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Saturday, March 23, 2013

5 Reasons I Absolutely Hate That "What The Author Meant" Meme

So if you've been on Facebook sometime in the last fifty years or so, you've probably run across this little turd of a meme.  I've personally seen it forty or fifty times, including one day where it decided to show up on my wall something like eight or nine times as my less literary minded friends bounced it between them with the online equivalent of "Hur Hur."

I hate this meme.

Hate it.

I hate it so bad.  If hate were pebbles, my hate would be....um....a great big boulder.  I hate it with the white hot fury of a billion supernovas in a synchronous explosion up my left nostril.

I want to travel back in time and find the father of the person who made this on the night before their conception and kick daddy in the nuts so hard that this person simply ceases to have ever existed in the time space continuum.  No fading Polaroid and transparent hand.  Just one kick....gone.

Mostly I hate the way people don't just have a giggle and move on.  I could almost spare daddy's scroat from my snap kick of protodoom if people just posted it with a "Snerk" and moved on. It is funny. It does have a point. English teachers DO do this.

But no.

They insist on acting like this meme contains the wisdom of ages, that SOLOMON himself dragged the great English teacher and the word was spoken. All English teachers exactly this pointless and absurd and awful, and that it isn't just sour grapes by someone who failed their Steinbeck paper. This is the most profound thing anyone has ever said indicting liberal arts.

"Oh my god, this is so true!" or "ZOMG YES!!!"

Y'all know I'm an English teacher right? I've given A's to people I disagreed with because they argued it well and F's to people who regurgitated what I said because they didn't. And even I laughed at this meme....the first fifty times it quietly got shared. But once people started acting like this meme was a salient indictment of liberal/language arts in primary school, and all English teachers want is to have their own absurdly over analyzing pet theories parroted back at them, I knew it was time to throw down.

[Edit May 2019- This post is now more disclaimers than it is article but what the hell.

I would encourage everyone to please please please consider how this post so predictably divides people along the lines of those who have taught and those who haven't.

We can all consider that US education is
SYSTEMATICALLY failing (particularly poor and marginalized students) without going after the teachers, many of whom are working for less than they can live on and are already each at their part blamed for not being every single student's personal Jaime Escalante. Folks (who have never taught) seem to realize that education is important, critical thinking about humanities is a vital skill (to do things like recognize when we are culturally being attacked by Russian psyops), and that students need to think about what they read in a way that is a little more sophisticated than plot summaries, but they don't have any problem dismissing the INTRODUCTORY lessons teaching these skills. And part of me is interested to know if they'd like to change the education standards, write a curriculum, and give teaching a whirl if they're so sure that the curtains were always blue.]

[Edit June 15, 2016: I notice this post is going a little viral today (three years later) and I should share a personal story since its success is both confusing and amusing to me. It was written furiously in a fit of pique one crisp March morning after I had seen it shared by two or three different friends. One was trying to get a rise out of me. One thought it was funny but knew that it was also pretty much an annoyed student, or ex-student, with graphic design skills being obnoxious.

But the third.  Ah the third. The third was like "OH MY GOD THIS IS SO TRUE!!!" And even included in her comments a five paragraph screed about how liberal arts were pretty much entirely made up.  She was a friend who had asked me on no less than five separate occasions to give her free tutoring on her literary essays because she was having trouble with them. (I'll let you work out the irony there.) So my furious clacking was shooting a bit from the hip. I do encourage folks to read both the comments and the follow up article. I have been accused of a lot of things because of this article, many of them profoundly unkind, but I hope no one thinks I would never say there are no bad English teachers, authors confused by the overreach of their intentions, or possible merit in any way to this meme.]

1- Being proud of your ignorance isn't cool.   I get it.  Literary analysis is hard. Finding the symbols and then discussing them with written language in a concise and clear way can be frustrating. There's a reason that you have to take half a dozen college courses before you really start to acquire that skill set, and most high school students are taught a very formative version that helps them pair the literary terms they are learning with clear cut examples. (A lot of us learn "setting" when we're reading Steinbeck, for example.) Drawing connections and thinking critically is not easy. Understanding meaning beyond the literal words on the page is a skill. And discerning multiple layers of meaning...well it's almost like it could be a whole discipline. Symbolism, allegory, metaphor...that is some next level shit. When we learn to read with these things in mind whole new meaning opens up.

There's a reason the Romans guarded their liberal arts knowledge for citizens only. Any ol' barbarian could become an engineer.

And if you don't want to have that skill, that's fine. You don't have to. You can wonder why people who read a lot really like Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood. You can even think that Shakespeare thought the entire world was a stage and was not speaking figuratively. It's cool. But let's acknowledge this meme as a "Haha" joke and not a universal truth lest we be guilty of dismissing all the people who do have that skill––who have spent years learning that skill and are then trying to show others how to do it. Having a laugh at how convoluted literary analysis can get is wonderful. Let me buy you a drink and join you. Insisting that we are ABSOLUTELY making stuff up. That's like saying evolution doesn't exist because you don't understand how the fossil record works.  If you're not going to stop at the water's edge of a giggle, maybe instead you should be asking yourself what your English teacher knows that you don't.

The world is made objectively worse by people who mock those trying to create a bridge to the understanding of a concept because they don't get the concept.

No one can know everything--especially at the age where one is usually facing down English teachers. Celebrating willful ignorance and mocking the people who do not is a particular kind of unkind. In a world where we all bemoan the lack of respect for expertise and think the whole country is diminishing in its respect for those who actually know things, folks don't recognize that it is lifting up memes like this one as "so true" that contributes. (It's always the person who doesn't respect one's OWN expertise who is to blame, right?)  It would be a little bit like a three-year-old looking at the pictures in a picture book when they can't read, deciding you know the story (from the pictures alone), and telling the literate person who is sitting next to them reading the text that they're "wrong" and to stop making stuff up. They're NOT wrong. They have a skill you lack. And if you "learned to read" you'd be able to see it too.

2- Art is considered.  Any book you're reading in an English class is most likely some of the best literature out there. Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying it's THE BEST stuff ever written. It's predominantly dead white guys, and usually picked by parents for its "appropriateness" to young students. Other voices are often just as good and even better.

But it's still pretty good writing.  And like any art, literature is done with great care, consideration, and thought. It wasn't slapped out in a single draft on a Saturday night. YOU may not have any  symbolism in your first or second draft. Stephen King or Jim Butcher might do three or four drafts and tease out a handful of allegories, but an author in the canon being studied by millions has probably done ten or more drafts at least, refining their language to fit their themes with each draft. Probably on their second or third draft, they noticed how their themes worked with certain imagery, and they began to tease that out in subsequent revisions.  And knowing what I do about virtually any published author, I absolutely guarantee that a writer of that caliber went through so many drafts that they considered and chose deliberately almost every single word choice. There is almost no chance anything in the entire work is not a conscious decision, probably even the color of the curtains.

3- Your English teacher isn't operating in a vacuum.  Your English teacher has things they need to cover and a limited amount of time.  They have established lesson plans and curriculum based on learning objectives that came from standards generated by lots of other English teachers, a district, and a state, with heavy influence from the federal government. (At least here in the US.) They can't really just wax philosophically and go off on tangents forever (unless they truly DO suck...which of course we pay teachers so poorly that some of them might).  But for the MOST part, they're going to focus on what is generally agreed upon by wide bodies of scholars and literary analysis, and the big huge examples of what they're trying to teach.

They really just need thirty people who would rather be getting root canals to GET "symbolism," so they don't have a lot of time for flourishes.

Your English teacher isn't just spitballing. Chances are they probably took the time to isolate the most important aspects of the work you're reading, choosing only what works well with the lesson they're trying to teach. Also, they probably picked out a few of the glaring examples--the best examples for the lesson at hand--not everything that could possibly fit.

So you're getting the most obvious examples of the most elementary lessons in what is probably some of the most exemplary writing of that particular element of fiction.  And understanding how an author works their mojo makes you a better reader (and will make you a better writer too!).  It's like someone trying to teach you algebra and you claiming that they're just "making up" their solutions to the variable and there's nothing to it. If every English teacher in the world understands that there's something going on with Steinbeck's turtle, there probably is.

But by all means just spit out a meme.

4- Books do not spontaneously generate.  Authors don't live on the moon. They do not send their books down by shuttle to be interpreted in a (wait for it....) vacuum.  They have lives. They walk around on Terra Firma. They eat at restaurants. They have friends. And sometimes they even talk about their writing. Even the most antisocial writers have often done interviews, panels, and articles about their own work.

I just turned around and there they were!
One of the ways we know what the author meant is BECAUSE THEY FUCKING TELL US!!

You can't get more authorial intent than that.

YOU may not have intended something to be a symbol (always one of the first argument that nothing ever is because one's own experience is always universal), but they looked a journalist or an audience member dead ass in the eyes and said "Yeah, I was trying to symbolize depression."

And even if we don't know exactly what the author meant about one particular symbol, we can extrapolate from what we do know about them. Raymond Carver may never have specifically discussed the fading light in "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" (he did, but let's pretend), but he did talk about how he tends to use light meaningfully in his stories, and we can apply that to his later pieces.

We also know from talking to authors how carefully they choose their words when they write. Shakespeare may not have done a series of interviews for the BBC, but from what we do know, he pondered over every word, so we can assume any given word has been debated and consciously chosen.

And sometimes even when a symbol wasn't explicitly in the mind of an author on a conscious level, they show up unconsciously. When a writer is creating literally every aspect of their worlds, sometimes what's on our minds show up like a Rorschach inkblot test or like when Data started causing there to be 3's everywhere. How many interviews did I have in my writing program with authors who were surprised (YET DELIGHTED) to have a symbol they missed pointed out because "yeah, actually that was kind of on my mind."

[Allow me to regale you with a VERY common story that happened several times when I got to meet authors in my Creative Writing program. Almost every single one had some variation of what I'm about to tell you. Someone in the audience (who had read really carefully) pointed out a symbol they noticed and the author hadn't intended it. Of course, they didn't say "No, the curtains were fucking blue!" Rather they said something like "Holy shit! You're right. I must have had that in my mind but not realized it. Because you're right. That totally fits!"]

The point is, a lot of times, we can just ask, have asked, and the authors have TOLD us.

5- Authorial intent hasn't mattered as much as reader response since about the sixties.  For over five decades, we've moved away from what the author meant as the authority of analysis. We've come full circle and we care again, but it's not the ONLY way to engage the text. The author is one person. How a work resonates in a culture is much more interesting.  In post-structuralism there is some incorporation of a work's context and that includes biographical analysis, but the interpretation of a work is as much (arguably more) in the hands of the reader than of any right or wrong interpretation.  Anyone who has gone back to a favorite book years later and read a COMPLETELY different book is familiar with this.

We are much more interested in how words are received rather than what was intended by them.  One of the reasons "I didn't mean it like that" is a fairly unacceptable counter-argument for someone using "gay" or "bitch" as a pejorative. No one cares what they meant. We care about how those words resonate culturally. The same is true of art and literature. James Cameron didn't mean to make a recruiting poster movie for postcolonial theory, but that's what he did and it was the focus of most of the more thoughtful reviews. When we can more deeply understand art and how it resonates in the world around us, we open doors to communication.

Thus literary analysis can be something of a Rorschach inkblot test for a group or culture (or a subculture if you are looking at it through intentionalist lenses like Critical Race Theory or Feminist Theory). An author may not have meant anything, but the fact that we see it is still worth exploring. Literary analysis (especially being taught by "your English teacher") is more about critical thinking and the eventual articulation of that in an argument (such as a paper), not an absolute, objective cypher of authorial intent.

Maybe the author did just mean the curtains were blue. But can you make a case that the color scheme reflects a larger pattern? Can you use your writing skills to craft a compelling thesis that is supported with evidence? If you can you have a very important skill in drawing connections. You might find that useful in management later on.

Of course to know what all that means, you might have to question the idea that every English teacher in the world is just randomly making stuff up.
“They belong to their readers now, which is a great thing–because the books are more powerful in the hands of my readers than they could ever be in my hands.” - John Green

EDIT:  In response to the awesome comments below, I have written a follow up to this article.  Come check it out.

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  1. I think this is the first blog entry where I significantly disagree with the post's position. I don't disagree that some people subscribe to this meme due to ignorance, but I submit that there are other reasons that have nothing to do with ignorance.

    For example, I know that sometimes the author meant that the curtains were fucking blue because I was the author and I meant that the curtains were fucking blue. That never seemed to stopped English teachers from trying to tell the class otherwise when they'd read homework examples to the class. As you point out, sometimes we perceive things differently from what the author intended and these perceptions have importance. If an English teacher perceives some deeper meaning than simply blue curtains, that has validity, but it doesn't change what I meant.

    Other times, there's a good case to be made for multiple interpretations that preclude each other. For example, you might call out Steinbeck's use of A names and C names to denote good and evil in East of Eden or you might say he used them to denote ability to choose (C) and inability to choose (A).

    I have um, issues, with high school English teachers (college was far better), so I've got some baggage here. While college professors did return my appreciation for literature, high school and junior high school English teachers had me for much longer and did damage that I've allowed to last even to now.

    I wonder if the people who pass the meme around in a celebration of ignorance (though I have my swayable doubts about that being most people's motivation) do so in reaction to their own poor experiences with English teachers in their high school and junior high school years.

    1. [Hope you don't mind if I cut and paste from G+ as well.]

      It's certainly possible the meme WRITER had a bad experience(though I have my doubts). The emphasis of the meme seems to be less on English teachers and more that the author didn't intend anything. However, I've seen this meme in the context of commentary literally dozens of times and the motif is "How could anyone possibly know that?" and "they're just making shit up." Both of which are absurd when it comes to how literary analysis arrives at its theses and records of authors discussing their work. The usual timber of these comments is "when are we ever going to use this stuff" and/or "humanities is useless."

      Though your experience with creative writing might have been a different creature altogether--maybe your teacher was trying to encourage your writing in a specific direction. Teaching creative writing at the K-12 level is quite a bit different than teaching reading, so maybe they thought they were doing you a favor to tease out things you may not have realized you were doing (at some level)?

      Then again I got "YOU MEANT THIS" in my peer review classes at state and that's some thirty years of pedagogy later and despite strict instructions to focus on what the reader HEARD.

      But I don't think curriculum for literature classes fall short in quite the same way that some individual teachers might teaching C.W..

      But I'll also tell you this: I know not ever decision is conscious, but they often are undeniably there. Not one authors panel we had at state didn't have an author who got asked about some metaphor in their work who ended up saying "You know, I wasn't explicitly intending that, but X had been on my mind, so it probably came through without me thinking about it." Maybe that's the difference between 5 and 11 drafts?

      Clearly when we're first writing (and certainly when we're writing early drafts) the curtains really can just be blue. But any English author of the quality we'd be studying would have to know the precedent of English-speaking culture's color symbolism (or literary naming conventions...or whatever) and either using them or ignore them for effect (on some level), and there are ways with close reading to determine which an author is doing. One of the points I did mention in the entry is that there are ways for a careful to know if it's just a coincidence and if the author "meant" it. And I don't think an army of English teachers figuring out what to teach ALL got it wrong. A practiced reader can tell when there is a "linguistic telegraphing" going on.

    2. Well, I agree. This meme is a generalization, but it's way too exaggerated. Professor's perceptions aren't established as unique truths. However, the goal is you mix those interpretations with your own.
      I recently found a remote job as an English professor (btw, I found some great recommendations here https://thinkremote.com/), and it's crazy how people believe all they hear in class. We're struggling with critical thinking! That's the whole issue with this meme

  2. A couple of questions (to be clear, these are sincere, not snarky; I was a linguistics major and never took any lit classes in college):

    1. What makes the books we read in high school some of the best literature out there? I would usually consider art in relation to the emotions it inspires, and most of our reading list inspired only apathy, possibly mild depression. Is there some other rubric in which these works excel? I more or less just assumed it was inertia and the desire for cultural indoctrination that kept them on the reading list, so hearing you praise them surprises me.

    2. If reader response is what matters, why is the response of people trained in lit analysis more important than the response of (thoughtful, literate) people who are not? Using lit analysis to explain why a piece has the effect it has makes sense to me--surely readers absorb more from a piece of writing than we are consciously aware of. On the other hand, if the interpretations suggested by lit analysis are entirely opaque to untrained readers, and are not included because of actual guesses of author intent, what is their value?

    1. Good questions!

      1-It's tough to answer exactly what makes a piece of literature enter the canon. It has to be literary--which is to say of a much higher quality than most other writing, but I also think things GET canonized when they are representative of movements or resonate particularly for the culture in which they were written. Most of what we read in school are classics of one stripe or another. They might be dry and boring (especially to a teenager) but they quality is very, very high. What makes literature GOOD has to do with how the various elements work in tandem with the artistic vision of the work and the technical skill. Consider how LeGuin uses sentence structures that reflect the mood of the moment or how Steinbeck's settings are symbolic representations of his conflicts. You don't get so much of that in something like Harry Potter--which is mostly just a story.

      However, I think you're on to something when you point out that what emotionally inspires a bunch of M.A.'s who are setting curriculum and have studied literature for years is probably not the same thing that inspires kids in high school. (Then again, it seems like the job of kids in high school is to be unemotional and unimpressed by anything adults like.)

      Mostly this literature is picked because it provides fecund soil for critical thinking while developing reading and writing skills. You could do a book report of a Robert Asprin novel, but you aren't likely to find that the internal conflict of the main character is reflected symbolically in the setting.

      2- Reader Response is a literary analysis theory that is based on groups of people like culture or sub-cultures. It's more of a cultural analysis tool and less of an "everyone's opinion is right" sort of sentiment. It would be like if I used "gay" as a pejorative at a convention and then said "I don't mean it like THAT" if called on it. Someone trying to explain it to me is probably not approaching me as an individual "reader," but rather they are saying "In this culture, this is what you are communicating." This is why some stories really don't date well. We know they were written before civil rights or the ERA, or something, but except for their historical value, we don't receive them well.

      In theory, no one's opinion IS better than any other, but thinking critically about literature is a skill, and people who are trained are going to be able to go deeper and make more astute and meaningful observations. Chris Farley might say "That was awesome" about Prometheus but Chris Brecheen can write a huge article. And Chris Englishdoctor can tie the thematic elements into philosophical and intellectual movements and point out how it is very much like the neo-sporamian movement of the late thirties (I'm making this up). The opinion isn't BETTER. But one person clearly understands the work more than the other.

      What is the value? Well, you know I'm the first person to admit that the ivory tower goes way too high, so pragmatically some of it breaks down. It's critical thinking. It teaches us to draw connections. It gives us the tools to THINK about art, which is important when we think about what matters to us. And for a high school student it's training in reading comprehension and writing skills.

    2. I should have written this reply in chapters. Sorry.

    3. Argh my comment disappeared (login stuff). Now I have to rewrite.

      Additional to the reader response and what the author intended is what the author didn't intend that made it's way into the story. Like you said, the author doesn't write in a vacuum, and like Thomas Foster said in his book How to Read Literature Like a Professor, the author of a good piece of literature is very likely a prolific reader.

      So, while the author may not have meant for the blue curtains to mean something, the authors of the scores of books s/he read probably did and that cultural meaning bled into her/his work.

    4. Everyone who has ever been forced in high school Lit. to read the Great Gatsby should LOVE those memes.

  3. I think #5 is the one where I agree with you most here--I don't necessarily agree that books one reads in English/lit classes are some of the best out there or that the authors of those books must have carefully considered all of their word choices, but more importantly, even if they did do so, the cultural context in which we read those books now is different, and some of those word choices mean different things now.

    I think that a lot of the frustration people feel about literary analysis is due to the way in which it's taught. I know that my high school English classes (and a couple of particularly regrettable grad classes) failed to appropriately differentiate between author intent, individual reader response, and critical cultural analysis. I had one class where I kept wanting to chuck a printout of Barthes' "Death of the Author" at the professor, because she wavered between all of those in her efforts to lead class discussions, and it drove me crazy.

    That's part of why I'm commenting on this--I have a real issue with the "well, if you were better at reading, you'd see X within the book," or the assumption that people's insistence that This Important Work has X symbolism is correct due to years of training and understanding, because then we come to works like most of Hemingway's stuff or Hawthorne's or Melville's, where it's Important Literary Work with an entire symbology catechism associated with it...but the focus on the symbolism means that there are other issues that are almost never discussed, like their hatred of women, raging racism, and antagonism toward nature.

    So when you say, "I also think things GET canonized when they are representative of movements or resonate particularly for the culture in which they were written," that hits a lot of (for lack of a better word) triggers in me, because the vast majority of the American literature canon was chosen by a very small set of well-educated relatively wealthy white men because they believed it reflected what they thought the American character should be. Thus, Hemingway, Hawthorne, etc., do indeed resonate particularly for American culture--but they do so because our culture is still one in which well-educated relatively wealthy white men have the balance of power. The American literary canon is constrained and defined by hegemonic ideals in much the same way that "professional attire and appearance" construct an image that is as close as possible to what well-educated relatively wealthy white men and their female counterparts have.

    I'm with you on hating the meme, but I hate it because it oversimplifies the possibilities of literary interpretation to a binary of "author meant" versus "teacher interpretation," and perpetuates the idea that literary analysis is a question of individual meaning. And I get that that is also your objection, but your response still accepts both "author meant" and "teacher interpretation" as relevant aspects of literary analysis--and I think that acceptance is both undermining the final point you make above (in the post itself) and disregarding the significance of canon as cultural indoctrination, as Amanda mentions above.

    1. I had no idea that my fire-and-forget memesnark was going to generate so much thoughtful response.

      I'm with you on the dead white guys and their paradigm thing, but I also thing it's no coincidence that the challenges to those voices in the canon have come basically at the exact same time as the challenges to that power structure and those assumptions in general. I mean we're still reading Kipling these days, but not be cause "he's so great" but more as the poster child for Orientalism and Post-colonialsm.

      One place I would disagree is that I do think the authors the traditional K-12 curriculum reads do consider their words carefully. The cultural context may have changed (point five) but they are good writers. They're overprivileged, yes. There are other ignored voices, yes. They got into the canon because of some Bloomy bullshit, yes. But it doesn't mean any one of them couldn't write rings around your average novelist. One of the reasons Hemingway gets edged out of a lot of high school curriculums to make way for other voices is that he's like "the worst" of the bunch. If Hemingway is your FALL GUY, you've got some pretty fly writers on your list.

      My main point wasn't that English teacher has the one true answer either, but that there is an actual reason that the English teacher is teaching about the blue curtains. There may be dozens--even hundreds--of other, equally relevant interpretations as well. I just sort of find it to be celebrating ignorance to claim they're just full of shit, and that the author didn't mean ANYTHING beyond the literal, denotative meaning.

    2. Oh and thank you! This clearly took some time and thought, and has made me think about some stuff. I appreciate it.

  4. I love books, but I'm completely untrained in literary analysis. There are many books that I didn't/wouldn't have realized were crafted amazingly if I didn't read the analysis, which is why I love to read intros and afterwords. Two memorable examples are The Turn of the Screw (I never knew about the unreliable narrator before reading an analysis!) and A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man. I only had the stamina to read Joyce because I was a high school Charles Dickens fan. But did you know that "Young Man" was written in symmetry? Amazing!

    And now that I know about the unreliable narrator as a trope, I am able to appreciate Christoper Paul Curtis's genius in Bud, Not Buddy and The Mighty Miss Malone. Curtis is genius.

    Lit analysis is the art history of novels.

    1. I like that analogy, and I think it's pretty apt. Our flirtation in criticism with analyzing literature in a total vacuum was short lived and strongly opposed.

    2. When I took a course called Critical Writing about Literature, one of the books that was assigned reading was Thomas C Foster's How to Read Literature Like A Professor. I highly recommend it, especially if you're interested in deepening your understanding of literary criticism and authorial/literary meaning and analysis.

    3. I love that book! Found it in the library AFTER I got my degree, and wished I had discovered it years ago.

  5. I think you miss the point of this meme. The problem with literature analysis is that when taught in high school, the teacher often spoon feeding the "correct" analysis to students without inspire them to think for themselves. I believe when an art work is done, may it be visual art or literature, it belongs to the audience. However you want to look at it, however you want to relate to it, to understand it, to find meaning out of it, it's your individual choice. One painting might get 100 different reactions by 100 different people. No one is absolutely right, even you have the reaction the painting intended. Authors intention is largely irrelevant.

    I don't think the meme mock literature analysis, instead, I think it mocks the rigid "author meant this, and it's what you should think about this piece of art" way of thinking.

    1. Point number five is ALL about how author's intent is largely irrelevant. :)

      Plus I went into detail responding to some of these points (brought up by other commenters back when I first posted this) in the follow up post.

    2. Also...I disagree a bit. I think if the meme were arguing for infinite valid interpretations, it's main "joke" at the end would not be in favor of a purely literal/denotative meaning. It would mention other possible interpretations rather than strictly the words of the author. To me that doesn't speak of other valid interpretations--which I've rarely seen an English teacher unwilling to accept if they're argued well--but rather the position that there IS no interpretation and the English teacher is just making things up.

      But I get into more detail about that in the follow up article linked at the bottom of the page. :)

  6. I can't reply your comment, so I'll write a new comment... Sorry for the inconvenience.

    I agree, the meme would be better if it's about multiple interpretations instead of no interpretation. But I think maybe sometimes we'll need to accept one of the interpretation is "this is bad writing, and the author wasn't thinking straight". Just because Shakespeare write "to be or not to be", doesn't mean I have to find excuses to like his god awful gravediggers as well.

    1. You've lost me now in substance and example, but I respect your opinion. ;-)

  7. that's a very nice way to say “I have no idea what you're talking about, but whatever". LOL, I'll stop bothering you then.

    1. You're not bothering me. Actually I do know WHAT you're talking about; it's more me saying that I don't agree with your conclusion, and I think I've addressed the points you brought up (in this totality of this post, comments, and the follow-up post) but if you still disagree, that's okay.

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. Here's the issue: it's not that people are too ignorant or lazy to understand what the author "really meant, it's just that no one really cares about all that analytical stuff.

  10. As to the "harry potter is just a story", if anyone pays attention to tumblr and pinterest, kids are analyzing like crazy. They are iterpreting the lives, comments, and details about the book and characters just as much as any literary critic could. Maybe if teachers would chose books kids care about, literary evaluation would be interesting and understandable. Asking a high school kid to interpret something a random person did in a novel based in another time and culture (I'm mentally looking at the Catcher in the Rye) that means nothing to them. Or if the teacher would occasionally say "and sometimes the curtains are blue" it would make the rest of the interpretation tolerable.
    And sometimes your teacher sucks and can make your favorite subject absolutely horrific. Like when I had this exact discussion with my senior english comp teacher. I asked if sometimes it was just a tree. She responded that I needed to read deeper into stories. Which prompted me to ask why a story can't just be a story. She never answered. Yet my senior lit teacher wanted nothing more than regurgitation. He even said he didn't want our opinions.
    In college I was again criticized for not reading enough into "the black spider" in a German literature class. I had enough problem with the language barrier that I was just happy to know what the story was about, without literary analysis.
    Teacher ability matters. The less you are exposed to literature classes, the more those few teachers matter. If they can find stories to relate to the students, then analysis is easily comprehended.

    1. I'm one semester away from receiving a master's in teaching with a special emphasis on middle grades English...and there really is a push for teachers to embrace "literature with relevance to students." Often, this means allowing students to choose their own reading and to conduct a lot of their analysis independently. This means a lot more Suzanne Collins on the docket and a lot less Nathaniel Hawthorne.

      On the one hand, I totally get how this motivates students to engage deeply with their reading, how it trains them to be autonomous and independent thinkers, and how it allows teachers to differentiate content with more finesse. It also allows students whose backgrounds might not be reflected in the canon to find stuff more related to their histories and sense of self. That's all really good stuff.

      On the other hand, though, I'm really not sure I ever would have read Shakespeare or Henry James on my own. Certainly not in high school. And that would have been a loss for me because there really is a lot of substance to difficult books once you offer the work, and you do learn a lot about writing and literature from those "hard reads" that you don't get as much from The Hunger Games.

      Maybe it's impossible to get students engaged with reading without throwing out a lot of the canon...but my gut is that this is wrong. My gut is that it's not so much about finding relevant books but rather about making the great books relevant. It's about showing kids that the labor of complex reading is worthwhile labor after all.

    2. I work as a librarian, and one of the things that is taught to us is "no one has ever learned to love reading by being forced to read books they hate". If they say they want something like Harry Potter, I'm not going to jump to The Beast in the Jungle. And I'd probably have more luck convincing them them to try out Shakespeare with the graphic novels than the footnoted plays. But when they are already "reluctant readers" my priority is getting them interested in reading first, what they are reading second.

      That doesn't mean we don't display the classics, that we don't talk about what makes them good if kids ask. Heck, one of our most popular displays was after Luke Cage came out I did a display of "Luke Cage Reading List" and got kids interested in the Harlem Renaissance that they would have not otherwise known about or read. You've got to meet them on their terms, and you have to think about what you are trying to accomplish.

      Do you want them to learn how to engage with reading, to have characters that resonate with them and stories that keep their attention while they learn to be independent thinkers? Or do you want them to read books that you like and think are really well written and expose them to western cannon that have interlocking literary layers? Neither of these goals are bad or wrong. I hate most of the books I had to read for my various English classes over the years* but there were some I would have never read independently that I feel my world is better because I was shown how to appreciate them, if not like them.

      *I hate John Steinbeck. I hate how his characters get to be full humans with thoughts and motivations and goals and dreams and flaws unless they're women and then they're attachments to the men in their lives. Goddamn Curley's Wife- you kill the woman and don't even give her a damn name. Even the "good" characters like "Ma Joad" are named in relation to the men in their lives and major characteristics include "being a perfect long-suffering mother to the ills of the main characters".

  11. Argument about the meme in question does raise the point that sometimes people place too much weight on the implications of a certain phrase in a book. I think there are a multitude of potential answers to this, and here are mine.

    I am an author of sorts, and it is true to say that words are considered before being written. Not only that, but they are checked and re-read ad nauseam, so any phrase or word will very rarely be unintended. However, the reasons for choice of word may be rather more mundane. The most common I would say is to vary the language i.e. not repeat oneself. Repetition of key words makes reading dull. Then sometimes, one has an idea for a particular word which may be slightly off beam, or use an element of metaphor. Clearly these have to be highly considered, but do they indicate some underlying truth in the book? I suspect there is always an element of subconscious decision which would suggest that they do, and sometimes an entirely conscious effort to create a 'feel'. Not just words either. Mood seting with long or short sentences, slang, accent, humour etc,. And even though it's prose, there always should be a rhythm to the arrangement, When proof reading, I often found that a better word or order appeared in one's head, not just to improve the description but to make the whole thing flow.

    So sometimes the author doesn't quite know why - and that is I think where scholarship comes in. It's not always correct, or what the author intended. but it's always illuminating.

  12. I have really enjoyed this discussion. I feel very strongly about making great books relevant. However, I also think that too often teachers only regurgitate what they have been taught about those stories instead of bringing something new to the table, or encouraging a student to interpret through the lens of their own background and experience once they have learned the basics.
    Also, I do find that popular fiction is all too often dismissed as not worth a deeper look. To me, when someone is making a great argument for deeper analysis and then makes disparaging remarks about Rowling or King writing having no value beyond being "just a story", they should take their own words to heart and reexamine some of those notions. Just the 'Snape's first words to Harry' theory alone proves that there is much more going on than a superficial reading reveals, and truly validates literary analysis to younger generations.

    1. It's true also that they usually are pinioned somewhat in primary school. Teachers may get to plan the execution, but they have less influence over curriculum than, say, their college counterparts.

  13. This is a lot of words about a bad example of analysis. "The curtains were blue" is not a convincing piece of evidence for the claim being made. If my students gave me that in their analysis I'd say so.

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  15. I can't help but be reminded of an English class I took, where we had to write something and one student had his read out loud. We then spent a good chunk of class time discussing some symbolism or other in it. Interestingly enough, the author was silent through the discussion. Eventually, the teacher asked the student who wrote the piece to talk about it. The student shrugged and said "I never knew there was any symbolism in the story. I honestly have no idea what you've been talking about." We spent half the class discussing something that did not exist.

  16. I strongly sympathize with this meme, but through a different interpretation of it than yours.

    Yes, good authors choose their words with great care. Yes, making an in-depth reading of a text is a challenging and often rewarding thing to do. However, I find it frustrating how often it's assumed that this deeper intent has to be symbolic. This might just be a matter of personal taste, but I often find texture to be much more interesting than allegory.

    If I write that the curtains were blue, that's because it's integral to the visual composition of the scene that the curtains provide a cold contrast against the auburn pool of vomit on the floor. Or because the reader's understanding of the room's owner is enriched by the knowledge that they've decorated their house in subdued colours, attempting to project a dignified outward persona. Or perhaps because the staggering rhythm of the sentence could only be perfected by inserting a one-syllable adjective before the word 'curtains'. If I want to convey that a character is immensely depressed and lacks the will to carry on, I'll bloody well do so through their words and actions instead.

  17. I have suffered so much in my lit classes when I was on high school because of my own interpretation of books didn't match my teacher's, that I would have to disagree. I understand that the real meaning from the author is the most important, and that we should learn it rather than live with the wrong interpretation, but it doesn't help the reader's imagination, who may sometime become a writer and believe that blue doesn't mean sadness but peace or happiness, or maybe the curtains were just blue.
    (Sorry if I make grammar mistakes, English isn't my first language!)

  18. I’ve enjoyed reading these comments—not something that happens often. I’m a retired high school English teacher. I think some of the problem is that people don’t differentiate between reading and literary analysis. I read mysteries for relaxation and escape. I read literature in a totally different way.

    I have heard from colleagues in elementary school they are busy with basic reading and students are often rewarded for the number of books read regardless of the quality of the writing. In secondary school, we tried to teach literary analysis although many students just want to read what they like and finish the book. The “teaching” comes in lessons on analysis and synthesis, stylistic analysis, author intent, thematic development, etc. Many students resent this intrusion into their reading as they thought English class should just be about decoding. Good English curriculum writing should move students through easy analysis of structure and plot through to speculation about author intent. These are skills to be learned just as Mathematics moves from simple to abstract concepts.

    Way back in the olden days when I was in high school, English in the final year was a double credit course separated into Language and Literature (they always had capital letters ) Perhaps we need to divide up English into various components as the do in Mathematics. Those who are interested in literature could study that, while others could focus on reading and writing. Critical thinking would need to be evident in both. But that might look like moving backwards and no one in education would go for that!

  19. "The world is made objectively worse by people who mock those trying to create a bridge to the understanding of a concept because they don't get the concept."
    That's a quote to live by

  20. "The world is made objectively worse by people who mock those trying to create a bridge to the understanding of a concept because they don't get the concept."
    That's a quote to live by