thriller, Fantasy, etc. Literary novels tend to concentrate more on character development, whereas genre fiction emphasizes plot more than character. (Although obviously both are important in both types.)

    It is possible to delve too deeply into the meaning of every word, and sometimes things are read into novels that the author did not always intend. Reading is subjective, too, so different people interpret things differently. Not every famous work is universally adored or even accepted as 'great' by all critics. Also, for almost every writing 'rule' there is some famous author who has broken it. So when you point out that the rule was broken by some famous author, the response is along the lines of "Oh well, yes. Author X can do that because he's Author X."

    There are so many different types of fiction out there, and it really kinds of depends on what type of fiction you want to write, to consider the question of how deeply you might want to analyze every nuance and technique of the novels that are out there. Of course, if what you really enjoy is delving deeply into literary classics, you might want to consider becoming an English Lit professor ;-)

    For me personally, when I read fiction, I most enjoy getting to know the characters, and if I'm really lucky I gain some sort of insight into the human psyche or into another culture or society. There are different schools of thought on what makes fiction 'good' or worthwhile. Some feel that it is for entertainment, with an emphasis on escapism. Others want to create/read a true work of art. How you feel about this issue is key to answering your question, which I believe is not really asking about how to 'read' a book as it is about how to 'analyze' a book. If you want post-reading analysis followed by re-reading, I think you need to seek out others with similar interests so you can flesh out and discuss these issues.

    What I have found in some ways more illuminating, with respect to writing fiction, are biographies of fiction-writers. You might enjoy the new one about David Foster Wallace that just came out.
     
  3. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I never thought anything of the blue and yellow cars. I still don't. I agree with Chicagoliz - don't over-analyze. Even if Fitzgerald intended the optomitrist's ad to be a linking device of some kind...so what? The focal point of the story is Gatsby, the character, and the vacuous life of the 20s. I think you may have missed the forest for the trees. It would be like reading "The Old Man and the Sea" and worrying about the fact that the character is named Santiago, which is also the name of the city that was the second to serve as the capital of the colony of Cuba, and wondering if Hemingway intended his story to be a commentary on the passing of the age of empires, rather than the story of a fisherman who never lost faith in himself.
     
  4. JamesOliv
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    JamesOliv Senior Member

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    Sometimes these little details have more to do with the author's own background and can make their way into the story subconsciously.

    Let's remember that in the early 20's, car color wasn't what it is today. Fitzgerald would have lived through the period where cars were seldom seen into the age where they were beginning to really catch on. Ford unleashed a wave of black cars unto the world. A yellow or a blue car would likely be quite striking.

    Perhaps, like purple cloth in the biblical era, he intended to convey the wealth of his characters. Maybe he wanted to contrast the fancy looking car with a primal act such as murder. Maybe he just pictured the two cars as being blue and yellow and that's how he wrote his story.

    In the end, it doesn't matter.

    Gatsby was one of three books that made me want to be a writer. It was one of three books that really inspired me in life. It did so without my ever having taken note of the color of the cars.

    Funny Ed should mention the optometrist (or "occulist" I believe was the term used in the book) ad. That, to me, was always miles more intriguing. I thought it was likely symbolic. Perhaps the eyes on the ad were meant to show us that the only witness to these sort of rich people follies were a set of unseeing eyes, alluding to the fact that in a world of people who struggle, the rich did all of this unnoticed by the masses. But again, it really doesn't matter.

    Gatsby didn't inspire me because of the occulist eyes or the yellow car. It inspired me because of Gatsby.

    I believe in reading very much. But beware of tunnel vision.
     
  5. NeedMoreRage
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    NeedMoreRage Member

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    I was never a fan of delving really deep into books. I always felt books should be taken in whole. I prefer to look at the entire book at the end, and draw my own conclusions from that, instead of looking into every sentence for supposed messages.
     
  6. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Actually, this topic reminds me of a line from the Rodney Dangerfield movie Back to School. Rodney Dangerfield plays a wealthy older man who goes back to college to get his degree. He takes an English class and needs to write a paper analyzing Kurt Vonnegut's writing, so he finds Kurt Vonnegut and pays him to write the paper. The English professor gives him a failing grade on the paper, saying she suspects he did not write it and whoever did doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut.
     
  7. JamesOliv
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    JamesOliv Senior Member

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    That was a most excellent scene.

    But it's true.

    F. Scott Fitzgerald may have made the cars different colors because that's how he pictured them and he didn't intend a deeper meaning at all. Maybe he just saw an optometrist's ad that stuck in his head one day and it made it into the story. I think it is natural to look for meaning in a text. When I was living in the monastery, people did it all the time. Our novice master had a saying:

    "Sometimes, the verse is simply telling you to leave the camp in order to poop. It isn't making a statement about sin. It isn't talking about your inner struggle with good and evil. It is just telling you that, when you have to poop, you should not do it in the camp."
     
  8. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    James, I believe you are correct. It was "occulist" in the book. It's been a long, long time since I read it.

    For some reason this discussion reminds me of one of MY favorite movie scenes, the one with Bernard King in "Fast Break", in which he is taking a make-up lot exam so he can stay on the team. He gets too antsy sitting in a seat in the classroom, and the next thing you know, the three of them - King, the lit prof and Gabe Kaplan (coach) - are in the gym, and Bernard is shooting baskets as he answers the questions. One is to compare and contrast the styles of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and Bernard says (I'm paraphrasing here): "Fitzgerald's characters are real deep, real complicated. Hemingways are real simple - dude goes out, hooks himself a tuna, and he's cool!"
     
  9. JamesOliv
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    JamesOliv Senior Member

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    The only reason I remember that is because when I read the book, I read the word as "occultist" and thought it odd. I actually didnt notice my own error until I saw the movie in high school.


    I think that says it all.

    A reader may not "get" every little reference. A reader might find meaning where the author intended none. But at the end of the day, the lesson to be learned is that the particular meanings matter far less than the overall picture. To me, a well constructed book is greater, as a whole, than the sum of its parts.
     
  10. Selbbin
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    Selbbin I hate you Contributor

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    Because I have been very cynical about literary interpretation, I once asked a rather famous author about this very thing; if he was frustrated by people reading things into his work that weren't actually there. He answered that all he did was write the book. People can see what they like in his work, and interpret it in ways that he never imagined or expected; and they are all correct. He said that every interpretation is correct. He said that he wants people to find what they want to, and need to, in every detail-even if he never intended the meaning or made the connection himself. He's been very surprised by what people have come up with. Lastly, he said that he probably understood the text less than most of his readers.
     
  11. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think this is very true. When I took a college fiction writing class, I wrote a short story and when we discussed it in class, there were several different interpretations of what a character had done. I had not intended one of them, but I actually found it very intriguing and liked it better than what I had thought I was doing with that character. Did I, on some level, intend the other interpretation as a possibility? Who knows? But based on my very limited experience with that, I absolutely believe that the author of a longer, more sophisticated work would have lots of those types of situations.
     
  12. sharonwagoner
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    sharonwagoner Member

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    Program,

    It jumps out at me that you have an eye for detail and hidden meanings. I was just wondering if you have ever considered writing a mystery story that is rather like a Chinese puzzle box--difficult, unexpected, and convoluted?

    As others have said, all but luxury cars were black until this time. The 1920's also saw phones made in white and colors, but most people could not afford them. The white phones were purchase by a few very wealthy people and Hollywood studios to go with Art Deco interiors. Watch for them in older movies, like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies.
     
  13. Gilborn
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    This wouldn't happen to be Chuck Palahniuk? In the version of Fight Club I own, which is the 10 year reprint, he goes into great detail in the back of all the different interpretations that have come from his work including the film which he ardors. However, Palahniuk wrote Fight Club as a love story. The best story he tells is of being on a plane flight shortly after the release and is given a free drink to listen to a man say the he knows that the fight clubs are a reference to homosexual sex groups. Palahniuk doesn't argue or explain himself, he smiles and nods while taking another free drink.
     

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