Archive for November, 2010

Wandering the Inferno Without a Guide: The Fiction Reader’s Experience of Morality

Something that has always fascinated me as a student of reader-response criticism is the idea that as readers, we are voyeurs into a character’s life, and our sympathies within a work of fiction may not lie where they would in the same real life situation.

As readers of literature, we are trained and therefore predisposed to look for conflict, to not want everything to work out for the main characters (otherwise, we may as well be reading fluff fiction in which there is always a happy ending—boring, yes, but every reader has his or her own tastes.  The real point here is that fluff fiction, where all the characters get what they want and nobody gets hurt or experiences any adversity, is not a true imitation of reality.)

Drafting chapters of my novella, I have kept Stanley Fish’s thesis in mind from Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost*;  Fish argues that the reader sympathizes with Milton’s Satan over the character of God because of the reader’s own fallen, sinful nature.  I don’t entirely agree with this statement, but it serves as the basis for my own claim that readers who have an inherently good nature (as the binary opposite to evil…oooh, should we go there?) cannot help but wish to witness or experience the bad in fiction, the morally questionable thoughts and deeds of a main character such as this narrator, because these good-natured readers would never make such choices in real life.

However, where Fish argues that reading a text in this way—cheering on the “bad” characters—is a reflection of the reader’s sinful nature, I believe the reader’s choices are simply made by looking for that which we would not or could not ever experience in our own lives and “aligning” ourselves with deviant characters for the duration of the text, safe within the confines of the imagination.                        

First-person narration is also effective in any story with such gray areas of right and wrong, sympathy or hatred toward the narrator, because there is no didactic third-person voice (representative of the author or reader’s conscience) to moralize and analyze the characters and their situations—it’s like trying to move through the darkness and confusion of Dante’s Inferno without a guide, a much more exciting prospect than being told how to think or feel within the text.

I’ve realized that the negative characteristics of my narrator and those with whom she interacts may be considered evil, but all are directly influenced by the situation or context in which they occur, and I have ultimately found in writing these chapters that the notion of evil, just like that of morality and goodness, is nothing if not relative.

*Fish, Stanley.  Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

**Image Credit – Engraving by Gustave Dore (1870). Photo Courtesy: iStock

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Meaning, Montoya, and PostStructuralism in Business Writing

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means” ~ Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Inigo Montoya

It’s been a while since the last post, so I thought sharing a bit of my current research project/obsession would be a good way to convey writing productivity simply through creation of another page on this blog. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

The nerd in me would like to highlight that this creates a rhetorical situation of authoring content with two potential outcomes–1) sharing what I think is an interesting element of professional writing, or 2) crafting an illusion of blogging productivity by re-purposing content originally (and 15-minutes-ago-recently) written to help sketch out a research interest.

Either way, here it goes.

Business and technical writing requires that the author and the reader are closely aligned in linguistic interpretation and intended/conveyed meaning.

Understanding Derridean linguistic and poststructuralist theories allows the professional writer to use language and narrative structure to strategically position a product or company in the marketplace.  It also reinforces the need for consistency in internally adopted and externally promoted language to reduce interpretive misses.

The following is a summary of Derrida’s essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”* to help explain the notion of destabilized language and meaning.

Because it relies on the reader and changes due to the arbitrary nature of signs, Derrida presents meaning as decentralized and unstable; this status of discourse, and specifically language, produces a continuous (inter)play of signification.

The instability of meaning based on signs and symbols alone forces consideration of narrative structure as a method of making meaning out of this linguistic interplay. Derrida goes on to show how structure, too, can be deconstructed and destabilized based on author or audience presence, metaphysics, proximity, repetition, and disruption.

Derrida discusses Lévi-Strauss’ position that only nature can be universal, and dependence on social structure is indicative of cultural influence. He concludes that the interpretive process is a posthuman act of creating truth, performed in absence of a collective origin of meaning or affirmation of signs and their signification.

* Derrida, J. “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Writing and Difference. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978. 278-294.
** Image Source: Unencyclopedia.

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