Books are full of meaning. There’re the meanings of all of the words that compose the book, and the meanings of all of the sentences when the words are put together, and what all of those sentences mean when they come together to tell a story. The story itself can mean something, too, and it usually means something a little different for everyone. The meaning, however, is not the story.
This is another one of those “why write” posts, where I talk about why I write and why I read. I’d like to address something that I think I’ve alluded to in a few different places on the site or in previous posts, but never really explained fully. Now, everyone writes for different reasons, and everyone reads for different reasons, so by no means am I trying to assert that anything here constitutes some manner of ultimate right or wrong. Which leads nicely into what I actually want to talk about, because I don’t think that we should look to stories to tell us right from wrong.
For me, I write to tell stories. When I think of someone sitting down to read something I wrote, I imagine them being immersed in the world I have created, and vicariously experiencing some of the joys, trials, excitements, dangers, pleasures, and wonders experiences by the characters. It’s one of the reasons I don’t spent a lot of time (if I spend any) on establishing what my characters, especially my viewpoint characters, look like. That way no matter who you are you can more readily fill yourself in for that character. That’s what I do when I read someone else’s work – I remember a point in my life, when I was much younger, when I would sometimes get confused how the main character was allowed to do certain things as a nine year old, and had to remind myself that no, the character was not actually my age.
Perhaps my stories will sometimes weigh in on philosophical or societal concerns – it’s an inevitable part of creating a world, that it should share some basic resonances with the real world, and therefore also some of its flaws. But I never tell a story in order to communicate a certain message or meaning deeper than what is being told in the story itself. If I write about how a fierce young sorceress rescues a hapless prince, it’s not about some kind of female empowerment – it’s about a fierce young sorceress rescuing a hapless prince, and hopefully learning something about themselves along the way, maybe making themselves better somehow, and I really hope that the sorceress gets to conjure some fire demons to dramatically immolate some of her enemies.
Here’s why I think this is important, especially to talk about in today’s context. Interpretation of media, in all of its disparate forms, seems to be subject to a kind of slippery slope fallacy. In order for a piece of literature to be accepted as “good,” it seems it must pass certain standards of representing the current mores. While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it can be dangerous, and to my mind becomes detrimental to the art when it becomes the goal instead of a natural byproduct of the creation process.
What the current passion might be changes like the weather, but they hold certain commonalities: mainly that they are about societies. Stories, though, are about individuals. Even sprawling epics involving movements of nation-states and covering thousands of years are about individuals. A really good story is going to be a good story even if the norms or mores upon which it was created are no longer in favor. Take many classic fairy tails: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White. They’ve been criticized in recent years for not being “diverse” enough, and for not providing the right kinds of role models for people, and for setting unrealistic expectations for people. All of this, I think, seems to be missing the point. These are stories, meant to entertain, not to dictate the way the world ought to be. If any human being could come up with exactly how the world ought to be, and write it into a story in a way that is universal and enduring, they would be remembered for all of history, and would have to be the single most brilliant individual to have ever lived. Classic stories like these are classic for a reason, and it’s because even though they may not perfectly reflect the current favors, they tell something compelling about the human condition through the individuals involved, something that everyone can relate to, even if they don’t happen to look like the characters involved.
Instead of lying in the stories, I think the problem is with us, in expecting the wrong things of our artistic expressions. Experiencing the story of Cinderella shouldn’t be about prescribing universal gender roles, or promulgating stereotypes, or racial diversity. It’s just a (usually) brief story about someone who has a short time to make their miserable life better, has some things go wrong, and still manages to come out alright in the end. It’s not intended as a life template, but it has certain enduring insights about individuals that have led to similar stories being told in a wide range of cultures throughout history. It’s no different than the people who claim that The Lord of the Rings is a massive, extended metaphor for World War I, which Tolkien always flatly denied. The Lord of the Rings isn’t about war, or fascism, or racism, or any other -ism. It’s about ordinary individuals doing extraordinary things.
Maybe some people can set out to write a book that’s about an -ism. Perhaps some authors intend their books to be a mirror to society, or a representation of what they see as society’s problems and its solutions. For me, that simply doesn’t work. I don’t have those answers, and I couldn’t presume to think they would be universal even if I did have them, much less work them into my stories. When I write, I write about people, and when I read, I read about people. I don’t think it needs to be any bigger than that.