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In Defense of Irrelevance

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 natureit 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.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.

Lesson learned!

÷ ÷ ÷

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

  1. The Song Is You (Random House...
    Used Trade Paper $2.95
  2. Angelica Used Trade Paper $2.50
  3. The Egyptologist
    Used Trade Paper $3.50
  4. Prague
    Used Trade Paper $2.50
  5. A Confederacy of Dunces
    Used Trade Paper $6.50
  6. The Tragedy of Arthur Used Hardcover $8.95
  7. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn...
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  8. Nabokov's Butterfly: And Other... Used Trade Paper $7.50
  9. Animal Farm: A Fairy Story
    Used Trade Paper $9.95
  10. Lolita
    Used Trade Paper $9.95

Arthur Phillips is the author of The Tragedy of Arthur

12 Responses to "In Defense of Irrelevance"

    David Eubanks April 20th, 2011 at 11:40 am

    Everything worthwhile has a point of some sort, though it may be ephemeral and tiny, or eternal and large in significance. Words have meaning so that me may convey meaning. Lay off the teachers. It's not indoctrination to ask the kids to reflect on what meaning they drew from reading something.

    Beth Long April 20th, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    I remember distinctly how I sat there in that classroom--trusting, waiting--fully expecting my professor to explain a particularly ambiguous ending to the play. I had finished reading the play and been deeply dissatisfied--what was I going to do with all these loose ends, with all the questions the author hadn't answered? With the very "ending" he'd left wide open? Surely my professor would know and let me in on the secret. Surely he would point out what I had missed. But he didn't. And I hadn't missed a thing. It was impossible, my professor said, to know exactly what the author had meant. What was far more important was what I brought to the work as a reader: what did I see, what did the work make me feel, what did those words add up to in my mind? I will never forget that seminal moment in my education. And I wish it had come far, far sooner than in my junior year of college. There are many ways for educators to encourage their students, however young, to read closely and to think for themselves. Asking "what the author meant," a wasteful, unanswerable exercise in futility, shouldn't be one of them.

    Virginia April 20th, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    This sounds like lit crit at its finest. I remember being forced to find 'meaning' in the colors of 'Grapes of Wrath' in high school. When I asked why, the teacher assured me that her college professor taught them the colors were MEANINGFUL. It was a small occurence in a long education, but that stayed with me forever. Kudos to you for helping your child know that great literature can be shockingly lovely without making a point ... Sort of like Seinfeld was a show about nothing and everything.
    Going to go find your books now!

    JoAnn April 20th, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    Sometimes while reading, watching tv or even listening to the radio, I find myself asking "Why are you telling me this?" It doesn't require a one-sentence idea the author is hoping to convey. Maybe the answer is "I want to excite your emotions," or "I find these people fascinating | appalling | sad and think you will, too." I just think there must be some reason for telling a particular story in a particular way, when there is a whole universe of stories out there. And if I do think I'm being dishonestly sold some idea or emotion (sneaking it in under the radar because it's "only a story"), I tend to stop paying attention and move on to something else.

    Dr. Darin April 21st, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    I celebrate the irrelevance of my own work on a daily basis. Today, I scream to the heavens with no point whatsoever: Irrelevant unite - it is our time (then again, maybe not)!!

    ddsharper April 21st, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    This article confuses the things the author is saying with the things the author believes. They are irrelevant. All words have meaning, thus using words, all authors have messages. What the author believes is never the point but instead, it's what the author is saying, through his instruments, penetrating the soul and minds of his readers. In my opinion, the best authors are those who are able to express antithetical viewpoints, through their characters, and offer the reader a chance to see, both through the eyes of villains and heroes alike. Teachers are exist to guide people into discriminate thinking, to evaluate and absorb. Fun is irrelevant and beyond the point. Without the questioning, without the probing, without exposure to various points of view, contained in the pages of art, regardless of any author's personal viewpoint, we end up numb and dead, without the true joys of life, as we have now in society; a dumbed down generation, as we have in this country for at least 3 generations. The best artists get out of the way of their art and take in the rainbow of humanity's experience to shine and the colors to be witnessed, with all their hues and shadings, by the minds of readers, by observers of art. So at least society moves forward, garnering from the experiences of such are, with new combinations gleaned from those, who, with courage and substance, reveal their minds and their feelings and their art on the canvases from which we inhale and absorb their works. Their works, be it paintings or novels should stir in us subjective and probing insights, intended or not, by those who share their genius, insights greater than the man or woman gifted with conveying the deepest parts of reality and life itself.

    Really Good Teacher April 22nd, 2011 at 2:08 pm

    Let me start by saying that generally I agree- before the interbot world starts going at me.
    First there is the obvious statement that the author of this of this article is clearly not a middle school English teacher. Not in my neighborhood, at least. The point is clearly valid. I get it. I really, really get it and I agree, essentially, but it's not this black and white. And "dangerous nonsense"? Really? Dangerous? Nonsense? He's specifically introducing the issue as being with his 6th grade child (11-12 years old.) There are certain developmental hurdles to be dealt with growing children, but that's not addressed in this article. It's not that I feel that indoctrination is not good at any age, but there are limits to the brain's ability to comprehend and process information as it's developing. Regardless:

    Mr. Phillips, your Harvard education and ability to make a living writing books and blogs on the Powell's website should hopefully be able to buy your children the education you think they deserve. Certainly it allows you the conversation to be had with them at the dinner table. The dinner table that has food on it. I wish that for all children. Every single child that I know now, have known, will know, have met, will meet and will never meet should have a father/mother/parent as educated, caring knowledgeable, and understanding as you. But in the mean time, the rest of us will deal with children born with Meth addiction (and parents still addicted,) foster care, over crowded classrooms, gang and family violence, funding issues, language barriers, a poorly structured educational system, and the list goes on and on and on and on and on.

    If this issue is your greatest educational worry, and by that I mean enough to write an article about it, then count yourself lucky- or do something legitimate about it because this article isn't really all that important in the grand scheme of things.

    Michael H April 22nd, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    What is this blogger trying to say?

    Arthur April 22nd, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    Dear Really Good Teacher,

    I would first say, "dangerous nonsense" was meant as ironically and ridiculously as possible. I don't in fact think this issue is a matter of dangerous nonsense. I think it is a matter of importance to people who read fiction, and is no more or less important than fiction.

    Second, I don't think that serious social issues--such as the state of American public education, parenting, hunger, gang violence,equality, Meth addiction, etc--are the only things worthy of public comment. I think that art for art's sake is an issue upon which I am qualified to write, and one that happens to matter to me, so that when I am asked to blog (unpaid, since you assume otherwise) for Powells, the website of a book store, I do not for a moment think that my option is that I should either fix a national problem or keep my thoughts to myself.

    The fact that I wrote about the topic I did still allows for the possibility that I have strong feelings (which you may or may not agree with) on other, officially weightier topics.

    While I appreciate your faith in my parenting and education, I don't think they disqualify me from writing about topics you think are trivial. I don't think that my selecting a topic to write about makes it my "greatest educational worry." Am I to have an opinion and possible solution for gang violence before I address literature? Or should I preface any remarks about literature with a statement that they are of course less important than remarks about gang violence?

    I actually think this all illustrates the point I was making above.

    Very sincerely (and with sincere and honest respect for your work as a teacher),
    Arthur Phillips

    Barbara April 26th, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    There is nothing like a Literature class to flog the love of reading out of a kid.

    Donny April 27th, 2011 at 12:40 am

    Thank God you have already told your son what to think, it will save him a lot of trouble in the future.

    karissayeager April 28th, 2011 at 8:58 am

    good for your son

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