Newsgroup Discussions: Over-analysis?


Subject: Re: [R] Themes - no spoilers
Date: 11 Jan 2000
From: Mary

This discussion arose out of the Themes thread following a comment made by pia

As a personal note, I often get angry over books where I don't find the 'about', the theme.

Funny, I'm just the opposite. I get angry when people try to "decode" art. I wrote a whole paper on why it's better to read T.S. Eliot as a nonsense poet than to make up silly theories about him. English classes used to drive me up the wall. Teachers who thought all that was need was a decoder ring for the "symbols": Water=Life White=Purity. Blech. Or "State the theme of the book in one sentence."

Number one, if it's a book worth reading in an English class, it prolly has more than one theme, not all of them necessarily intentional. Number two, if it were simple enough to say in one sentence, the author would have written a sentence, and not a book. Easiest way to kill all of a student's interest in books: convince him the authors are just too snobby to state their opinions plainly.

It "means" all that it says, no less, though possibly more.


From: Victoria Martin

There is an awful lot of research (not that I've read any of it, I confess) on what is called "reader reception", which includes amongst its sub-disciplines the examination of what readers bring to a text. And then, of course, most of Deconstruction is about this kind of thing. But personally, and avoiding literary theory like the plague, I think readers see an awful lot in books that the author did not deliberately put there.

Most creativity takes place at a sub-conscious level anyway, so you can hardly expect an author to be aware of everything they stick in a book (especially when it comes to prejudices they believe they don't have). A reader can't possibly be a passive receptacle for a text, receiving only the information the author consciously wishes them to receive, because they have a different personality and different life experiences from the author, all of which affect their reading of the book. You can only really call these different readings "imposed" if they're flatly contradicted by other bits of the text, and even then you might be able to argue that both interpretations exist in fruitful (or non-fruitful) tension.

What the author thinks they wrote is only a small part of the experience of reading a book, which requires a creative, interpretive act on the part of the reader as well as the author.

Date: 12 Jan 2000
From: pollo diablo

My literature teacher admitted she wasn't able to enjoy a book or story (literature nor fiction) anymore.

All she did when reading was go like "hey, that's the second time he mentions a pigeon. I wonder what he means by that?" and all fun was spoilt.

Date: 14 Jan 2000
From: Richard Eney [Tamar]

What a shame she lost the fun of the game. I assume the loss was related to having to do it as a job, so it became work for her. I read the books for fun first, then reread them for the bits that take more effort, but even in the first reading I try to take note of anything that might have extra meaning in case it will increase my enjoyment by making something apparently random actually turn out to be meaningful.

From: Mary

Just to make my position clear- I have no objection to the kind of analysis you do, Tamar. I enjoy it. The recent thread on the themes of CJ has me re-reading the book right now. Far from over-simplifying, that kind of thought enriches a book.

It's the dumbing down that I can't stand, the reduction of books to formulas. Huckleberry Finn was very nearly spoiled for me by ridiculous attempts to assign a "translation" for every part of the story. "What is the symbolism of the river?" It's a river damnit! The plot involves escape, they weren't very well going to go down into caves. "What is the significance of the color white in the description of Huck's dad?" Makes him sound revolting, that's what.

The whole attitude is wrong. Instead of saying "look at the effects the author creates; I wonder how he did that?" they say "Ah, look, woods! I wonder what that's supposed to mean?" I want to say, it's fiction, not algebra. It is more than the sum of its parts. You can't participate in the story if you spend the whole time deconstructing it...

From: Dua

It's such a shame that English Lit was like that for you... I've found that we (in my English A-L course) are encouraged to analyse books in terms of "what effect does it have on me?" and then "How has the author achieved it?" I really enjoyed studying T.S. Eliot because IMO your opinion of him is very personal... as such I could have a field day on why he succeeded in evoking different emotions in me.

And yes, "State the theme of the book in one sentence" is ridiculous... I wrote a 3000 word essay on the overall meaning of The Wasteland and that's only a poem! (only?)

From: Steve Day

At school, I wrote a play and deliberately loaded it with as many 'symbols' as I could, most of which were completely spurious.

The English litcrits had a field day and it ended up winning the school's senior drama prize and being performed in a drama festival. Of course, I paid for the joke when my face muscles ached from having to keep from laughing every time someone talked to me about the play...

The experience made me profoundly sceptical about 'over-reading' texts

From: Paul E. Jamison

I believe that you've discovered what professional writers are really thinking.

Date: 16 Jan 2000
From: Eric Jarvis

an argument I've had with people in every art form I've been involved with, music, theatre, dance, literature and visual far as I'm concerned if you want to understand the ideas in Mahler's 4th Symphony or an Oasis song you have to listen to it, the same with "Hamlet", "Ulysses", a Cornelia Parker sculpture describe these things is always only partial (in both senses)...unfortunately there is an entire "industry" of academic criticism dedicated to creating jobs for academic critics whilst persuading everyone else that they simple aren't well enough educated to really understand art

the biggest problem with this is the effect it has on artists in all art forms...often crippling them during the very time they should be learning to fly...I've wasted years (literally) of my life trying to rebuild the confidence of writers, actors, sculptors, conceptual artists, musicians, songwriters and choreographers who have been told that if what they are doing doesn't easily fit into the academic/critical scheme of things then it is of no merit

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