meaning and story

A recent Fiction Writing session dealt with the idea of meaning in story, that is literary meaning in the context of craft discussion. The subject was “Deportation at Breakfast,” a story by Larry Fondation. I don’t think I discourage discussions of meaning in story but I do make a distinction between the analysis of craft, especially in a course’s early stages, and literary analysis.

The “literary meaning” of a story is a big time issue but the “meaning” of “meaning” changes with context. Is Fondation’s story about the triumph of the individual; is it about the inevitability of change; is it about the roles we assume; is it about exile (deportation); is it about being the good guy; is it about sacrifice? Does the story situate itself in a modernist tradition of objectivism? What is the model of analysis? I know that the story works within its “frame of time” until it ends and normalcy resumes. A man is left at the counter, wondering about tomorrow.

Is that enough? I’m going to let the students fight this one out.

The question for me will be: what makes the story work and how does figuring an answer free up the fingertips as we walk our characters onto that tentative white and move them into the window frame.

7 thoughts on “meaning and story

  1. susan

    I think your Literature courses, including Contemporary Fiction, are more focused on “meaning.” I think in the act of writing, the meaning is not always clear, even to the writer, and is not something that is consciously entered into a story, although it may be, as in poetry. Meaning is very important, but is clearly debatable and could get into very involved discussion that can take precious time from within a writing course. But I’m open to whatever.

  2. Jim

    I (think I) agree with Susan on this one. What we should be focusing on in a writing course is pretty clear: the act of writing. The meaning of the stories we analyze to learn about this is basically moot. Craft, not content. Form over function. Writing over reading.

  3. gibb

    I think at last night’s Narratives meeting we proved how important understanding the craft, as James notes, is before we get into meaning. It all sounds so simple–write a story; but the intricacies and nuances of presentation need both be learned and practiced, both in reading and writing to be able to spot the elements in what is read, and to implement them in what is written. Yes; lots and lots of work.

  4. Maureen

    There is always meaning… It is just different for each writer or reader…

    I agree with Jim that the “craft” is important… Without that “foundation”…the story is without structure…Thus, it loses it’s meaning… There is always a structure..even if it is not apparent to the reader…

    I am thinking about Lyn Hejinian’s “My Life”. It is an autobiography..but it is not written in the usual sappy or straightforward style..Some might call it antiseptic or cold..But there is meaning there..It is just more jarring.. Certain lines evoke a visceral reaction….

    Most Graciously,


  5. Neha

    You mean to tell me that your students are still trying to find answers that pretty much aren’t there?

    Maureen, structure is part of what carries the meaning in a story. Where would the story be if there was no framework around it? I think a writer should just write – the central mesage will stand out and then the reader will be free to evaluate it. Some stories were written purely for style. I say this because I’m trying to make peace with William Faulkner.

  6. Maureen

    Oh yes Neha, that was my point.. Some stories are purely writtten for style..[As in the case of Lyn Hejinian]…The “meaning” comes from outside..from those who then take the work and make it their own…

    A writer can indeed “just write”..but without any structure, it is all just babbling…

    Even those works that “appear” out-of-control..there is a structure there…Just not one we are used too…

    Most Graciously,

    *A Mayde in her own little woode…

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