Sunday, October 15, 2006

Maybe I'm Just Shallow

I have a theory that no matter how heavy and serious literature is (fiction, poetry, articles, essays, etc) it should be basically understandable the first time you read it. Later readings may reveal deeper and deeper layers, but it should be readable at first go.

I base this on, first of all, Scripture. Especially if you read it in a current version of your first language, you can sit down and read without pausing to scratch your head and say, "Huh?’ and backtrack in bewilderment.

Time and further study of Scripture of course reveals depths unseen at first read, phenomenal symbolism with the temple and sacrifices and all kinds of things. But first God made it accessible even for the depth-challenged among us.

I have an issue with much modern poetry on this point. I’m fine with mystery and subtlety, but please give me words that I can actually read, not:
Calibrate and cynicism
And cats painting
A mother’s denial

In high school and college, we read The Great Gatsby and For Whom the Bell Tolls and Huckleberry Finn, and learned to dig and scratch like hens for Themes and Symbolism and Deep Hidden Meanings.

Then I took a literature class in which we read Tristan and Iseult, and at the first discussion all the recent high school graduates started talking about all the Subtle Themes and Deep Hidden Meanings they had found. And the teacher said, "Listen, it’s first of all a story. Learn to enjoy it first as just a good story."

Now that was liberating.

On a slightly different angle, right now I am on a Jane Austen kick and just read Mansfield Park for the first time.

Personally, I found it a good read, with passages that made me laugh or think, but I was disappointed in the ending--not because things didn’t turn out right, but because to me it reads as though her editor was emailing her every day that she was way past deadline so she quickly tied up all the loose ends and sent it off.

I don’t read that much fiction but when I do it’s often Lori Copeland or Lori Wick or something else that happens to show up around here that I can read in a hurry and finish in a day or so. I don’t especially like either author but sometimes I just want a quick story to digest. This is very poor preparation for reading Jane Austen.

There’s not much action in Jane’s books. Minute events are expanded into whole chapters. We have the garden, and how it’s laid out, and what the weather is like, and who walks down which path with whom, and who they meet, and what they say, and what happens while one fetches the key to the gate. Another chapter revolves around which necklace to wear to the ball. Long conversations composed of lengthy flowery sentences cogitate about the minutest details of life. The plot advances as effectively as any modern one, actually more so. But it’s obviously from a different time period and a different pace of life.

So, we wade through 367 pages of this, waiting, waiting, waiting, for Edmund to finally, finally, finally, come to his senses and realize that Mary Crawford is NOT the girl for him and Fanny IS, (DUHHH, Edmund!), and I confess that we are hoping for some really flowery rapturous paragraphs where he finally sees the light and apologizes and tells her how wonderful she is and what an idiot he was and how fitting she will be as a clergyman’s wife and begs her forgiveness and so on, and she finally feels loved and cherished and vindicated. Considering how they can go on about taking the carriage vs. walking, this exchange should take two or three pages at least.

He does rattle on for almost six pages about how disappointed he is in Mary Crawford. But he doesn’t yet think of Fanny in any romantic way. And so we wait for the Big Declaration. And do we get it? No. All we get is this:

"Scarcely had he done regretting Mary Carwford, and observing to Fanny how impossible it was that he should ever meet with such another woman, before it began to strike him whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well—or a great deal better; whether Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all her smiles, and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had ever been, and whether it might not be a possible, an hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be a foundation enough for wedded love.
I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion. . . I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire."


So maybe I’m just shallow and all the literary people out there are sighing with disappointment like my English teacher, Mr. Rubis, did in 1980 when I suggested Moby Dick should be condensed, but is it so much to ask that a novel have a good tasty satisfying ending?

I’m sure there are Deep Things that I completely missed in Mansfield Park, but why not give even a shallow reader a reward for plowing all the way through?

Quote of the Day:
"If you don't come right now I'll put 5 bows in your hair!"
--Amy, waiting in the bathroom to comb Jenny's hair. Jenny tends to dawdle but doesn't appreciate a lot of fluff and frou-frou in her hair


  1. I remember being asked over and over in high school to dig for the deep and underlying meaning of......(you fill in the blank). I've always been an avid reader. I had read most of Gibran by the time I was twelve (talk about deep underlying meaning!), but I'm with you. I think more people would read and enjoy reading if they weren't made to feel stupid because they don't symbolize characters, or understand how the author uses the sense of person to....Maybe Edgar Allen Poe was just a very weird, very morose individual who wrote stories that reflected that, but made great "ghost stories". Bravo Dorcas! Somebody needs to liberate the written word from all the frou frou high-brow nonsense.

  2. Thank you,thank you! I thought it was just shallow me who was slogging through the deep stuff.

  3. Yes, I agree, the story comes first. What do you want to bet the obssession with symbolism and themes comes from teachers/profs desperately making up homework assignments? (I say this after a weekend spent wringing deeper meaning from Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh.) IMHO, tough books are like a hard day's climb. With some of them you get to the top and you're rewarded with an amazing view. With others, you wonder why you ever bothered to leave base camp.

  4. Paula LaRocque wrote a column in the Dallas Morning News. She states, "We see ornate and affected prose everywhere, from the modest workplace memo to the ambitious academic report.

    Why is that? For one thing, we try too hard."

    Years ago our son had written a college paper that was really wordy. He said, "I was just trying to be deep."

    Dorcas, the reason we love reading you, is because you don't try too hard, you are not affected, nor do you try to be deep.

  5. I can identify with your disappointment; I felt the same when I read Pride and Prejudice. So Darcy and Elizabeth finally get together, but is any of their happy and joyous dialogue recorded? Not much. :P Oh well...I still love Jane Austen. If there's nothing deep in her writings, she at least has a great sense of humor.

    I think it's interesting that England was at war while she was writing novels, yet there is hardly any reference to this in her stories.

  6. I like Jane Austen writings, but Mansfield park was not one of my favorites. I also am able (sometimes too easily) to skim read so I find myself - almost unknowingly at times - skipping the lengthy descriptions.

    What do you think of George MacDonald?? Another "deep" writer that you can't just fly through, but I love it if I'm in the right mood.

  7. Lollyjane--I'm like you; Ilike George MacDonald if I'm in the right mood.

  8. I love Jane Austen, but like your other commenter, Mansfield Park is not my favorite. Try Pride and Prejudice, or Emma. You might enjoy them more.
    Rosy (Marina's mom)

  9. Rosy--Did our paths cross at Poplar Hill the summer of 1989? We were there for orientation or BOP or whatever it was called back then.