Transcendence or forced meaning?

In the process of reviewing two books Betty Smartt Carter raises some interesting questions about the role of meaning in novels. Carter reviews Lizzie’s War by Tim Farrington and The Missing Person by Alix Ohlin and both sound like interesting works. But what really interested me was the musings at the end where she compares the way the two books handle meaning:

As an opponent of forced meaning in novels, I sympathize with Alix Ohlin. I like her dry style and her lack of sentiment. She seems less predictably optimistic, less manipulative with our emotions, and therefore more honest than many writers. On the other hand, isn’t storytelling all about finding relationships between things? Isn’t that why we write and read novels – to prove to ourselves and each other that the world means something?

It’s not just sentiment, I think, that makes a novel like Lizzie’s War ultimately more appealing: It’s the author’s hopeful vision. Farrington portrays life not as we experience it, but as it looks beyond our experience, in a place where events and people do tie together in mysterious and even sacred ways. That transcendent viewpoint trumps even style, though we can always hope (being foolishly optimistic, I guess) to find more novelists who will give us both.

What say you? Is “storytelling all about finding relationships between things? Isn’t that why we write and read novels – to prove to ourselves and each other that the world means something?” I will offer some thoughts on this subject later, but in the meantime I would love to hear what others think.

I have an idea of how one person would react . . .

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

View all posts

4 Comments

  • Well, yes, for me storytelling is in the relationship of things.

    As to its purpose in reading, I think Hannah Arendt (a political philosophist) says it just right:

    “Storytelling reveals meaning without

    commtting the error of defining it.”

  • Well, yes, for me storytelling is in the relationship of things.

    As to its purpose in reading, I think Hannah Arendt (a political philosophist) says it just right:

    “Storytelling reveals meaning without

    commtting the error of defining it.”

  • I’ll go with the idea that novels are about relationships of all sorts, but do we write in order to “prove the world means something”? No, not many of us. Many stories are written in pursuit of the fullness of the truth observed or at least one angle on it.

    She says it’s beyond her experience that people and events tie together in sacred ways. Hmm, that’s right in my experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *