My older son is lately being asked by his sixth-grade English teacher (in increasingly suspicious tones to match the rebellious doubtfulness of his resistant replies), "What do you think the writer is trying to say in this story?" I have done my child no favors, I suppose, by telling him, since he was three years old, that this question is inane and should be ignored.
"What is the lesson of this story?" my younger son is asked by his second-grade teacher in turn, and it's all I can do not to storm into his class like a parent with strong views about the Pledge of Allegiance or Huck Finn and demand she stop indoctrinating my child with dangerous nonsense.
I know. I know it's not bad to teach kids to read closely, to pay attention to words, and I know this fossil of a question is a tried and true method to inspire readerly concentration. Still,it seems like we pass this idea of the writer-as-fancy-messenger from generation to generation without thinking about its misleading, reductionist, exclusionary, fun-smashing, possibility-laming nature. Some writers — at least some of them — are not trying to say anything. They have said it, and it takes as long as a poem, story, or novel to "say it." The thing they are saying is a poem, story, or novel. They are definitively not trying to say something pithy that can be recited by a second-grader, sixth-grader, or reviewer in a daily newspaper.
If that student or critic says of a novelist, "He is trying to say that war is bad," then they are expressing something exactly wrong (even if war happens to be bad, even if the novelist in question happens to feel that war is bad, even if lots of the characters in the book are maimed in war and feel bad about it and say that war is bad). They have been taught exactly the wrong lesson, and I'm afraid it started back in second grade. Our little minds are awfully susceptible at that age, and perhaps we should also be throwing in a counter-agent like, "What is the character saying that you agree with? Disagree with?"
For once we think we know what a writer is "really saying" — some hidden but discoverable message, lesson, or autobiography — then there is no limit to how much we can get wrong: anti-Stratfordianism (the idea that the works of William Shakespeare were written by someone of another name) exists, in part, because readers think they can tell what the writer of the plays actually believed and actually experienced, even if the same play contains multitudes of contradictory opinions and mutually exclusive experiences.
I have done this long enough that I can make a general assertion (i.e., one that is wrong at least some of the time): literary artists view their job, most of the time, as a matter of synthesis: combining what they feel with what they do not feel, what they believe with what they know others believe, what they fear with what they are proud not to fear, what they desire with what they no longer desire or never did.
I defy you to read a well-written, non-didactic novel by a writer who is alive today — who is available to answer questions about what she has lived, felt, thought, known, imagined, fantasized, feared — and then point to the part of the novel that is undoubtedly autobiographical, and get it right with any percentage beyond chance, and then prove it by comparing your conclusions with undoubtedly true statements by the novelist. In rare cases, maybe. Most of the time, no chance.
Now do it with a book by a dead writer. Now do it with a book written centuries ago, by someone about whom we know only cursory facts. Now do it without knowing much about their friends or family or, more importantly, the people they only saw occasionally or from a distance and then turned into characters or pieces of blended characters. This is simply a fact. Most of the time you do not know what the writer has lived; you do not know what he believed; you do not know. And so the question "What is he trying to say?" can only be answered by a projection of your own mind: he is trying to say whatever it is that I think he is trying to say.
There is such thing as didactic literature, of course; I can't deny it. I even love some of it. But that hardly means that all literature is didactic. Animal Farm is certainly saying something beyond the story of a pig or two, but that doesn't mean Lolita is saying anything beyond the story of Humbert and Lo. ( Molestation is bad? I think we could have expressed that in some other form than Lolita, whereas the magic and wealth of Lolita cannot be expressed in any other form than itself.)
It's been called "art for art's sake," of course, often by people who were in fact practicing it for something else's sake...
In fact, in the literature I most cherish, the antithesis of any easily stated thesis is present in the same work. Which means that none of those ideas is really what the author is "trying to say." If "molestation is bad" is present in Lolita, so is the thoroughly unpleasant notion that "molestation can contain elements of love." Well, which one of those did Nabokov truly "believe"? Which one is he trying to "say"? Honestly, the only way to answer those questions is to project our own hopes or doubts back on to him. This is because he likely believed one of them or both of them, but had no interest in trying to say either.
But the payoff, the beauty of reading non-didactic literature, and reading it non-didactically (reading it without asking what the author is saying), is that you can nevertheless extract something from your reading, something that feels not like a lesson or a moral, but like a communication devised — in great detail and astonishing specificity — just for you. As if the author has intended to say something to you about your very specific thoughts, life, actions, aspirations. When the writer lets the moral go, gives up on relevance or applicability — stops trying to say something easy or hard or true or distillable about life, the country, capitalism, health care, molestation, war, etc. — then, magically, a spontaneous moral education is possible, brought out of the reader by a unique reaction between text and that one unique reader, a magic from which the imaginary notion of a "writer," a writer trying to "say" something, is totally removed, and totally unnecessary.
In Nabokov's Butterfly, the lovely memoir by rare book dealer Rick Gekoski, we are reminded that the novel A Confederacy of Dunces was rejected by countless publishers, including Robert Gottlieb at Simon & Schuster, for, essentially, not saying anything. Before rejecting it definitively, Gottlieb wrote John Kennedy Toole, the author, and explained: "There must be a point to everything you have in the book, a real point, not just amusingness that's forced to figure itself out." Right. No school teacher could have said it better, or worse. Gottlieb was well-trained and spotted a book that couldn't possibly have a great impact on millions of readers, because he could see that the author wasn't saying anything, or not enough of something.
÷ ÷ ÷
Arthur Phillips is the internationally bestselling author of The Song Is You, which was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best novels of the year by The Washington Post; Angelica; The Egyptologist; and Prague, which was also a New York Times Notable Book and the winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. He lives in New York with his wife and two sons.
Books mentioned in this post
Arthur Phillips is the author of The Tragedy of Arthur