Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Observations around literary criticism and interpretation

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With an eye on my own book plans, I have spent some time thinking on topics like literary criticism and interpretation. Two central ideas, partly applicable in other contexts than literature:

Firstly, when it comes to literary criticism, a major common error is to not cleanly separate between what the work/author attempts to achieve and how great the success is. For instance, some years back, I was disappointed by the “City Pentalogy” (also see an excursion): the goals of the author were simply not compatible with my goals as a reader, and I judged the (general) value* of the books more based on this than on their quality. It is, however, quite possible that the books achieved exactly what the author wanted—and it is possible that another reader would have viewed them differently merely through having a set of priorities closer to the author’s.

*The formulations actually used in the linked-to text are not very critical sounding; however, they understate my disappointment at the time.

Or consider “Oasis Army” by John Robb—an obscure 1959 book for boys. (See excursion.) I just finished my first adult reading,* and consider it absolutely brilliantly written—for the purpose of entertaining boys. From a “literary” point of view, it is a complete triviality, but it was not written to compete for the Booker Prize. While it entertained me enormously as a boy, I can today understand why and that the typical author with the same target group would do very well to take it as an example. (Indeed, while my own intended target group is considerably more mature, I intend to revisit this book to help with some problems in my experimental writings.)

*I “inherited” a copy of a Swedish translation from my father, which I read with great enjoyment on several occasions as a boy. It was one of a few dozen books that I brought with me to Germany from my visits to Sweden. (In this case, for sentimental value.)

A naive critic might reason that this book has no higher value or purpose—therefore, it is crap. Vice versa, a naive reader (e.g. a considerably younger me) might reason that “I loved it; ergo, it is a great book!”, which is equally simplistic. The better perspective is to note that the book had a purpose (e.g., in this case, entertaining boys or earning money) and an execution, and then to grade the former based on how valuable we consider the purpose and independently the latter based on quality and success. Both dimensions of the evaluation will, obviously, still often be highly subjective, but a disagreement about goals will not kill the evaluation of the execution—and the author has a better chance to be judged by his own priorities.

Of course, this type of evaluation is to a high degree dependent on having an idea about the author’s purpose. Often, it is approximately known in advance through knowledge of author or genre, based on a foreword, or similar; often it can only be (speculatively) understood through studying the book. But what to do when the purpose cannot be discerned? A partial reason while I was so critical against “Pride and Prejudice” is that I could find nothing that this book was good at, implying that more-or-less any purpose would have been poorly implemented—but then we have its sustained success… If Austen’s goal was a large readership, she has been successful—even if I cannot understand why. However, possibly, she had some purpose that I failed to recognize, that is well implemented, and that did hit home with millions of readers.

Secondly, with regard to what a work “means”: As is clear from the above, there are at least two perspectives on a book—the author’s and the reader’s.* This brings the danger, and very common error among naive readers, of perceiving an intention, a meaning, whatnot, to the book that is not (necessarily) there—and to simply declare it the truth. This in two forms: believing** that no doubt remains about what the author intended and believing that the author’s intention is irrelevant (“my ‘truth’ is the truth”). A particular danger is present when it comes to “hidden meanings”, e.g. an obsession with symbolism in fiction or attempts to find hidden hints in religious writings, e.g. by use of numerology. (The latter example show the unsoundness of this attitude.) It is very true that a reader might find a personal value or an interpretation that the author never intended, which is of a corresponding personal benefit—I do all the time. However, such interpretation is comparable to e.g. contemplating a koan—the koan can serve as inspiration for own thought, but own though cannot create an inherent meaning that was not there to begin with, nor can it prescribe what the author’s intentions were. Similarly, there are some natural phenomena, e.g. crystals that form near perfect cubes, that could easily be interpreted as made by humans—but which do not become so because of the interpretation.

*More accurately, as many perspectives as there are authors and readers (taken to include critics). For the sake of simplicity, I will stick to a two person perspective. Note that an original author who revisits a text might be viewed as a reader and/or as another author, depending on his activities, because his later intents or his own perception of his original intent need not match the actual original intent. (Cf. the saying that you cannot cross the same river twice.)

**A border-line case is formed by understanding that doubt remains but failing to mention this in discussions. This might be acceptable when the doubt is very small or when it is implied from context that statements refer to beliefs—not truth.

Here it can help to apply a more explicit message model, where e.g. the author/sender has an intent, tries to capture it in a message, and this message is then interpreted by a reader/recipient causing a (possibly faulty) perception of the original intent. Into this model, we have to factor in possibilities like the author making a faulty capture (e.g. through language errors or through leaving out something important), the message being distorted (e.g. through printing errors or censorship), the reader making mistakes (e.g. misreading a portion, accidentally skipping a paragraph), and, importantly, that author and reader might have too different world-views or whatnots for even a (theoretical) nominally perfect transmission from brain to brain to result in the correct understanding. (Also see e.g. parts of [1].) The impression that arises with the reader does not prescribe what the original intent was—and it does not prescribe what the message means.* Similarly, while Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” with some set of intents, monkeys endlessly typing until they accidentally have reproduced the same text do not have an intent—and their “text” does not have an actual meaning, even if the actual text by Shakespeare did.** The reader might very well see a message in both cases, but it is not there in the second case. Indeed, even in the first case, recognizing the presence of a message would be correct, but it is by no means a given that the interpretation of this message is even remotely compatible with Shakespeare’s intent (and the actual meaning), when we move beyond the surface action. Thus, it is not correct for the reader to speak of a “meaning” in “Hamlet”, just because he perceives this meaning. (In contrast, “interpretation” is quite acceptable.) Similarly, there are messages formulated in one language that might, by coincidence, form a valid statement—but this does not imply that the meaning of this statement is the meaning of the message. For instance, a written “Chat!” might be an English demand that someone joins an online chat—or it might be a French notice that a cat has appeared. Similarly, (even a spoken) “Mist!” could be an Englishman commenting on the fog—or a German saying “Shit!”.***

*But there are situations where a message misses the original intent sufficiently that the reader’s interpretation of what the message actually says might be more correct than the original intent. For instance, “I could care less” typically intends the diametrical opposite of what it says.

**This might be easier to understand with a simpler example, e.g. a grown-up who sends a chat message “Hi!” to start a conversation and a cat (even if French) who takes a walk on the keyboard and causes the same set of characters to be sent. The recipient might interpret both events in the same manner and respond identically, but the one actually involves a message, the other a mere coincidence. (However, this example shows that there are non-messages that can be used to deduce or speculate something about the “sender” or cause of the non-message, e.g. that someone or something pressed certain keys. When “means” is used as an equivalent of e.g. “implies”, it might be valid to speak of meaning in such cases—e.g. “this message, with its many typos, means that John is drunk again”.)

***Indeed, there is a scene in a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode, where a “Mist!” by Englishman Giles first made me think that I had accidentally landed in a German dub…

Excursion on “Oasis Army”:

(Brief summary: Plane crashes in the Algerian desert. Crew and passengers are captured by terrorists. Heroes escape and bring military help to defeat the terrorists.)

Among the factors that make it great boy’s entertainment: A very high tempo, interesting characters,* various machines** and weapons, danger and suspense, heroes and villains, several plot twist, a very sympathetic surrogate character,*** … A very positive point is that the protagonists did not win through just deploying brute force, having superior weapons, being simultaneously impervious to bullets and master sharp-shooters, or some other common characteristic of this genre—no, they won through thinking, through being smarter than the antagonists. I suspect, however, that there is some vague aspect of quality that I cannot put my finger on (even now), where making the right calls in the countless detail decisions make a difference between e.g. good and great or mediocre and good. (This matches my experiences with e.g. software development—there are very many small decisions made all the time, often unconsciously, and the sum of all these small decisions can amount to the worth of one or several much larger decisions.)

*Including a captain of the French Foreign Legion, a world-class heavy-weight boxer, and a highly capable, but possibly slightly insane, terrorist leader.

**This the more so in 1959, when one of them, a passenger airplane, was still somewhat exotic and new, and when very few of the readers would have own experiences with flying. Indeed, it was only years after my own first reading that I first flew, despite being of a later generation than the original readers.

***A brave and intelligent boy, as the main character, well suitable for the boy-reader to identify with.

As brilliant as it is, I suspect that this book would have been an impossibility, had it been written today, or that it would have been very heavily PC-ified. The three main protagonists are all Westerners; the antagonists appear to have been something in the Algerian family, possibly Berbers*. One of the protagonists is a soldier for the occupying French; while the antagonists, named as terrorists, might well have been viewed as heroes and freedom fighters in today’s climate. The description of the antagonists sometimes point to cruelty, crudeness, incompetence, or whatnot, relative the Westerners. To boot, an Armenian, while nominally on the same side as the protagonists, is painted as a fool and a coward, which today would likely be interpreted as “he was a fool and a coward because he was Armenian; ergo, the book is racist against Armenians” (the author might or might not actually have held such sentiments, but he is not likely to receive the benefit of a doubt today).

*They are referred to as “Dylak” in the Swedish translation. I do not know whether this is or was a real group. Other references are made to variations of “Arab”.

Excursion on the “City Pentalogy”:

(Brief summary: The five books each deal with roughly a twenty-year span from 1860 (a hundred years before the first book was written) until 1968 (the year that the last book was written), and follow the lives of several families in the Stockholm of the day, usually with an emphasis on working-class conditions.)

This series and I have a complicated history. I first tried to read it at a fairly tender age, possibly around twelve, and lacked the ability to appreciate it on an adult level. Indeed, I was quite annoyed when the main protagonist (“Henning”) of the first book and its twenty-year span died towards its end—and this just aged thirty-four, give or take. Here I have invested all this interest in the main character—and he dies with four-fifths of the series remaining!?! I did continue with one or two of the other books (I am vague on the details), but never really recovered my interest or grew invested in the other characters, and I did not conclude my reading. This likely influenced by some of the more “adult” aspects going over my head or just seeming very odd. At this time, I was likely a few years younger than Henning at the beginning of the first book.

Much later, I grew curious and wanted to renew my reading, having the suspicion from my vague memories that it would be a quite interesting read. Likely at roughly the same age as Henning at the end of the book, I asked my mother to send me a set for my birthday. This led to the text linked-to above. I did see much that I had not seen as a child, however, e.g. the historical value. At some point of the fourth book, some thing or another came between me and the continued reading, and I never got around to start again. Eventually, they (and many other of my books) spent the years between my moving to and from Düsseldorf in the one box or the other, the minuscule apartment not allowing a full unpacking.

After I moved to Wuppertal, (some of…) the books resurfaced, and with my renewed interest in Sweden, I gave the first book a third try last week. Now, I am not only considerably older than poor Henning ever grew, but have also gained a greater appreciation for other goals than my own, and could appreciate the book more deeply even in the absence of e.g. the “intellectual depth” that I found wanting from the series the last time around.* Indeed, right now my main complaint is that I have also recovered books 3–5, while my reading is blocked by the continued absence of book 2…

*In combination with a somewhat limited entertainment value: I am not a a major “book snob”, and I am very prepared to read e.g. a shallow book that entertains me. However, an aspect of unfulfilled expectations could additionally have played in—I expected something intellectual and read looking for, but not finding, it. Of course, during my last reading, I also had expectations of social realism and historical interest that were more suitable.

Moreover, I found that the early parts of the first book, possibly due to greater early ambition by the author, contained at least some attempts at adding a bit of psychological insight and whatnot (but, unfortunately, these soon faded). To boot, the introduction has an almost poetic character and the juxtaposition of the early hopes and dreams of Henning and the harsh reality that he is very soon exposed to, is both gripping and educational, if in a very depressing manner. Indeed, the title of the book is “Mina drömmars stad” (“The City of my Dreams”, but with a more poetic feel and lacking the hackneyedness that phrases with “dream” tend to have in English). Dream—or nightmare?

Among the “whatnot” above, we have a good example of what I write about in an earlier text: How e.g. literature is filled with explorations of the male role, in stark contrast to claims by gender “scientists”. For instance, the worries of the young Henning include topics like whether he is yet a man, how he is supposed to behave in the company of (indisputable) men, how in the company of women, and similar. Through-out the book, there is a theme of being responsible and providing for his family, even at great personal sacrifice, which is an aspect that I am explicit about in the linked-to text. This to the point that he arguably worked himself to death, not being able or willing to afford the rest and care needed to combat a TBC infection.*

*I cannot judge whether the book is medically realistic in this regard, but this is a very secondary concern in the current context.

As an aside, while the book is written in the tradition of Swedish social realism and critical-of-society worker’s literature, it is not as one-sided as e.g. the propaganda of typical Leftist politicians. For instance, the author points to how many are held back by spending significant parts of their earnings on alcohol; for instance, one of the few wealthy characters is the owner of a company built from the ground by his father (grand-father?), who found a way for himself to make money.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 14, 2019 at 8:42 pm

5 Responses

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  1. […] hindsight, I will backtrack a little with regard to an earlier text, especially the […]

  2. […] This single sentence concisely covers much of what I try to say in the second half of an earlier text. […]

  3. […] years, finished* Per Anders Fogelström’s “City Pentalogy” (cf. excursion in [1]). My feelings remain mixed, and I would rate book one considerably above the others. A particular […]

  4. […] combining Tolkien’s text with earlier thoughts of my own (notably, [2]), as well as some library readings on literature, I am growing skeptical to literary criticism as a […]

  5. […] terms of the history of my reading attempts (cf. excursion in [1]), I conclude that my first attempt (decades ago) must have contained at least a portion of book 2, […]

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