reading against the text

Thursday, January 8th, 2004

Whenever I read Garcia Marquez’ Chronicle of a Death Foretold, an odd thing happens. CDF tells the story of Santiago Nasar’s murder, a murder committed because of a misunderstanding. The novel begins with Nasar’s murder and then “chronicles” how the murder came about. The narrative, therefore, is circular. But here’s the odd thing: even though I know Nasar dies, murdered by essentially good people, I read through hoping that the outcome will be different. I know there can be no other outcome. Yet, I read the novel expecting there to be another outcome: that Nasar will not be killed.

How does an author generate this “reader response”? The same goes with King Lear. Every time I read Lear I hope the text will end differently. I’m hoping for the play to change, for Edmund to open his mouth. But he never does. I know he won’t. But I read “hoping” that he does.


8 responses to “reading against the text”

  1. joanne says:

    I think the author is responsible for creating a character that generates sympathy whereby the reader roots for their success, unlike Woody Allen’s Kugelmass, yet our collective “human nature” can’t be dismissed either. Who can watch a documentary on JFK or Princess Diana and not hope for a different outcome?

  2. gibb says:

    Yes, Joanne’s theory is a very likely possibility. Good writing will create a character who elicits a sympathetic response.

    Or, but highly unlikely in this case, a poor writer will have his readers “rewriting” a better ending.

    But one of the elements I would see at work here with you in particular as the reader, is a tendency both to question, and analyze. Your “what if…” personality is also what makes you a perfect devotee of hypertext media.

  3. Rina says:

    I have a one track mind so I’ll apologize in advance…we can call it my ‘stuck on stupid’ setting.I dunno what the technical term would be but when a writer does what you’ve described, they’re screwing with our sense of reason or justice or exploiting a weakness in the reader.It’s sadistic, really.Everything should follow a proper practice, order, or procedure. That’s what Bacon was trying to get us to do in real life…Back in my Creative Writing days you used to encourage us to cut off our characters’ limbs because it makes for good drama.And even despite this deliberate practice found in fiction, the saying goes that truth is stranger than fiction.And it usually is.In Milton’s “Paradise Lost” I was freaked out for a couple weeks over the exploitation of my defiant instict which caused me to have sympathy for the devil…and in the process I found myself pitted against God! It’s just genius, because in that moment I came to understand how paradise could come to be lost.And in a strange sort of way, I gained an appreciation for the loss.***creepy***In Dicken’s “Oliver Twist” the invisible hand had my heart in a strangle hold for a good half of that tale. Luckily, Dickens was kind enough to give me a break at the end of that brutal trip.And even still, he goes and murders Nancy…the heroine, murdered. Where’s the justice in that???Ugh.

  4. Neha says:

    I agree with the sympathy analogy. It could just be the pure genius of the author, but for the most part, I don’t like reading stories if I don’t develop a soft spot for the characters in them.

  5. Deb says:

    Rina-I felt exactly the same way when I read Paradise Lost and unfortunately, many of Dickens’ books are like that .

    Susan- you are definitely right that there have been times when I have hoped that the author wouldn’t kill off so and so or whatever just because it would be predictable and terrible writing to do so.

    I think that there is a way of portraying a situation or person that makes it so closely identifiable for us that we hope for things we know won’t happen. But I also think that some stories have endings too unimaginative, tragic, or strange to hope for, even though the ending may be a foregone conclusion (how many of us were truly hoping that Titanic would not end with the boat sinking?) It’s a strange thing to try to figure out what could make me hope that the Titanic won’t sink while I am rooting for Satan in Paradise Lost.

    I also think that its possible that I sometimes just want the ending that causes me the least discomfort as a reader. HmmIll think about this some more and let you know if I come up with anything else.

    Deb

  6. gibb says:

    Deb, you say: “I think that there is a way of portraying a situation or person that makes it so closely identifiable for us…” and I think that’s the key.

    This is where the skill of the writer comes in. To understand human nature, to have cognizance of an unknowable audience of individuals and choose the experiences they share and respond to, and yet be far-reaching enough to “hook” those who have not had the experience is an art. A writer attempts to gain camaraderie for a paper character and his plight from flesh and blood readers who span generations as well as lifestyles. There must be a well-defined thread of commonality that is as vague as it is clear; as open to speculation and individual interpretation as it is to provide a “surface” story. And then, propose it in a voice that is appropriate to the situation yet is one that becomes an intimate associate.

  7. Rina says:

    Deb, Do you REALLY think you crave a comfortable ending though? I mean, if the writer gave you a truly comfortable ending, do you think the trip would have been worth it or as memorable?In fiction, I find that when the writer gives me a comfortable ending, I am satisfied that I can go on…but the tales with haunting endings tend to linger and strike me with pain long after the tale has ended.Sweetness is never truly as sweet without the bitter.BTW, anyone hear of an author named Fugette(?)…I believe he’s Chilean and wrote a book called Movies of My Life…I heard an interview with this gentleman on NPR this a.m. and found it to be interesting…Any comments?

  8. Spinning says:

    WRITING: Writer/Reader Relationship

    Upon reading certain literature, a most interesting question is proposed by Steve Ersinghaus at The Great Lettuce Head: bHow does an author generate this “reader response”? The same goes with King Lear. Every time I read Lear I hope the