Thursday, 7 June 2012

Explicate yourself - Bill Kirton

I used to lecture and give tutorials on French literature, so I know how to do what they call ‘explication de texte’. Explicating isn’t the same as explaining. Recently, the rather loose connotation of the word 'explain' caused some  fuss when an exam question asked schoolkids to 'Explain, briefly, why some people are prejudiced against Jews'.  The fuss was understandable because the instruction could be taken to invite some sort of justification of anti-Semitism. IN a literary context, ‘explication’ in French and English has no such ambivalence. It goes further and deeper than ‘explanation’. It's also fun. You see things that weren’t obvious at first – links, connections, rhythms, meanings. But …

… it’s not so easy to do it when you’re giving talks about your own writing. Because if you start claiming things about your intentions, the ‘meanings’ of your symbols, images, etc., the significance of particular themes, or any of the normal stuff that crops up when people discuss books, you can’t help but sound pretentious. And, of course, the cry will go up 'Well, if you need to "explain" it to us, you haven't made a very good job of writing it in the first place'.

          I take my writing seriously. I want it to entertain, amuse if possible but also to say something – usually about how human beings treat one another. I marvel at the resilience of some, admire the cheerfulness of others in dire circumstances, deplore the apparent determination of those idiots who patronise others from some baseless sense of their own superiority. And I do this not just by describing them and their actions and circumstances, but by using other subtextual tricks and juxtapositions to try a bit of subliminal persuasion on the reader. But there, you see? Already, that’s making me sound like a candidate for pseuds’ corner.

          So what do you do? Let the writing speak for itself? Yes, of course, but that works best when the reader’s tucked away somewhere with just the book and his/her own imagination. Your ‘critic’s voice’ highlighting what you presume to be its structures or subtleties would only be an intrusion. And anyway, if you’re just plucking short extracts from a 350 page novel to study, you need to give each some context. So you find a lot of your explication time is taken up with something like:

‘Well, in the sixty pages leading up to this paragraph, Felicity realises she’s pregnant by the traffic warden so her sentence is commuted to eighteen months, her six children are put into care in Leamington Spa and the cosmetic surgery is postponed until the surgeon is released from quarantine. Meanwhile, the genetically modified chimpanzees have been recaptured but the green one is found to have a wasting disease and so the vet, Felicity's husband, has to retrace its steps in order to find the source. And now, on page sixty-one, we find Felicity in her cell just after the one-eyed warder has kissed her and gone home to his vegan wife.’

          OK, that’s stupid, but it’s much more interesting for an audience than pointing out how I’ve expanded the imagery, fused abstract and concrete, reinforced a particular theme, inverted ethical conventions or something equally off-putting. Apart from anything else, whoever heard a reader saying ‘Oh goody, he’s inverted the ethical conventions. I can’t wait to see what he does with the Hegelian dialectic’?

          I’m not questioning the reader’s sensitivity to things other than ‘the story’ or his/her ability to operate at several levels of comprehension and appreciation; I’m just saying that I find it difficult to do that when it’s my own books under discussion. On the other hand, it's a crucial part of the reviewing and editing process. As well as the essential hunt for typos, punctuation errors and grammatical infelicities, that's when we should also be doing some explicating - testing whether the links, images, symbols, structures really are doing what we want them to do. 

          Writing's about more than words. Yes, they're the essential building blocks, each catches (or tries to catch) a specific meaning - 'elbow', 'rain', 'stroke', 'sigh' - but the shapes you build with them, the rhythms that emerge from their combinations, the echoes they can throw back and forth in the narrative all impinge on those meanings, expand or undermine them and fuse to create something that only exists in that particular combination.

          And if, for one moment, you imagined that was me talking about my work, you'd probably make a mental note to make a wide detour of any books with my name on the cover.


CallyPhillips said...

Hallelujah! And welceome to the fold Bill. Your post is music to my ears (apart from the somewhat improbable plot of course.) And I certainly don't think it's pretentious or pseudo... and I think more of us need to stand up and be counted. Yes you're right readers on the first instance don't want/need explication but it is a vital part of a writers toolkit and we should certainly acknowledge and appreciate its value amongst ourselves. I also think that ebooks can have a part to play here - it's possible to add 'explication' or critical analysis or what you will to the end of texts as 'extra value' for people who are interested in finding out the 'story' behind/around the central text. I'm off to find some of your work right now and search for hidden (and maybe not so hidden) meanings.

Dan Holloway said...

Wonderful to see you here, Bill! What a fabulous post - you've transported me back to the structuralist interrogations I so loved as a student (and conversations with my wife about Schenkerian analysis). It is so, so important to ensure that every piece of a text hangs together - the reader may not notice the ways we use to ensure that happens, but they certainly notice the effects when it goes wrong. It's one of the many ways writing and music intersect - not just the amenability to structural analysis but tonality an atonality/harmonics and the like - the more we as writers understand how words fit together not just semantically and syntactically but in this deeper way, the richer the resultfor readers.

Stroppy Author said...

Excellent stuff, Bill. I think it's important to understand how our own writing works, but I would never explain it to a reader unless they asked. But perhaps that's because I write for children... They need to develop their critical reading skills and have confidence in their own readings, and are more likely to think anything the writer says is the 'right' answer. Which of course it isn't, as we can't predict the nuances and meanings a reader will find based on what they bring to the text. It's a process of synthesis.

Dennis Hamley said...

Lovely post, Bill. Ah, the 'explication de texte'. I love them. How I wish I'd recorded some of those I used to give to students. Although I say it myself, my E de T of The Waste Land was a real belter. But of one's own work? Well. I think I'm an experienced enough reader, writer and critic to see deep structures in my own books as well as other people's. Not that I necessarily mean them to be there: the much overused term 'deep structure' is what it says - it's deep; as you say, subliminal. And I don't think any creative written work can NOT have it. It's still 'deep' paradoxically even when it's shallow, and sometimes displays things the writer would not want it to.

Are structures, subtextual tricks, subtleties, imagery and the rest features willed by the writer or expressions of this subliminal deep structure? I don't know. When it comes to other works, I can suggest what I think. But of my own? I wouldn't dare, not in public anyway.. But now I'm rereading books of mine that I'm getting ready to republish, I'm intrigued by what I see. In some cases I haven't looked at them for years and almost find it difficult to believe I actually wrote them. I'm constantly thinking 'I must have been clever in those days', which is a pretty salutary realisation to make. But it means I can be objective, as if somebody else had written them, and I could, if called upon (thank God I won't be), do some interesting E de Ts, pointing out features I never thought were there and, unfortunately, other features I wish weren't. But I do find rhythms, echoes, links and symbols, some of which actually work. Some I remember aiming for. Others I certainly didn't, or don't remember doing, but they are there anyway. Interesting; it's a great opportunity to understand what we've been up to all these years. And what, as you ask of your imaginary auditor, do we do with the great 'Hegelian Dialectic? Nothing. It's there already, in every piece of writing, music and in fact all art which we can say has satisfying form of which, when we've finished reading or listening or seeing, we can confidently say, 'It's finished. There can be no more.'

Ans as for 'a mental note' - I'll make no such thing. No wide detour for me.

Lee said...

No explication for me - at least not of my own work. I happen to believe that a writer takes away more than he contributes when he explicates. And all too often, the explicating writer makes a novel sound a lot tighter/richer/more profound than it actually is.

Lee said...

P.S. The sidebar link to Bill's website doesn't seem to work. Can someone check it out, please?

julia jones said...

Really enjoyed your post Bill thanks (and it reinforces myt feeling that I'd like to have a selection of these pieces handy to dip in and out of).
As a writer I suppose the ideal is when a reader asks 'Why?' and teh writer has a chance to explain (or even explicate). As a reader I really don't like too much stuff at the end of a story - non-fiction yes but with novels and poems and plays I really like to be left to myself to ponder a while. Then, if there's a little signpost to say 'if you have questions, dear reader, this is wher you can ask' - well that might be best of both worlds.

dirtywhitecandy said...

Great post, Bill. Not only is it hard to analyse this for yourself, you find that readers find far more than you can see for yourself. All we can do is create a coherent pattern and then see what it does when someone else spends time puzzling over it.

Susan Price said...

Great blog, Bill - and just to add, thanks to Lee for warning me that your sidebar link didn't work.
I went round the back of the blog with a spanner, and I've fixed it - Blogger had changed the system a little, and my usual moves hadn't saved the link. But it works now!
Apologies to Bill and Lee - Sue Price.

Lee said...

I've just come across this delicious excerpt from an older interview with Philip Roth:

"Ha, ha," he [Roth] says. "Now you're talking! I would be wonderful with a 100-year moratorium on literature talk, if you shut down all literature departments, close the book reviews, ban the critics. The readers should be alone with the books, and if anyone dared to say anything about them, they would be shot or imprisoned right on the spot. Yes, shot. A 100-year moratorium on insufferable literary talk. You should let people fight with the books on their own and rediscover what they are and what they are not. Anything other than this talk. Fairytale talk. As soon as you generalise, you are in a completely different universe than that of literature, and there's no bridge between the two."

Is he completely serious? Who knows. But he's Roth, and he's great. About as great as it gets (sigh of envy).

Link to interview:

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Excellent, thought provoking post, Bill.You've made me wonder what I do myself.The first draft is probably the most instinctive one, even if I've done a lot of research beforehand. I just press on to the end, but wouldn't let anyone see it. Then though, I suppose through successive drafts, I do start to make patterns. I was a poet in another life, and it shows. I find I'm sometimes treating it like poetry, looking at the shape of it not just on the page but the shape of the whole thing somewhere in my head, massaging the words and the ideas. It's hard to deconstruct though. The Traverse used to have scary evenings when, as a playwright, you were faced with an audience asking difficult questions about your play, what you meant, why you had written it in this particular way. Actually as a professional playwright, that's what you're faced with ALL THE TIME from actors. (Cally will know this too!) They ask you difficult and in depths questions about the play, about their particular character, about why and how things happen. It's alarming because sometimes you realise you don't know, and have to find out pretty damn quick and cheering because it's lovely to be taken seriously but above all it's enlightening, because you realise how things you may not consciously have intended, are TRUE all the same! By the way, I think we need more, much more literature talk in the world of eBooks. We spend a bit too much time focussing on sales and marketing and not enough talking about content.

John A. A. Logan said...

"Don't think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can't try to do things. You simply must do things." The late Ray Bradbury

And I know what he means, certainly about a first Catherine says...and Hemingway said...the subconscious/unconscious won't give up its riches under scrutiny. For some writers at any rate...I know not all fit this "type"!.

But equally I enjoyed reading that eloquent piece on explication, thank-you Bill!
(And may I steal away your unforgettable, green, wasted chimpanzee for a project of my own, if you are done with he/she/it?)

Perhaps what Roth was sick of was BAD explication...or the toxic professional literary schools of explication in the US which most American authors had to spend decades in to make a living while also writing, so they came to hate it...similar to Kundera's contempt for a world of "dissertation mountains"...

And I'm just beginning to feel this need that Catherine, and Cally, and Dan, have been feeling for a while I get focus away from sales and marketing for a while, and onto quality of content...and in those discussions all those explication skills might be just what is needed to evolve the epublishing along its next notch.

Epublishing should be a bulwark against the general dumbing down that has been tried on us all...even though my beloved teacher since age 11, Ray Bradbury, didnae really see the use in these ereader thingies...but then as the author of FAHRENHEIT 451 with its literary firemen, we can appreciate his sensitivity to anything called a "kindle" being used to get rid of paper books, and let him off I think...I didn't understand the value of ereaders myself until last year:

"There is no future for e-books, because they are not books. E-books smell like burned fuel."
The late Ray Bradbury, Los Angeles (May 2008).

Lee said...

@John, I'm not really opposed to explication, just self-explication. And while I entirely agree that a blog such as this one should focus a lot more on content and quality, it would mean that its members - and commenters, naturally! - would have to be willing to accept negative criticism. There seems to be a general agreement that the Electric Authors ought not criticise each other's work, at least not publicly, but it's something that indie writers desperately need - even the experienced professionals.

Bill Kirton said...

I'm overwhelmed by such generous responses but on holiday. Thanks all. I'll be more articulate about them when I get home.

Bill Kirton said...

Well, I know I promised to give a more considered reply to your comments but they raised so many other points that this would turn into a secondary blog. So, instead, just quick reactions to some of the specific points.

I like Dennis’s point about being experienced enough to see the structures in one’s own books but not necessarily meaning them to be there. That’s a familiar experience, especially if, as Catherine says, you’ve written plays and had to cope with the quite legitimate demands of actors and directors about textual matters.

I hope I didn’t give the impression that I was advocating providing explications for readers. That would be the kiss of death. As Anne says, it’s fine when they actually ask for it and, in fact, it’s quite fun to explore things you might have meant with different audiences. I’ve found that having to answer questions about something I’ve written makes me understand it better myself. Roz’s comment suggests that it’s important to recognize that, as long as they’re properly supported, readers’ interpretations of your work are as legitimate as yours. Who knows what subconscious pressures are pushing us to put specific words into the mouths of our characters? It’s like the old Victor Hugo lines I keep on trotting out. He wrote in a poem that, when he was backstage and the curtain went up on one of his plays, it felt as if his soul was lifting its skirt in front of hundreds of ‘burning eyes’.

I’d also differentiate between different sorts of Dan's ‘structuralist interrogations’. There are those which stem from a real desire to investigate textual layers and effects and expose the various sub-textual wonders. And then there are those perpetrated by the sort of academics who, even when talking of words, seem to do their utmost to crucify them. I have several favourite examples but the following will do nicely. It was written by a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature and published in a learned journal.

‘The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.’

That may be a brilliant analysis of whatever it’s analyzing but I don’t understand a word of it. Maybe it’s what Roth had in mind when he excoriated ‘insufferable literary talk’.

And, John, the monkey’s all yours.