Saturday, June 25, 2011

Text, Context, and the Author's Intention: The Example of Ron Carlson Writes a Story

In his book on Robert Browning, G. K. Chesterton tells an old anecdote, which he admits is probably apocryphal, recounting how an admirer wrote to Browning asking him for the meaning of one of his darker poems, and received the following reply: “When that poem was written, two people knew what it meant–God and Robert Browning. And now God only knows what it means.”

I often cited that anecdote to my students in response to their frequent question about whether one of my interpretations of a story was what the author intended. I tried to convince them that whereas they might find interesting insights in the comments of authors about their own work, ”going to ask the author” his or her intention was not necessarily helpful, much less authoritative. Of course the word “intention” raises many more complex issues about the relationship between the author, the work, and the reader than I can deal with in this post. I, therefore, refer the reader to W.K. Wimsatt’s discussion of the famous “intentional fallacy” in his book The Verbal Icon and to E. D. Hirsch’s discussion of this issue in his book Validity in Interpretation.

My intention in this blog post is to explore the issue of intention by focusing on Ron Carlson’s little book Ron Carlson Writes a Story, in which he attempts to describe the process by which he wrote the story “The Governor’s Ball.” I should note right away that Carlson, who has taught creative writing for many years and now runs the graduate program in fiction at U. C., Irvine in Southern California, has directed this book to writers, not readers. The fact that there is a difference between a book about “how to write” and a book about “how to read” may further confirm my argument that going to ask the writer for suggestions about how to “read” his or her story is not always helpful. Why might this be so?

Carlson provides part of the answer at the very opening of his book by reminding us that writing a story is a ”substance-changing process” that differs from writing a research paper or a letter, noting that if you write a research paper on Romeo and Juliet and change the advice the Friar gives to the young couple, you may be in trouble, but if you “let the process of writing a story inform and change the advice an uncle gives his niece, you’re probably moving closer to the truth.”

The question this raises is, “Why is the truth of a story not dependent on the truth of actuality?” And if the truth of a story is different than the truth of actuality, then what value is it to the reader to know the biographical details on which the story is based—except to be critically aware of the differences between the so-called “real” event and the transformed fictional event? Carlson says the common question people ask writers—“Is your story based on personal experience?”—is a good question when its aim is to gauge the distance between so-called “real life” and fiction. Carlson tells his students, “I write from personal experience, whether I’ve had them or not.”

What Carlson describes about writing “The Governor’s Ball” is a process of discovery, not a fulfillment of “intention.” He says the primary advantage the experienced writer has over the beginner is his “tolerance for not knowing.” And it is this process of discovery--by which Carlson says, “If you get what you expect, it isn’t good enough”—that partially accounts for why it is fallacious to think that if you can discover a writer’s intention you can discover the meaning of a story. When Robert Browning wrote the poem, he may have had some quasi-conscious sense of what he intended or what he was discovering in the process of writing, but that when the work was completed, he disqualified himself from having any authority as the ideal reader of that poem with privileged knowledge of its “intention” or meaning.

In her Introduction to The Moons of Jupiter, Alice Munro wrote that she finds it hard to talk about her stories after they are published because of a “queasiness” about “examining.” Furthermore, she notes about the so-called “biographical” connection that might privilege her knowledge of the story, “Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” And the reason for that, of course, is the complex literary/language process that occurs when the writer actually writes and thus transforms so-called “real life” into the language construct known as a story.

Ron Carlson is, I think, right to focus throughout his little “How I Did It” book on the process of discovery. Throughout, he emphasizes how he was, in the process of writing, glad to let the story “migrate from ‘real life,’” making changes from the mere events for the sake of the significance of the story. By recounting where he made such changes and why he made such tactical choices as characters’ names, settings, situations, etc, Carlson provides some valuable advice to aspiring writers to allow themselves to be open to self discovery in the process of writing. But he did not necessarily provide any valuable suggestions for reading the story.

In case you have not read “The Governor’s Ball,” here is a brief summary. Broken pipes have flooded a guy’s house and he must get the sodden carpet and other ruined stuff to the dump in time to get ready for attending the governor’s ball with his wife. The last thing he piles on his pickup truck is a soaked mattress; on the way, the mattress flies off the back and disappears somewhere along the freeway. After taking the rest of the stuff to the dump, he stops at a bar to call his wife to say he will be late, has a drink, has a small encounter with a dancer, goes looking for the mattress, meets a homeless man and woman who help him find it, taking them for a ride on the mattress in the process. The story ends with the homeless woman, with tears in her eyes, saying, “It’s so beautiful. It’s so chilly and so beautiful.”

Carlson admits at the end of the book, “It is not my job to explain the story or understand the story…. Every story is a kind of puzzle…. We write to present questions, sometimes complicated questions, not to offer easy or not-so-easy answers.” Carlson says he made up the narrator’s meeting with the two homeless people completely when he came to that point in writing the story. However, he notes he is not sure that writers spontaneously create anything, but rather that writers “find elements of stories suggested suddenly by the context” that they have created.

I think Carlson is being quite honest in admitting that he does not know what the story means, although he certainly begins to get some idea of what meaning he is creating (or discovering) as the continues to write and allows the context of the story to compel him to create characters, events, and dialogue that begin to “come together” in some meaning. At the very beginning of the story, when the wife reminds him of their commitment to a friend to go to the Governor’s Ball, the narrator tells her he has to get to the dump, saying “I’ve got to go,” a line, Carlson says, that somehow suggests the narrator has a “strange sense of duty and is using it to avoid his responsibilities to the relationship.” Carlson says without knowing it, he has rigged the narrator to operate from this “bad faith position.”

“But this is key,” says Carlson, “he doesn’t know it. And I, sitting; there typing in the first hour of the day, don’t know it. I don’t need to know it. It will teach me.” Carlson notes again later that the narrator is not capable of declaring, although this would be convenient for the reader, what is bothering him. “Literature is one place where we honestly acknowledge and sometimes celebrate how imprecise an instrument the human being is when it comes to registering and measuring the true ramifications on earth.” He concludes the book by saying that the “literary story is a story that deals with the complicated human heart with an honest tolerance for the ambiguity in which we live.”

This is, in my opinion, good advice for the aspiring writer, and Carlson’s memory of the process of writing the story—where he used events that actually happened, how he changed those events, why he created the characters and dialogue in the story, where he invented material and why--may or may not be helpful to someone trying to write. However, it is what Carlson left out – justification and explanation of the particular tone/voice that he created, the specific language that he used, the juxtaposition of the three separate but related actions (the narrator’s trip to the dump, the wife he imagines at the Ball with another man, the homeless couple), the realization of the narrator when challenged by the dancer at the roadhouse, the trickster glee of the homeless couple, the homeless woman’s rapturous joy on the mattress in the back of the truck—all this is up to the reader to reorganize in a meaningful way to understand the “complicated human heart” and the “ambiguity in which we live.”

The following specific details of the text are what must be recognized and reorganized along the lines of analysis/interpretation, not along the lines of chronological plot action:

“I had wrestled the carpet out of our basement, with all my strength and half my anger.” (What is the reason for the other half of his anger?)

When his wife says they are due at the Ball in two hours, he thinks “I wanted to fight, but I couldn’t come up with anything great.” (Is it just the wet carpet that makes him want to fight, or is there something else? Is it that we sometimes want to fight, but not really sure of why we want to fight—either that we cannot articulate it or that to articulate would be shameful or risky or both?)

Why does he note that the soaked mattress, heretofore hidden behind the front door, is his and his wife’ wedding mattress? When he says to Cody, “I’ve got to go,” her car window is up by the time he finishes the sentence. Why is she so abrupt curt?)

What is the narrator feeling when he thinks about his wife at the Ball with their friend Dirk—all dressed up and elegant while he is stinking with dirt and water? Why does he remember that at such functions Dirk always manages to seat himself by Cody?

After the mattress flies off, the narrator says he did not want to go back and retrieve it, noting that it was nine years old and had been in the basement three. Given the fact that mattress is their wedding mattress, this simple line seems significant. “But I had lost it. I had to call Cody.” (What has he lost?) It also seems significant that when he does call his wife to tell her he is going to be late and to go on to the Ball with Dirk, he ends the conversation with this one word, “Behave.”

He constantly imagines what is going on at the Ball, with Dirk introducing his wife Cody with the line, “You remember Cody Westerman. Her husband is at the dump.”

Although Carlson says he just invented the encounter with the homeless couple at this particular point in the writing process to meet some demand of the story, the narrator says, significantly, “They looked at me frankly, easily, as if this meeting had been arranged.” And indeed, as we begin to see, it has been arranged, at least fictionally, to serve the thematic purpose of the story, as Carlson begins to discover that theme in the process of writing the story. And that theme comes together as the narrator drives around with the homeless couple on the mattress in the back, looking up at the stars, “their arms folded tightly over their chests like corpses, the woman’s face absolutely closed up in laughter. They were laughing their heads off.”

Admittedly, this is not a particularly complex story, but it is a funny, endearing, insightful story about a couple who have been married nine years, who have the mixed feelings about each other of love and irritation that all couples have, who often find themselves in completely different places with little sympathy for each other, who have different wishes and different demands. Carlson finds a clever way to embody this inevitable ambiguity of relationships by juxtaposing the fancy Ball against the stinking garbage.

The narrator is first challenged by the dancer in the roadhouse, who sees him staring at her and says, “Don’t even try to buy me a drink…. I’ve seen your kind before. Why don’t you go out and do some good?” Although he is not trying to hit on the girl, he recognizes in her retort that he falls within that category of men who stare at her.

He comes to a further recognition when he contrasts the seeming uncomplicated relationship between the homeless couple and his relationship with his wife. As the couple lies on his ruined wedding mattress in the back of the truck, having a delightful time laughing at looking up at the stars, he cannot but be somehow aware of what he has lost. At the end of the story, when the homeless woman cries and the narrator asks the man what she said, it is appropriate that her response is so intimate that the narrator can only hear it second hand from her companion, “It’s so beautiful. It’s so chilly and so beautiful.”

By the time he completed the story, Carlson had some idea of its thematic significance, but only by looking back on it, as a reader, not a writer with some “intention.” All the reader needs in order to understand and respond to that thematic significance and how it is integrally embodied in the details of the story is the completed “text,” not the external “context.”

Ferreting out the context—biographical, historical, social, cultural, political, etc. etc. etc.—is, in my opinion, merely an academic ploy for avoiding the much more difficult encounter with a literary story, which, as Carlson says, “deals with the complicated human heart with an honest tolerance for the ambiguity in which we live.”


Jerri said...

Thought-provoking post. I was with you right up to the point when you said, "Ferreting out the context—biographical, historical, social, cultural, political, etc. etc. etc.—is, in my opinion, merely an academic ploy for avoiding the much more difficult encounter with a literary story." That seemed a little perjorative, and the tone provoked me to rant about the value of reading in context on my own blog rather than taking up space to rant about it on yours. Thanks for offering such challenging food for thought! I might be dead wrong about literary fiction, life, the universe, and everything - but I'm enjoying it all immensely.

Charles E. May said...

Jerri, I read your post on your blog. Thank you for your passionate response. Please know that I am not trying to suggest that background information is useless. I think it is interesting, although more helpful for novels, however, than for short stories, which have never really depended on social context. As my post on the new Alice Munro story "Gravel" tries to show, I just think there is no substitute for a close analysis of the thematic patterns within the story itself. And as for my tone--well, I have had too many harsh encounters with the so-called "new historicists" and cultural critics to be conciliatory with them.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Mighty fine. Makes me want to look up this story, though your synopsis can't be beat.

I think all authors of fiction should aim at the transcendental, even if the only way to achieve it is to let go of author intention.