Allegories: The Ups and Downs

Cruciblecover
Cover of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Image taken from Wikipedia. Fair use.

Lately I’ve been reading Arthur Miller‘s classic play The Crucible with my 11th grade Honors students, and I’m loving the experience. Reading it aloud in class with them has reminded me of when I first discovered the play as an 11th grade student myself, and its powerful characters with strong moral themes still resonate with me today. In fact, I tend to get so caught up in the action of the play, in the brilliant character dynamics and the almost otherworldly setting of early Puritan America, that I almost forget a few things. I forget that the play was written much later than it takes place—within the last century rather than in the 1600s—and that the author wrote it as an allegory for the social and political climate of his own time.

Now, why would I gloss over such an important historical detail, and one that is well established as the greatest influence for the writing of the play? Maybe it’s because allegories get a bad rap sometimes—and, sometimes, they deserve it. Oftentimes, when we think of allegories, what comes to mind is childish fairy tales with thinly veiled symbolism and much too didactic moral messages. I am reminded of stories like the Chronicles of Narnia—a series which, though I enjoy and respect it to a great degree, is understandably considered by some readers obvious and simplistic in its symbolism. Of course, I’m also reminded of some of my own science fiction and fantasy writings from five or more years ago that I kind of cringe to remember, because the Christian symbolism was similarly thinly veiled and rather unoriginal. (Heck, I know someone in a Christian writers’ community who even used the word “allegories” in the title of an independently published graphic novel. It’s like some authors aren’t even trying to hide it.)

The point is that allegories are sometimes looked down upon these days, because when they’re too obvious, they can come across as preachy and pretentious—a moral message disguised as a work of fiction rather than a genuine creative work itself. I saw an internet article once that, when poking fun at heavy-handed symbolism in a popular contemporary novel, jokingly called the author “C.S. Lewis.” And that got me thinking. First, my English major nature thought things like, “Well, if you think C.S. Lewis’ symbolism was so heavy-handed, then maybe you should go read ‘Young Goodman Brown‘ by Nathaniel Hawthorne and be glad for C.S. Lewis. And if you think that’s too much, then you should go read The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, in which pretty much every character’s name equates to some moral concept like ‘Charity’ or ‘Despair’ or ‘Faithless.’ But once I let my snarky English major side calm down a bit, I got to thinking, “well, aren’t there right and wrong ways to do symbolism and allegories in ways that today’s audiences will accept?”

And the answer is that, of course, there are. After all (though I personally haven’t seen it yet), wasn’t there recently a very popular movie in which the characters were just living embodiments of emotion? And aren’t some of the superheroes I like, the Green Lanterns and their multi-colored associates, based largely on the same thing, harnessing their powers from will or fear or hope and rage?

It’s not that symbolism—or direct thematic conveyances of emotion—are entirely shunned in today’s culture. It’s just that those elements have to be coupled with others, too—like good characters and a good story, which every compelling work of fiction should have anyway.

I remember writing a paper on the allegorical nature of The Faerie Queene, and how it (or at least the part we read in class, because the whole thing is super long) is pretty much just a Christian knight battling monsters who represent different sins, and using supernatural help to overcome them. My professor recommended a book called The Allegorical Temper, which I ended up citing in my paper. I don’t have exact quotes handy anymore, but the author’s consensus was that allegories only work if they’re stories as well. They shouldn’t be only moral messages, but they should be able to function on two levels, as messages conveyed through a good story. If a character represents an idea, then the character shouldn’t completely disappear into that idea; they should still be a well-developed, fleshed out character who is enjoyable and compelling to read about, like any other character should be. Then whatever underlying messages are present may still come through, but without overpowering the story for what it’s supposed to be.

Animal Farm
Copy of Animal Farm by George Orwell. Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons.

In hindsight, I’m not sure I can say that The Faerie Queene meets that goal particularly well. Obviously, more than a few direct allegories have been good enough to make their way into the classic canon of literature, and yet they vary in how much they actually tell a story beyond just the allegory. I recently started rereading George Orwell‘s Animal Farm because I’ll be teaching it too later in the year. Of course, my memory may be flawed because I haven’t read it in a decade, but I seem to remember the symbolism in that book being fairly thinly-veiled as well. Different animals correspond directly to different people or social classes involved in the Russian revolution, and the plot is narration-heavy without a lot of room for extra character development. The anti-totalitarian theme—a political message if not necessarily a moral one—comes through very directly, and the entire story seems to be there to serve that theme.

But again, consider The Crucible. It’s well known that Arthur Miller wrote it as a caution against the militant McCarthyism sweeping through 1950s America. Thus, the judges conducting the Salem witch trials within the text of the play are analogous to the anti-Communist courts of Miller’s era, and the town of Salem can be seen as a warning against America following a similar path. But that’s about it. That’s where the allegories end. John Proctor, the main hero of the story, doesn’t directly represent goodness or sin or anything like that. He’s a well-developed, realistic character with both good and bad traits, who just acts in accordance with his personality based on the events of the story. Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, isn’t directly representative of any one person or philosophy in Miller’s time. She’s just the villain, acting on evil motives but not on the author’s determination to drive home a moral point. The characters have lives and stories of their own that stretch beyond the text of the page and can exist independently of the author’s anti-McCarthyist sentiment.

To summarize: if you’re ever trying to write an allegory, or any story with an above-average amount of symbolism, know how to do it well. Include your symbolism and the themes and meanings you want it to represent, but don’t lose sight of writing a good story beyond that. Develop your plot and characters first and foremost so that the deeper messages can really come through in an engaging, compelling, and powerful way.

Pleasure Reading as “Research”

My motto in life.
My motto in life.

I’m an English Lit grad student. I want to be a college professor if and when I ever decide to grow up. Basically, this means I get to read awesome books and write things for a living, which makes me extremely happy. What I’ve discovered, ever since coming to the Dark Side and becoming an English student, is that the reading I do for fun and/or for classes (usually they’re one and the same) actually help me with my creative writing. Like a true academic, I have thus taken to referring to my reading as “research,” whether or not it has a direct bearing on whatever I happen to be writing at the time. The different styles and approaches of the works I read give me fresh ideas for future writing projects. Frequently I come across phrases or descriptions that strike me as interesting, and they influence areas of my story. In other words, when I’m working on writing projects, I make a point of reading as many books as I can – no rhyme or reason to the selection thereof (unless I’m doing REAL research), just books I’m interested in. And I’m often surprised at the cool stuff that shows up in my own stories as a result. A few months ago, I put together a list of books I need to read that I will pick up while I’m working on projects. And believe me, some pretty awesome writing is happening as a result 😀 So, I’m going to share my list with y’all. Any works anyone would recommend that I add?

 

Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe (Finished)
Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut
The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie (Finished)
The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka (Dreadfully dull, but I’m going to read it anyway)
1984 – George Orwell (Finished)
The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
White Noise – Don Delillo
The Art of War – Sun Tzu
East of Eden – John Steinbeck
Animal Farm – George Orwell
Beyond Good and Evil – Nietzsche
Foucault’s Pendulum –Umberto Eco
The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett (In Progress)
The Gambler – Dostoevsky
The Idiot – Dostoevsky
Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John le Carré
The Tale of Genji – Lady Murasaki
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
Catch 22 – Joseph Heller (In Progress)
Dr. Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
100 Years of Solitude – Marquez
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
The Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton
Lady Chatterly’s Lover – Anthony Trollope
The Beautiful and Damned – F Scott Fitzgerald
The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins
Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne
War of the Worlds – HG Wells (Read this 13 years ago – need to read again)
Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad (put me to sleep on the last attempt, so I’m going to try it again)
The Portrait of a Lady – Henry James
Middlemarch – George Eliot
The Man Who was Thursday – GK Chesterton (In Progress)
The Road – Cormac McCarthy
Beloved – Toni Morrison
2001: a Space Odyssey – Arthur Clark
Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Allan Quatermain – H Rider Haggard
Blythedale Romance – Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner (Also have to read for an American Modernism class)
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
The Awakening – Kate Chopin
The Man in the Iron Mask – Alexandre Dumas (read 13 years ago – time for another go through)
The Prisoner of Zenda – Anthony Hope
Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
Vanity Fair – William Thackeray

Young Adult Fiction

This image is property of NPR. We hold no rights to it.

Last week I introduced a hot topic in the literary world through some questions about the up-and-coming genre Young Adult Fiction, often called YA fiction.  NPR recently posted their top 100 list, and needless to say, it caused a few debates about issues found in the following questions.  I asked readers to answer the questions or post their own thoughts on the topic as comments.  Additionally, I took these questions to some of my facebook friends, an assortment of English teachers and other literary scholars.

The questions were as follows:

1. What is the place and role of MODERN YA books?  Note: the word modern as used here means books written within the past 15 years or so.  This does not include books like To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace, LOTR, etc.  It does include books like Harry Potter, Twilight, 13 Reasons Why, etc…

2. There has been some discussion on the fact that many of the top 100 books have a female author.  Does this make a difference?  Is there a reason behind it?  Should/how can this change?

3.  What are some pros and cons for YA books, especially modern YA books, in and out of the classroom?  (Ex. PRO: Encourages reading.  CON: Simplistic in style.)

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In going over the responses there were some general concessions about YA literature.  Mainly, that it generally contains a watered-down style of very little literary value.   While there are some exceptions to this rule, such as the Harry Potter series (which is genius when you look at some of the stylistic techniques used by Rowling, but that’s another post), most books in the YA category serve as little more than cheap escapist entertainment.

However, I did have one response stating that YA fiction shouldn’t exist at all, as its very presence essentially gives permission for authors to write poorly conceptualized and written novels.  Still, there were a couple of responses that basically listed YA literature as “gateway” literature which inspires interest in reading and is therefore a good thing.

So, let’s take a more in-depth look at YA literature and break it down a little.

Garfield is a classic.

First, as to its existence, I say “why not?’  In our modern world of globalization, societies are filled with people trying to find a place where they fit.  In the literary world, this is where genres come into play.  There is a genre for everyone, even the creepers.  No one questions the need for and existence of children’s books and of more adult-focused books.  Why?  Because parents recognize that children need books specifically targeted at their attention range, reading level, and social existence.  Therefore, no one criticizes the Berenstain Bears books for being simple or the Mercer Meyer books for focusing on specific issues related to kids, liking making friends.

Likewise, adults also wouldn’t want their younger, or even teen children, reading some of the books written for adults (ah hem, 50 Shades of Grey). Sexually explicit books, as well as novels with a high volume of profanity, should have no place in a teen’s mind.  Now, not all adult literature is like that, it is true.  But then again, adult literature, is by it’s very nature, geared towards adults – adult life, adult emotions, adult situations.  While a young adult, especially on the older range, may get some value from adult books, they are still generally left out in the cold.

For, if there were no YA genre, then young adults would be stuck with the stories of their childhood and pre-teen years.  And let’s face it.  Teens should not be stuck with the stories of their childhood for several reasons. Talk about simplicity.  Reading those stories will not help improve their reading level.  Two, the sheer boredom will remove all vestiges of interest in reading they have.  As they grow older and their situations change, so do their interests.

YA books cover a whole host of topics that relate directly to its targeted audience.  It provides a balance between the transition from childhood to adulthood.  Stories are fairly straightforward, sometimes exceedingly simple, yet.  However, the issues covered handle everything from divorce, bullying at a more mature level, identity issues, drug problems, sex, college stress, and more.  But, these issues are covered in a more age-appropriate manner.  As a result, it gets YA readers who usually read nothing more than menu at a coffee shop, a gateway into the possibility of books.

Now, to cover content.  The stories themselves as far as plot and content go, I can usually condone through the above reasoning of relateability .   However, as for the actual literary content (writing style, characterizations, etc) I have no excuse.  Yes, many of the YA books circling the public realms today makes me cringe.  And I am a huge advocate of YA books in general.  When I read a YA characterized book, I am not expecting Thomas Hardy or Dostoevsky.  I don’t expect that when I’m reading adult literature like John Grisham, Dan Brown, or Stieg Larsson.  I expect something more befitting the reading level of 8th-12th graders, preferably closer to 12th graders.  With this in mind, then there are quite a few good YA authors such as Sarah Dessen and Gayle Forman.  That being said there are seemingly more authors who use as genre as an excuse to publish quantity over quality, especially in the YA paranormal department.  Still, this problem IS NOT unique to the YA genre.

Which brings me to my next point.  When comparing the YA books of today with those of the past, there are going to be a lot of grumbles at the sad state of YA literature.  After all, who can compare Twilight with To Kill a Mockingbird, A Prayer for Owen Meany or 1984 with The Hunger Games?  In fact many readers wouldn’t classify To Kill a Mockingbird, A Prayer…, or 1984 as YA books.  Their intrinsic value is so far above teen fiction today and their themes transcend typical teen angst and teen society that they belong to adult literature.   Yet, they are classified as YA literature.  And, in comparison, everything produced today seems juvenile.  At least that’s what the critics say.  However, once again, this is not unique to YA books, so it should not be held against the genre.  Adult books have the same problem.  Larsson and Brown are good, but they do not hold up to Dostoevsky.  And what leg does Jodi Picoult have to stand upon when compared to Louisa May Alcott and Charlotte Bronte?   Literature, in most genres, is sliding from the standard classic sets.  If you punish one, you really should punish all.  We could get rid of genres all together and let all books blend and mesh into one indistinguishable mess.

Ideally, all YA authors would have a proficient grasp of literary techniques and styling.  They would write novels that efficiently transition to and more closely resemble adult literature than children’s literature.  Kudos to those that do.  But, just because that is not sweepingly the case does not call for the elimination of the genre.  It does not lessen the value of the books that justly and efficiently serve their purpose and place in YA literature.

To summarize, I’m including a response from one of my literary scholars that gives a fairly objective voice to the three questions (meaning she lists the good and the bad).

‎1.) To further rot our adolescents brains and to think that things like abusive relationships are okay. On the other hand, it does foster an active imagination and a desire to read, which getting adolescents to do nowadays can be challengi

ng.2.) I think there is a huge difference between a male writing a YA novel and a female. For example, Christopher Pike wrote some amazing vampire tales. They were gothic and intriguing and appealed to both guys and girls. And then you have Stephanie Myers who wrote Twilight. I can count on one hand the number of guys who read Twilight. Some women can accomplish the feat of writing to appease both genders, however most seem to prefer the woman’s point of view and write primarily to a larger female audience. A greater majority of male authors, on the other hand, can write to appeal to both genders.

3.) A pro of the YA novels in the classroom is that it does encourage reading. However, a big con is the absolute lack of morals and creativity that a lot of popular YA novels have. Most encourage and have things such as smoking, drinking, sex, and drug use throughout the novels.

ONCE AGAIN, feel free to comment and discuss.  

Close Reading

Me, pulling out the glasses for some serious Close Reading.

When I was a wee lassie, first commencing my journey into serious writing of the expository sort and first learning how to analyze and review the works of other, more prestigious writers, my teacher, God bless her, set to me a task that seemed the worst form of punishment.   She had me CLOSE READ.  She actually had me perform task after arduous task of close reading!!

“What is close reading?” you ask.  “Scandalous!” I reply.  How can any writer not know what close reading is?  However, never fear.  For those of you who did not have my beloved high school English teacher, the indelible Mrs. Engler, I am here to explain and save the day.

Close reading has a couple of variations to it, but simply put, it is breaking down an author’s works into its smallest components.  The simplest, yet most arduous form is similar to diagramming.  Basically, you look at how many adjectives are used, action verbs, to-be verbs,  adverbs, periods, exclamation marks, question marks, etc.  If you really want to go for it, you can even break the verbs into their many components: transitive, intransitive, linking, etc.

Another variation looks at the type of language used in a broader sense.  How many metaphors, similes, cliches, idioms, etc.  It also takes into account the genre, writing type (e.g. expository, short story, or poetry), and tone.

So, now you’re thinking what is the point of this crazy exercise.  I know that was my first thought when I was clued in on the details of this pain-in-the butt exercise.  Well, it just so happens that I  have an answer for you.

Enough said.

There are actually a couple of good points/uses for close reading.  Close reading carefully scrutinizes an author’s writing style down to the minute minutia.  So, the first point is based on the theory that until you know what good writing looks like, you can only write poorly.  By studying the writing styles of the best authors in detail, You learn what works and what doesn’t.

This leads into my second point.  Whether we like to admit it or not, everyone has at least one author that influences their writing and writing style, sometimes more than one. As you begin to study the works of other authors that you admire, you can learn how to mold and create your own writing style, once again using what works and throwing away the trash.

Point three assists the scholars out there.  For anyone who has dreamed their way through a literary theory or literary criticism class, you will understand what I am saying when I say word choice MATTERS!  Close reading is an incredibly handy tool when you painstakingly have to analyze a piece for a paper on authorial intent, structuralism, deconstructionism, Marxism, feminism, and all the other -isms out there.  However, even more so, when you learn that word choice and tone are important and you learn how different authors play around and around and around with words, your research paper on the death of Julius Caesar will be strengthened; your character analysis of Spock will have extra insight and depth, and your poem detailing the effects of Harry Potter on society will be so much more emotional.

The best part is that you can get all of the above effects just by actually reading a paragraph or two of an author!  Just one or two teeny paragraphs will clue you in on that writer’s style.

Challenge A: Compare paragraphs 1 & 2 for imagery, tone, and action verbs.

1.

“I saw only blackness at first, and the moon’s white trail across the water. But I searched the space where he pointed until I found a low black shape breaking into the sheen of moonlight on the waves. As I squinted into the darkness, the silhouette became more detailed. The shape grew into a squat, irregular triangle, with one side trailing longer than the other before sinking into the waves. We drew closer, and I could see the outline was feathery, swaying to the light breeze.” Excerpt from Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer

2.

“HAVING MOUNTED BESIDE HER, Alec d’Urberville drove rapidly along the crest of the first hill, chatting compliments to Tess as they went, the cart with her box being left far behind. Rising still, an immense landscape stretched around them on every side; behind, the green valley of her birth, before, a gray country of which she knew nothing except from her first brief visit to Trantridge. Thus they reached the verge of an incline down which the road stretched in a long straight descent of nearly a mile.” Excerpt from Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Challenge B: Analyze paragraphs 3 & 4 for word choice.  Do the words used add or detract from type of book?  What tone is created by the word choices?

3.

“Alanna looked Thayet over, fingering the emberstone. Thayet was dependable. She was a good archer, a necessity when they hunted to feed themselves. If she was nervous, Alanna had yet to see it. She never complained, never cried, never fainted. She never shirked her watch. Thayet and Buri would be an asset to an expedition like theirs.

Alanna looked at Buri and was surprised by a pleading expression in the girl’s eyes. She replaced it with her usual scowl, but this time Alanna wasn’t fooled. Buri must be worried sick, she thought. And she knows Thayet will be safe with us. Besides, I’d miss them.” Excerpt from Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce (genre: fantasy)

4.

“When Catherine took the throne, the Russian legal code, promulgated in 1649 by Tsar Alexis, the father of Peter the Great, was chaotically obsolete. Since the code had first been issued, thousands of new laws had appeared, often without reference to previous laws on the same subject…The result was that government departments were disorganized, administration throughout the empire was inefficient and corrupt, and failure to define the authority of local officials had led to landowners taking ever greater powers at the expense of the peasantry.”  Excerpt from the biography Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

Challenge C: Paragraphs 3 & 5 are both tween/teen fantasy books.  Compare the language (word choices) used.  Which one is on a higher intellectual/academic level?  Does this mean the lower level book is bad writing?  Which words would you replace to increase the lower level book and decrease the higher level book?

One will win. One will lose in this ultimate close reading competition.

5.

“Except for the fact that each had a large brass number above the door (odds on the left side, evens on the right), they looked absolutely nothing alike. Number nine had smokestacks, like a tiny factory. Number four had tomato vines on the walls and a roof made out of real grass. Seven seemed to be made of solid gold, which gleamed so much in the sunlight it was almost impossible to look at. They all faced a commons area about the size of a soccer field, dotted with Greek statues, fountains, flower beds, and a couple of basketball hoops (which were more my speed). ” Excerpt from The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan