A Mind for Madness

Musings on art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics


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Validity in Interpretation Chapter 5

You know the drill by now. These are just notes from my reading of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validity in Interpretation. We have finally reached the last chapter. The main thrust of this last chapter is on how to tell whether our interpretation is valid. It rehashes a lot of stuff we’ve already covered, and it gives some examples of putting the theory to use.

The first point is that we can often trick ourselves into self-validating an invalid interpretation. Hirsch doesn’t use the term, but this is a direct rephrasing of confirmation bias to literary interpretation. If we go into a text thinking it must mean something, then try to find confirmation of this interpretation, we will always find it and will overlook conflicting evidence. This is not the correct way to validate an interpretation (or anything for that matter!).

We are led back to the hermeneutic circle, because some of the evidence will only appear after a hypothesis about the interpretation has been formed. In the next section, Hirsch doesn’t say this, but he essentially argues for a Bayesian theory of interpretation. The process of validation is to take all the hypotheses and then figure out which one is most likely correct based on the evidence. As new evidence comes in, we revise our view.

All that matters are the relative probabilities. Sometimes two interpretations are equally likely, and then we say both are valid. The point is not to have one victorious theory, but to have a way to measure how likely each is in terms of the others.

Personal Note: Whenever someone brings up probabilistic reasoning in the arts (or even history) the same sorts of objections get raised. The assignment of a probability is arbitrary. You can make up whatever priors you want to skew the results in favor of your pet interpretation. These are very recent debates that came decades after this book was published. Surprisingly, Hirsch gives the same answers to these objections that we still give.

First, we already speak in probabilities when analyzing interpretations. I think it is “extremely unlikely” that the word “plastic” means the modern substance in this 1744 poem, because it hadn’t been invented yet. It is “likely” that this poem is about the death of a loved one, because much of Donne’s work is about death. These statements assign relative probabilities to the likelihood of the interpretation, but they try to mask this.

By clearly stating what we are doing, and coming up with actual quantities that can be disputed and argued for, we make our reasoning more explicit and less likely to error. If we pretend that we are not dealing with probabilities, then our arguments and reasoning become sloppy.

As usual, when determining probabilities, we need to figure out the narrowest class that the work under consideration fits in. A good clarifying example is the broad classification of women vs men. Women live longer on average than men. But when we pick a specific woman and a specific man, it would be insane to argue that the woman will probably live longer based only on that broad class. If we note that the woman is a sedentary smoker with lung cancer, and the man is an Olympic marathon runner, then these narrower classes improve our probability judgments.

This was the point of having an entire chapter on genre. We must analyze the intrinsic genre of a work to find the narrowest class that it fits in. This gives us a prior probability for certain types of interpretation. Then we can continue the analysis, updating our views as we encounter more or less evidence.

Hirsch then goes on to talk about the principle of falsifiability as we know it from science. Rather than confirming our hypothesis, we should come up with plausible evidence that would conclusively falsify the interpretation. He goes on to give a bunch of subtle examples that would take a lot of time to explain here. For simplicity, we could go back to the plastic example. If a poem dates before 1907, then any interpretation that requires the substance meaning of the word plastic is false.

He ends the section by reminding us that we always have to think in context. There are no rules of interpretation that can be stated generally and be practical in all situations. There are always exceptions. The interpretive theory in this book is meant as a starting point or provisional guide. This is also true of all methods of interpretation (think of people who always do a “Marxist reading” or “feminist reading” of a text).

I’ll end with a quote:

“While there is not and cannot be any method or model of correct interpretation, there can be a ruthlessly critical process of validation to which many skills and many hands may contribute. Just as any individual act of interpretation comprises both a hypothetical and a critical function, so the discipline of interpretation also comprises the having of ideas and the testing of them.”


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Validity in Interpretation Chapter 4

We are back with the next set of notes on E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validity in Interpretation. This chapter is on Understanding, Interpretation, and Criticism. I found it to be the least interesting as a whole. It mostly involved clarifying some terms related to interpretation.

The first section is about the diversity of interpretations. If there is a notion of valid/invalid for an interpretation, how can there be so many? Is only one correct? The answer is that we should welcome these diverse interpretations, because they all contribute to understanding. A key idea that is repeated throughout this chapter is that understanding comes before interpretation. We must understand what the author means before we can put our explanation into words.

Different interpretations can agree on the author’s meaning, in which case our understanding is deepened. Conflict only arises when two interpretations disagree on what the author means. Sometimes the difference might only be aspects of the same traits. Hirsch gives an example of two people looking at the same building from different angles. They might describe the building in radically different ways, but they are still describing the same thing.

The next two sections are where the terminology begins. I’ll distill the definitions here.

Understanding: The construction of meaning. A silent, internal affair.

Interpretation: The explanation of meaning. This almost always contains criticism and significance claims, but should be kept separate as a theoretical matter. Interpretation is an art, because the interpreter must convey their understanding accurately using terms that are familiar to their audience.

Significance: A perceived relationship between the verbal meaning and something else. We usually cannot artificially isolate significance from the above two acts, because these relationships aid us in coming to an understanding of a text.

Criticism: The explanation of significance. Thus, criticism is to significance as interpretation is to understanding.

Judgment: The act of perceiving significance. “One understands meaning; one judges significance.” This can include value judgments, but could also be purely descriptive.

Even though Hirsch is largely concerned with interpretation for the book, he emphasizes that criticism is important because it shows us why a work has value. He turns to the idea of intrinsic criticism for the next section. This starts with a brief retrospective. After the early 20th century logical positivists took hold of criticism, the literary community rebelled and tried to formulate a literary form of criticism. This was a useful advancement, but Hirsch wants to do better.

The theorists argued that the only way to properly judge a literary work is on literary grounds. For example, it is wrongheaded to judge the value of a poem on how well it would serve as a newspaper headline. The only fair way to judge a poem is in how well it succeeds as a poem. New problem: this is not a good way to judge a poem, because there is no agreed upon notion of what a poem is.

This is where intrinsic criticism comes in. We must make our judgments according to the nature of the work, but we cannot come into the work assuming we know what those standards are. We must look to the work itself to determine its nature. Judging by extrinsic criteria will be called extrinsic criticism. The theorists argue that extrinsic criticism is always wrongheaded.

Hirsch points out that it can be a useful tool sometimes. Being forced to limit yourself to intrinsic criticism is, well, limiting. The critic has a duty to judge by extrinsic criteria if she believes the purpose of the author to be misguided. For example, an essay may be extremely unclear and vague, but the arguments of the author well-known. If the intended argument is faulty, then it is reasonable to critique it. This is extrinsic, because the intended argument cannot be parsed from the poorly written essay itself.

A more concrete example is Gadamer’s famous work on interpretation Truth and Method. Gadamer wrote about how the historicity of understanding affects interpretation. Hirsch criticizes it for not concerning itself with validity. This form of extrinsic criticism is judging the assumptions on which the work was written. Hirsch believes Gadamer succeeded in his intended purpose, but that his purpose was faulty in this matter.

He ends with a plea for critical freedom. At the time this was written, the established schools of thought argued for a very limited “literary” internal criticism (*cough* New Criticism). The main point they try to make is that anyone is free to criticize a work using any method, but it is not valid to evaluate the work on the arbitrary grounds that the critic makes up. For example, one should not evaluate Paradise Lost as a poor work on the grounds that it does not contribute to the history of mathematics.

Hirsch gets around this by saying that extrinsic criticism shouldn’t be arbitrary. A good critic understands what the intent and values of the author are, and can make a case for a reweighing of those priorities. This isn’t a question of limiting the critic, but merely one of appropriateness. To totally ignore the purpose of the author is to misunderstand the work, and hence you cannot possibly present a valid interpretation (the explanation of your understanding). A critic must found their argument on valid interpretation.


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Validity in Interpretation Chapter 3

Today we will look at the third chapter of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validity in Interpretation. In case you haven’t read the early posts, these are notes I’ve taken while reading it. I’ll make it clear when I’m inserting personal comments.

He opens up by recalling a few basic ideas from the philosophy of language, notably Saussure and Wittgenstein. He points out that some of the ideas from Chapter two relate to Saussure’s idea of parole vs langue or actuality vs possibility. The more important idea comes from Wittgenstein’s language games.

This chapter is about the importance of genre in interpretation. He illustrates this by pointing out that even if all people knew all the rules for all the games, they could still disagree on which game they were playing. Thus, identifying the language game (i.e. genre) is of utmost importance.

He gives an anecdote. His students misunderstand a Donne poem they think is about death. They come in with a genre preconception, and everything they find in the poem supports it. This skews their interpretation. One must determine the genre first, otherwise you will fulfill your expectations and miss the intended meaning.

Hirsch also points to a study done where students analyzed poems with no title or author given. There were as many interpretations as students. The author pinpoints a time period and style, and the title helps further specify the genre. These markers are important for interpretation.

He then discusses the standard hermeneutic paradox: to understand a part, you must understand the whole in which it resides; but to understand the whole, you must understand the individual parts that make up the whole. Of course, many people try to escape the hermeneutic circle by saying you can keep circling from part to whole to part to whole getting a little bit better understanding of each until you develop a deep understanding.

Hirsch claims that using the terms “trait” and “genre” rather than “part” and “whole” solves the paradox, but then admits a similar problem persists: genre “is apparently not something stable, but something that varies in the process of understanding.”

In the next section, he goes on to describe something called “intrinsic genre.” “Understanding can occur only if the interpreter proceeds under the same system of expectations, and this shared generic conception, constitutive both of meaning and of understanding, is the intrinsic genre of the utterance.”

Hirsch takes the opening lines of Paradise Lost for an example. He gives an alternate way to phrase part of it. This altered phrase has a subtly altered verbal meaning, yet the intrinsic genre stays the same. This illustrates that the same intrinsic genre can have several verbal meanings associated to it. He goes on to refine the definition: “It is the sense of the whole by means of which an interpreter can correctly understand any part in its determinacy.”

He describes extrinsic genre as the more familiar use of the term genre. It is a broad starting heuristic such as calling Paradise Lost a Christian-humanist epic poem. One of the main tasks of interpreting is rejecting the extrinsic genre for the more nuanced intrinsic genre by examining what is written.

The next section is about genre in solving the problem of implication. This is vital, because interpretive disagreements tend to be centered on whether a meaning is implied. Since implied meanings are logical implications (if P, then Q), we can rephrase the disagreement in terms of intrinsic genre. If P is the correct intrinsic genre, then the words imply Q.

Hirsch admits we can never be sure we have grasped the correct intrinsic genre, but this rephrasing of implication at least lets us have the right conversation in our disagreements. Personal example: If this statement is ironic, then the literal interpretation is incorrect. Everyone agrees to that. Now the discussion is on the internal evidence to tell whether the intrinsic genre of that sentence is irony.

Each intrinsic genre has a set of conventions attached which help in interpretation. Hirsch gives the interesting example of someone who took a sentence of prose from a source and inserted line breaks to make the same words into a poem. Some say the words are the same, so they must have the same meaning. Others say (including Hirsch) the intrinsic genres are different, and hence the same words must be interpreted in different ways. Interpretation depends on genre.

The next section is on the historicity of genres. New genres come from combining earlier ones or from sudden insight by changing conventions. Sometimes genre is a useful tool for interpreters that wasn’t in the thoughts of the writer. Often this is not the case. For example, a poet who writes a sonnet did not do it on accident. The conventions and implications that go with a sonnet were part of the poet’s intention.

Genre in broad terms is the “common elements in a narrow group of texts which have direct historical relationships.” Personal note: historical relationship is key here. Think of early modernist poetry where poets used the form and content of the sonnet in subversive ways. One cannot interpret those in the same way you would a sonnet of Shakespeare.

The last section argues that this intrinsic genre idea is not just a hodge-podge method where every text must be interpreted using different procedures. The proposal fits under one unifying principle. “…the proper categories are nevertheless always determined by a universal principle–namely, their appropriateness to the intrinsic genre of a text… To be more blunt, there is no such thing as the philosophical interpretation of philosophy or the literary interpretation of literature, but there emphatically is such a thing as the intrinsic interpretation of a text.”

Hirsch gives a good example from a math text. He gives two passages that consist of the same math statements, but one has been rewritten in a different style. He points out that a valid literary analysis interprets them as having different meanings, because stylistic concerns affect meaning in literature. The one is authoritative, cold, and forceful with its active verbs and clean prose. The other is passive and timid with stray, sloppy words.

This is an example of an incorrect interpretation due to the intrinsic genre. Maybe one of the two is preferable, but they have the same meaning. In the intrinsic genre, indicated by phrases like “areas of triangles,” we must understand the intended verbal meaning consists of the mathematical statements being made. The style is not intended to have content that affects the meaning.

To bring this back to the terminology of Chapter 2, the fact that the author changes to passive voice and includes extraneous words is a symptomatic implication which must be rejected in interpretation. The symptom stems from the author wanting to change the prose to not sound so repetitive. He didn’t intend it to affect the meaning.

The last two examples are also enlightening, but this post is getting long. The first asks whether the Freudian interpretation of Hamlet is valid. Hirsch says no, because Hamlet does not want to sleep with his mother under Shakespeare’s willed type. Important Note: Hirsch does not reject the Freudian interpretation on the grounds that Freud’s theory came after Shakespeare, and so could not be part of the willed type.

It is possible that part of an author’s intended meaning encompasses things that do not exist yet. An example is a legal document that says all wheeled vehicles using a public road must come to a stop at a red light. If in the future hover cars without wheels are using a public road, the intended meaning of “wheeled vehicles” encompasses them. To go back to the original example, pre-Freud characters can be interpreted through Freud if the internal evidence points to the character wanting to sleep with their mother.

Lastly, recall from Chapter 2 the discussion of the role of implication. Part of Shakespeare’s intent was to embrace the widest possible range of implications about human nature. Thus the Oedipal interpretation could be valid. The mistake comes from forcing Oedipal implications that do not exist intrinsically as part of the willed type.


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Validity in Interpretation Chapter 2

I thought my last post would be the only one on this topic. Then I realized, if I’m reading the book, why not just take notes on it and post them? My goal is to give a good enough summary so that later, if I want to recall what was in a particular chapter, I can figure it out from this. I’ll also try to be explicit where I’m adding my own thoughts (which should be minimal).

Chapter 2 begins with a positive argument for developing a notion of validity in interpretation. The first chapter addressed common objections. This one begins by pointing out that one major purpose of art is to expand your mind with other people’s thoughts and actions and to feel what others have felt. If we take the usual modern approach that anything can mean anything to anyone, then you have a Rorschach inkblot test and will only encounter yourself.

Chapter 2 is all about showing that the author’s intended verbal meaning provides a viable principle for measuring the validity of an interpretation. Hirsch states that such a principle must be determinate, reproducible, and able to deal with the problem of implication. The subsections of the chapter deal with each of these.

First, we need to know what is meant by verbal meaning. Hirsch says, “Verbal meaning is whatever someone has willed to convey by a particular sequence of linguistic signs and which can be conveyed (shared) by means of those linguistic signs.” He explains how verbal meaning is variable and context dependent, but not indeterminate. For example, we should be careful of “the Humpty-Dumpty effect” (based on the scene in Through the Looking Glass where Humpty-Dumpty insists his name means the shape that he has). We can’t just say words at random and expect them to mean something because we claim they do.

The next section is on whether we can actually reproduce the intended meaning. First, he admits that interpreters can misunderstand an intended meaning, but the fact that mistakes happen does not invalidate the idea of reproducibility. It is a logical fallacy to argue that something is impossible in theory by pointing to a specific example. The person that objects has to demonstrate that such misunderstandings always occur. Hirsch points out that we will never know such a thing, and hence it cannot be used as a valid objection.

The most common objection to reproducibility comes from the empirico-psychologistic notion of perception which says that we never encounter anything in real life. We merely encounter our perception of things. For example: That isn’t a table you see, but your perception of the table. This type of objection disappears if you are careful in distinguishing meaning vs significance (a central theme of the whole book). Verbal meaning is the thing itself (the table or the author’s intended meaning), and significance is your relationship to the thing (your perception of the table or your particular reading of the text).

There is also a radical historical skepticist objection to reproducibility which says that we can never understand the writings of a different time period, because we do not have the linguistic, cultural, and so on perspective for a proper understanding of the verbal meaning. This radical form of criticism should not be confused with the healthy version (which Hirsch admits is true) that an interpreter will always encounter some difficulties if the culture is too far removed.

Personal note: The odd thing about the radical skeptic view is how backwards it has often proved to be in reality. How many times have we seen a poet or writer be completely misinterpreted and torn down by their contemporaries only to be better understood by later generations? This is especially true of really old texts in which we have a good general understanding of the culture and etymology of words that people living at that time never could have known.

The next concept Hirsch moves to is determinacy. Determinacy is necessary to share meaning, because something without boundaries would have no identity to share with someone. He upgrades his terminology, “Now verbal meaning can be defined more particularly as a willed type which an author expresses by linguistic symbols and which can be understood by another through those symbols.”

A type is defined to be something that has boundary and can be fully understood through one instance, but can always be represented by more than one instance. My example: The concept of snow is a type, because the word “snow” is an instance that has that verbal meaning. Another, different instance would be “that white stuff that falls from the sky in winter.” Both instances have the same verbal meaning, and the verbal meaning can be recovered in full from any instance.

Personal note: I think of this in terms of computer science. You can make a class in object oriented programming, and you can make instances of that class. One instance may not have enough information to recover what the class contains, so this is not a type…it is a class (Hirsch uses the same terms but isn’t thinking of computer science).

The next section is about the difference between unconscious and symptomatic meanings. The main point is that verbal meaning may contain things that come subconsciously. Verbal meaning does not contain things are unintended due to symptoms of something else. The example is a boy who has a tell when he lies. The tell is symptomatic of not wanting to lie, but it is not part of the verbal meaning of the lie. The tell changes our interpretation to something that was not verbally intended by the boy, and that’s why we should not include it.

Personal note: Something makes me feel funny about this section. Even though the example makes it clear why we do not want symptomatic meaning to influence our interpretation, nothing will be that clear in pure writing. I’m not sure in practice it is ever possible to determine the difference between symptomatic and unconscious meaning. Suppose a story has sexist undertones the author is not aware of. Do we consider this symptomatic of the author’s sexism or is it an unconscious intended part of the story? Since we are allowed to include symptomatic meaning in the significance of the work, maybe this doesn’t matter very much.

There is then another section on the difference between meaning and subject matter which we discussed last time. The last section is about implication. (Personal note:) This seems a thorny issue given little space, so I hope it comes up again later. The main point is that implication is a learned convention, because it relies on the reader’s past experience with a given shared type. He explains it by analogy: an implication belongs to a meaning as a trait belongs to a type.

That ends the chapter. The next chapter is about genre and context which should be interesting.


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On Validity in Interpretation

I have two volumes of critical theory, and an excerpt that appears in both of them is a selection from E.D. Hirsch, Jr.’s Validy in Interpretation. I just got the full book, because I’m fascinated by the argument. This is one of those things where I’ve made a complete reversal of opinion over the course of this blog. Let’s start at the beginning.

If you’re unfamiliar academic literary criticism, there was a period of time starting around the early 40’s (still kind of going on) where literary theorists thought a text could stand on its own. It began with Wimsatt and Beardsley’s The Intentional Fallacy, which argued that the intention of the author shouldn’t matter when interpreting a text. The text would make you feel something. The symbols and themes would mean something to you. And that was how it should be, since you were the one doing the interpreting.

That description is an oversimplification, because these were complicated academic papers making these arguments. The nail in the coffin of the author came a bit later with Barthe’s Death of the Author. This school of thought was roughly associated with something called “New Criticism.” The New Critics argued for doing close readings of a text, and this came to dominate the scene so much that we were all taught this as the only way to analyze literature.

It is extremely difficult to get out of this mode of thinking, because we were taught to think this way in school. When talking about literature, we are told there are no wrong answers. We can come up with a theory of what the book is about and then find passages to support it. We get an A if we do this successfully. What is interesting is that despite the fact that this is what people will publicly espouse, everyone secretly believes that there are wrong answers.

The whole point of this post was to point out that we recognize some interpretations as nonsense even if they are well-supported. But we’ve been taught this New Criticism stuff so thoroughly that it becomes impossible to call someone out on it. This is because most people aren’t familiar with a philosophy of literature that allows you to talk about valid versus invalid interpretations. Isn’t the whole point of an interpretation that it is personal and can change from person to person? I say no. If a text can mean anything to anyone, then it doesn’t really mean anything.

Hirsch gives us a way out of this bind with Validity in Interpretation, published in 1967. The excerpt I’ve read is the first chapter, and it is brilliant. Before going on to describe a positive theory of validity, he first goes through and dispels the common objections to a notion of validity for interpretation. That’s what the rest of this post will be. Note that Hirsch’s argument is a whole chapter of a book, so I can’t do it justice here. I just want to give an overview.

Counterargument 1: The meaning of the text changes (throughout time), even to the author. Thus, the original intention of the author should be irrelevant.

This is obviously nonsense. The example used to support this is of authors that reject their old work. But it isn’t the meaning of the text that has changed, but the author’s attitudes or opinions. If the meaning had changed with the author, then the author would have no need to reject it. In this example, the changed author still recognizes the original meaning as the meaning.

Counterargument 2: It doesn’t matter what the author means, only what the text says.

To expand on this argument a bit, it often appears in a different form: an author may intend something, but not have the technique to effectively convey that meaning. This is part of the argument in The Intentionally Fallacy. A text must be evaluated on what it does and not on what the author intends it to do.

We must pull apart a few distinct concepts here. If the point is evaluation, then the intention is important. We can’t evaluate whether the author effectively conveyed their meaning without first knowing their intended meaning. The other concept is meaning.

The only way to successfully argue that authorial intent doesn’t matter is to find examples where there is a consensus that a text meant one thing and the author intended something different. The New Critics use this example as a thought experiment, but in reality no such example exists. Even if these examples were abundant, then we wouldn’t need to have a theory of interpretation at all, because everyone would agree to the valid interpretation confirming the fact of validity in interpretation.

Counterargument 3: We can never truly know what the author meant, because we are not the author.

Implicitly, this argument is asking: why bother trying something that is an impossibility? First, we don’t have to be the author to claim that a certain proposed meaning is highly improbable. To take Beardsley’s own example, a poem in 1744 in reference to God, “He raised his plastic arm.” We know beyond all doubt that “plastic” was not intended to mean the material that wasn’t invented yet.

All a theory of validity involving authorial intent is trying to do is bring up a range of possible valid meanings. There can be interpretations that hit every part of the spectrum from highly likely to literally impossible (as the above example). We get around the problem of knowledge of the author’s internal states by using probabilities.

One more thing. Certainty is also impossible in science, but that doesn’t mean it is not worthwhile to try to understand what is happening in the universe around us. Similarly, being certain of what the author intended is impossible, but it is still worthwhile to try to reconstruct the possible intentions.

Counterargument 4: The author often doesn’t even know what they mean.

The example given is that Kant claimed to understand Plato better than Plato himself. This is a subject/meaning confusion. Kant doesn’t understand what Plato meant better than Plato. He better understands the subject matter.

The other example is where someone makes a compelling case that an author had an unconscious meaning that came out in the artistic process, but was not intended. Hirsch beautifully counters by asking, “How can an author mean something he did not mean?” In other words, things that come out from subconscious processes are still part of the author’s meaning.

That’s it. All common objections to authorial intent and validity in interpretation have been dealt with. Hirsch can proceed to constructing the theory. I’m quite excited to read it!


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Narrative Voice vs Narrative Perspective

I’ve been on a bit of a Gérard Genette kick lately. If you don’t know who he is, then you probably haven’t studied much narrative theory. He is mostly known for his work on structuralism, but I’ve never really found the structuralists that interesting or compelling. Genette’s other major work was to almost single-handedly invent the foundations for modern narrative theory (in the 70’s).

It is true that Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction (from which the idea of “show don’t tell” originated) came first. But until Genette’s groundbreaking Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method it wasn’t really thought that the narratology could be applied to anything more than simple, contrived examples. Genette clarified the terms we use today like “voice” and “mood” and showed how they can be used to examine actual complex literature (he used Proust’s In Search of Lost Time).

Today I want to pull out an interesting concept from Narrative Discourse. The concepts of narrative voice and narrative perspective tend to get lumped together as the “point of view” in inattentive analysis, yet the distinction is important and clear in contemporary literature.

To illustrate the distinction, let’s consider an example. I write a story with a third-person limited viewpoint about a child growing up. There is a clear main character, and we only see things from his “point of view.” Now what if I tell you that the narration is done through a set of journal entries from the child’s mother. Nothing about the story itself has changed, but it seems the “point of view” should be the mother.

The confusion comes from conflating two distinct notions. The first is narrative perspective. In our example, the narrative perspective is the child. Genette would say the story is “focalized” through the child, because the story unfolds with the child as the main character. The other concept is narrative voice. The voice of the narration in our example is the mother.

I think most people are probably comfortable with the distinction between voice and perspective, because these ideas have become universal. That’s why it is kind of surprising that it wasn’t until somewhat recently (in comparison to how long writers have been using the distinction) that we actually had terms to talk about them.

Of course, you can intentionally make these the same, but this tends to be more work than keeping them separate. You often hear, “You must develop/find your voice as a writer.” If you use your own voice for the narration, which will come most naturally, then the narrative voice is you and not the main character. To write in the main character’s voice will take a tremendous effort, because you have to overcome all of your own natural tendencies and stick to a consistent fictional voice.

Also, notice how much complexity can enter into a work merely by being aware of this distinction. There is a narrator, who could be a fully fleshed out fictional character, and there are one or more focal lenses to the narration. The narrator can learn of various events in a certain order. Then they can relay those events in a different order, which could be totally different from the order in which they happen to the main characters.

The main characters will have feelings and emotional reactions to events. The narrator can have totally different ones. The narrator can try to skew the telling of events due to their reaction. As you see, keeping the voice and perspective separate can be a useful tool for making complex and rewarding fiction. In fact, all the complexities listed here can be found as fairly standard technique these days.

If you are interested in isolating various elements of narrative such as voice and perspective, then I definitely recommend looking at this classic work.


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Verbs of Being and the Past Progressive Tense

Everyone gets told to “show, don’t tell” at some point in their education. Today I want to talk about an equally important (and related) piece of advice that rarely gets taught. In fact, many people go through their whole lives and don’t even notice this. Until you’re told to look for it, you might miss it entirely, because in speech it sounds so natural.

If you write something in past tense, then you will undoubtedly use the word “was.”

Example: I was in my room reading a book, when there was a knock on my door.

Take a moment and answer the question: does this sound fine to you? Before we begin, I need to point out that sometimes “was” is the best option. There is no need to blindly expunge all verbs of being out of your writing. The thing I look for is whether something is happening. “To be” is static. If someone is doing something in the sentence, why not make them do it with the appropriate verb? In other words, make the action happen!

First off, replacing “was” with the active verb brings the action of the sentence more vividly to the reader’s imagination (i.e. it shows the action rather than telling the action). Also, it naturally varies the sentences. If most of your sentences read “blah was blah,” then it gets boring.

A related issue is the past progressive tense. This takes the form “was verb-ing.” I was sitting in my room. I was reading a book. Then I heard that someone was knocking on my door. If you are already on the lookout for “was,” this should be no problem to detect. Sometimes it is subtle to identify. In the example, “I was in my room reading” uses past progressive, but I split the infinitive to make it harder to catch. Rearranging makes this clearer: I was reading in my room.

The past progressive suffers from the same types of problems as before. It gets repetitive, and it implies inaction.

There are two main ways I use to get rid of these constructs. First, I identify the active verb. Second, I add details. Strangely, these passive expressions almost always appear when you haven’t sufficiently described the scene. In the first part of the example sentence, the active verb was “read.” In the second part, the active verb was “knock.” One way to fix the sentence is to add some detail and use the right verbs.

Edited example: I sat down in my room, excited to crack open Annie Dillard’s The Living, when someone knocked on my door.

Part of producing clear, vivid writing involves a long, tedious process of weeding these constructs out wherever possible. There exists unprofessional writing (like this blog post) which maybe goes through one or two revisions. But most of professional quality writing is rewriting and editing. I think it is easy to forget how dedicated you have to be to get everything just right. Your first draft will have these problems, and that’s fine. You can’t be worried about that upfront or else you will never write anything.

I want to show an example to illustrate that great writers are constantly aware of the problems listed in this post. I love Annie Dillard and I am reading The Living right now. I’ll use a random number generator to pick a page (to emphasize I didn’t tailor the example) and give you the first full paragraph.

Eustace and Clare worked together often, and hunted the hills and fished the river together, and smoked their pipes, resting their eyes on the wide river or the drowsing fields. Resolution burned in Eustace and made him grave and sincere; gaiety and hopefulness animated Clare and blew him about. Clare’s view that a man could enjoy this life eased Eustace’s urgency to succeed, and moderated his mental habit of measuring himself, his material gains and losses, against the doubt and dread of his parents, and Minta’s parents …

(OK, I ended it early because it was long). Notice the verbs: worked, hunted, fished, smoked, resting, burned, made, animated, blew, enjoy, eased, moderated, … There isn’t one verb of being or past progressive tense in there. A sad state of affairs is that sometimes a mark of great writing is that you don’t notice it. Now that I’ve taken the time to examine a paragraph like this, I can’t even imagine the effort that went into it. Yet most people, including myself, will normally read through it without a second thought.

I thought hard about what to contrast this with, because I don’t have much on my bookshelves that I could be confident made the errors I listed above. I chose Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

There were glaring lights inside, a few tired salesgirls among a spread of deserted counters, and the screaming of a phonograph record being played for a lone, listless customer in a corner. The music swallowed the sharp edges of Taggart’s voice: he asked for paper tissues in a tone which implied that the salesgirl was responsible for his cold. The girl turned to the counter behind her, but turned back once to glance swiftly at his face. She took a packed, but stopped, hesitating, studying him with peculiar curiosity…She gasped like a child at a burst of firecrackers; she was looking at him with a glance …

I have to say, it isn’t terrible. The first sentence is in past progressive, and we get one “was” in the middle. I couldn’t resist adding the next sentence after the dialogue which had a “was looking.” That first sentence could be altered, and then it would be a less awkward tense change to the simple past tense:

The lights glared inside. He saw a few tired salesgirls among a spread of deserted counters and heard the screaming of a phonograph record being played for a lone, listless customer in a corner.

I admit it isn’t much better, but that’s part of the point of this post. Sometimes it takes a great deal of effort to get even one sentence to be clear and active and to fit stylistically with everything else. The difference between a good writer and a great writer is often that the great writer has the stamina and dedication to question the strength of every word and sentence. They don’t settle for fixing most of them. Anyway, I have no idea how this turned into a pep talk being great, so I’ll end here.

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