The Titular Line

October 2, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about titular lines—those lines in a book or movie which include the title of the work (the preceding, for example, is the titular line of this blog post).  The working title for the book I’m currently writing is Slash, and though I think it is the perfect fit in many ways, I’m mourning the opportunity to write a titular line.  Since it is just a single word tied closely to the subject of the book, it seems I have the narrator or one the characters saying “slash” almost every other page, so none of the lines carry the important weight of titular line.

The titular line is important, and as such, it has often been made the subject of fun.  If you haven’t seen the Upright Citizen’s Brigade sketch on the subject, do yourself a favor and click the picture to the right for a link to the youtube clip.  UCB gets it so right here, the sketch spawned it’s own tumblr, examples included below.

What makes the fakes so funny is that the titular line is supposed to be important—much too important, as the clerk in the sketch points out, to be given “to some stow-away who arbitrarily walks through the scene.” But it is exactly this importance that the annoying customer is trying to hijack; the titular line is like a flag to the audience, alerting them to a thematically important part of the story, and Titular Line Guy wants to get to hold that flag.

I sympathize with him now that I’m writing a titular-lineless book.  As an author, the titular line is like a special card you get to play once a story, your only chance outside the first and last lines to make sure the reader is paying you their full attention, not just reading for entertainment, but for importance.  It’s akin to announcing to the reader, “This is important!  It was in big letters on the cover—remember?—so listen up!  This is almost as important as my embossed name and the full page photo of me looking thoughtful on the back cover.”

In making you think of the story as a book or a film with a title, the titular line can take you out of narrative.  Even if it isn’t delivered by a random weirdo, this brief suspension of the suspension of disbelief can ruin the story.  If it seems even a hundredth as arbitrary or obvious as these parodied examples, the narrative will seem contrived or shallow.  There’s also the danger that someone will reach the titular line and say, “That’s all this book is about?,” and quit with the assumption there’s nothing more important to come.

When done well, though, I think the titular line can take the reader briefly out of the story in a good way: they might pause for a second and think about the implications; maybe look back at the cover, keeping their finger on the passage while thinking about the expectations it initially inspired; they’ll think of everything that has happened so far, and how it has changed their idea of the novel; and hopefully dive back in to the next paragraph, ready to see how their understanding of those now familiar words might change again before the final line.

Versus Literary Journal–Now Live

September 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

I’m taking a brief break from our discussion of puns to let you all know about Versus Literary Journal because:

1) The journal’s name is a pun, so, technically, it is still germane.

2) It was founded and is edited by my lovely girlfriend Jenny (and our good friend Kate), so I’m hoping I’ll get out of cleaning the bathroom if enough people click through to the journal.

3) Mostly, though, because it is a great idea (literary explorations of pop culture) that is well executed (how come everyone’s blog looks more exciting than mine? (oh yeah… because all I have is black text and Marx Brother’s stills—hopefully just posting their logo below will help jazz things up around here a bit)).

They just launched the first issue this weekend with a short story, an essay, and a poem.  Each of the pieces is exciting, but I especially want to recommend Sarah Turner’s CNF piece “Holy Roller“, because it has the tone of heartfelt humor I’m always trying to write about in this blog.  Sarah runs her own hilarious blog, Sarah in Small Doses, and—to bring us back full circle and ready you for my last post on puns later this week—her latest musings include some great punning on the swine flu!

Moby Dick in Needlepoint (on humor and theme)

June 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last time I discussed humor and subtext, I focused on the way authors can use subtext to involve a reader in the story, drawing him or her deeper into the experience of meaning—but authors can use subtext for additional reasons, as well, while still accomplishing this goal.  For example, in times and places of severe censorship, subtext is often used to address forbidden subjects, and the bond created by the subtext takes on the air of a clandestine handshake between secret conspirators.

But even in free-ish societies like ours, there are some things authors feel they can’t just come out and say.  Anything we could say directly on the subject would sound trite because what we want to say is too complicated and nuanced for words.  I’m talking about the big questions literature grapples with: the true nature of truth, beauty, or what have you—all the meaty issues we generally discuss as theme.

These are the issues that inspire a work of literature, the questions that the story is attempting to answer.  So it is never enough for me when we say, “the theme of Moby Dick is obsession” (or God, or the limits of knowledge, or class-strictures in colonial America)—but it is much worse when we get specific, with high-school three-part essay conclusions, “Moby Dick shows the destructive aspects of obsession.”

I should say here that I love the high-school theme paper, and that through it, my favorite teachers first instilled in me a sense of literature’s power, an idea that has become a driving force in my life.  That said, I feel it is really just a stepping stone to further understanding and that many readers’ desire for “theme” to come in the form of a clear, easy answer, is not just a failure to fully understand the nature of literature, but of language and the human experience at large.

I’m not saying that Moby Dick doesn’t “show the destructive aspects of obsession,” but through subtext, it does so much more that any such simple statement seems almost insulting; if Herman Melville thought a sternly parental, “Don’t succumb to obsession,” would do anyone any good, he could have saved himself a lot of time and sewed a saying onto a wall-hanging instead of writing a novel.  I, for one, am glad he realized most good advice goes ignored, and instead chose to explore the subject (and so many others, tying them all together) in a complicated and nuanced way, to say something about obsession that couldn’t be said in less than the 211,000 words he used.  We don’t get a nice take-away for an inspirational poster, but what we do get is a indelible but inexpressible sense of, “yes, Herman, that’s exactly how it is, isn’t it.”

Theme, then, isn’t a parental lesson or a sermon from on high, but an understanding shared between friends.  As I discussed last time, humor creates understanding in a similarly cooperative way.  The most profound jokes work like theme by communicating a concrete yet inexpressible sense of the truth of our experiences.  When we laugh together at the great ironies of life, commiserating over the cosmic joke of it all, we affirm a shared reality that can be expressed no more concisely than with laugher, but which we are willing to take as concrete because we agree on how abstract it.

I’ll flesh out this comparison with examples next week, but in the mean time, thanks for reading!

If you have to explain it, it isn’t funny—and it isn’t subtext

June 11, 2012 § 2 Comments

Continuing on from my previous posts on the subject—in which I discussed and provided an example of humor as a literary tool and a sense—I want to get into the meat of my argument today and look at the relationship between humor and subtext.  As I hinted at in last week’s examination of Leaving the Atocha Station, it is hard to discuss any literary technique without discussing subtext and theme.  This is because the presence of an underlying theme built by subtext is what defines literature and sets it apart from general fiction.

I don’t think anyone has written so clearly on subtext as Charles Baxter does in his short treatise, The Art of Subtext, which I highly recommend and am greatly indebted to.  In short, subtext is the content implied but not explicitly contained by the text; it could be a character’s motives, the narrator’s understanding of the world, or anything else the author can’t or doesn’t want to express explicitly.  As such, it is literature’s greatest strength; straight genre fiction, depending on the genre, can certainly excel over literature at plot, setting, dialogue, or anything else to quickly satisfy a reader’s desires, but nothing can draw a reader deeper, more permanently into a story than subtext.

For example, if you’re reading a procedural crime novel set in a morgue, you’ll get drawn easily along the surface of a nice plot, and as you’re told what the main character is thinking and feeling, you might grow to like her and learn a few (hopefully forever useless) facts about how to dissect a corpse.  Maybe you’ll get so involved in the circumstances as to hazard an informed guess at the identity of the murderer—but unless it is a particularly literary crime novel, you won’t ever have to wonder at the inner workings of the main detective, the emotions that she may be hiding from even herself, or what her struggles imply about the human condition.

It is the mental and emotional work involved in all that implying that turns a lot of readers of off literary fiction, but for those that stick with it, the rewards are great.  In helping build the story through active involvement, a reader who picks up on subtext gains a sense of partial ownership of the story as well as a sense of communion with the author.  This deeper form of communication is why so many people dedicate their lives to the study of literature, obsessing over single authors or books, while most people won’t dedicate more than $5.99 and a couple afternoons to a disposable paperback.

Humor can work the same way in fiction by building similar bonds and forming another layer of subtext.  Both humor and subtext make generous assumptions about the audience’s intelligence, compassion, and attentiveness; an author who uses subtext takes the risk that the reader won’t pick up on it, losing the thread of the story, just as the comedian takes the risk that the audience won’t understand his joke, settling into a serious silence.  If you have to explain it, it isn’t funny—and it isn’t subtext.

There are many jokes that play on this risk of misunderstanding, and the humor of Chico Marx is a great example.  He’s always playing against the language barrier for a laugh, but while he’s misunderstanding everyone and being misunderstood, our understanding of him as a performer deepens as our laughter effectively says, “We are so simpatico, you and I, that we both understand not just what you said, but what you were trying to say, as well as everything that was implied by the discrepancy.”

So, just as with subtext, the rewards of humor are a deepening bond with each successful communication.  We’ve all broken the ice with a joke in the company of strangers and felt a good laugh cementing a friendship.  Similarly, humor can act as subtext in literature, deepening the unspoken bond between author and reader by letting the reader share in making the meaning of the story.

Just what this meaning might be is the subject of next week’s post, as we’ll discuss the ways both subtext and humor can express the inexpressible.

Thanks, again, for reading!

Show & Tell

June 4, 2012 § 4 Comments

This week, I’d like to take a look at the literary uses of humor I’ve  discussed so far (humor as a storytelling tool and as a “sense” through which the world of the story be brought to life) through a passage from Ben Lerner’s wonderful Leaving the Atocha Station.

Below, Adam describes one of the hundreds of awkward cross-cultural experiences he has while abroad in Spain:

It was getting cold; I had somehow never thought Madrid would have a winter, but I was sweating, no doubt visibly, as Arturo greeted and introduced me to the shivering smokers milling around the galleries glass doors.  I was too nervous to catch the names of the people with whom I exchanged handshakes, but I was aware that my kissing was particularly awkward, that I had kissed one of the women in the corner of the mouth, more on her lips than on her cheek.  This was a common occurrence; with a handful of clumsy exceptions when I had met particularly cosmopolitan New Yorkers one kiss on the right cheek, and various relatives when I was a child, I had almost never, prior to my project, kissed a woman with whom I was not romantically involved.  I wasn’t exactly sure what would have happened if I’d tried to greet a woman by kissing her in Topeka; certainly her boyfriend would have kicked in my teeth if she had one, or I would be at risk of becoming her boyfriend if she didn’t.  It often occurred to me that my upbringing would have been changed beyond all recognition if kissing had been common; such a dispersion of the erotic into general social circulation would have had unpredictable effects.  In Providence I could have gotten away with it, but not without an air of affectation and effeminacy; regardless, I had never thought to try.  But in Spain, I was guilty of abusing the kissing thing, or of at least investing it with a libidinal charge it wasn’t supposed to contain, and when you were drunk and high and foreign, you could reasonably slip up and catch the corner of a mouth.

This passage is indicative of many in the novel, which laughs in the face of the old MFA adage by telling nearly as often as it shows.  Here, the plot is paused for a long paragraph as Adam tells us about the ironies involved in his habit of over-kissing in Spain.  Removed from all but the most general sense of setting (“In Europe they do this–but in America, they do that”), this observational monologue could fit nearly as easily into a stand-up routine as a novel: Lerner, here, is using humor as a fictional technique.  But like all elements of fiction in a book that works, it works in concert with other elements: while we chuckle, Adam is being characterized and our sense of the setting is being deepened and reinforced.

As “sensory writing”, the humorous details in this passage make the world of the story come alive.  The ironic contrast between the setting of Spain and America is deepened, yet again, until it is undeniable fact, true from every angle.  Even more importantly and effectively, though, we’re getting a sense of Adam’s sense of humor, which is probably the attentive reader’s best means of delving deeper into his character.  This scene is ripe for concrete sensory details, but after a mention of the weather, Adam glosses over the physical aspects of the kiss.  Dwelling on the feel of the kiss–the contrast of textures between her cheek and lips, the smell of her hair, the sexual electric jolt it sends down his spine–might make for titillating reading, but Adam instead jumps to the abstract ironies it implies.

It is important to note that with a tightly constructed scene full of details, we might have been able to imply these ironies; but the fact that Adam comes out and tells us shows that to him, satisfying physical lust isn’t as important as his desire to use culture in a way that allows him to stay outside of it.  The most telling line in the passage might be “at risk of becoming her boyfriend.” Adam is always looking for ways to satisfy his urge to be around people without actually having to let his guard down or commit.

It is the jokes in this paragraph that made me realize Adam digresses so often because he doesn’t have much to show; all he can do is tell us about all the reasons he didn’t do what he probably should have.  Far from being a string of useless jokes, then, this passage uses humor as an element of fiction and a sensory detail to invoke a subtext and explore the theme of the novel.

But the relationship between subtext and humor is my next subject, so I’ll leave you here until next week.

Thanks for reading.

The Nonsense Sense

May 29, 2012 § 4 Comments

As a brief intermission from my thoughts on why literary authors should employ more humor, I want to digress and discuss an idea I touched on at the end of last week’s post: our sense that humor is a sense.

In English we refer to our “sense of humor,” and though the categorization fits in some ways, it seems pretty loose in others.  I’d love to know if other languages have similar idioms surrounding humor but would be especially excited to hear of any diverse expressions from around the globe, as they might provide a fresh angle to understand humor from.

In any event, we know that we haven’t always thought of humor as a sense: as Chesterton points out in his definition, the term evolved from the medieval idea of humours in the body, such as bile and phlegm.  As clumsy as it can feel at times, I think our conception of humor as a sense is closer to the truth than this physiological idea that our moods come from within us. I don’t know enough about the theory or its professors and leeches to say what they thought ruled these humours that ruled our passions, but it seems important to me that any conception of humor we have recognizes that it comes from outside ourselves and is mostly out of our control.

As a metaphysical sense (other examples may include our sense of sympathy or sorrow), our sense of humor responds to the levity that exists around us.  But it only seems capable of detecting the crudest distinctions: besides differences between polite laughter, sickly gallows chuckles, and surprising belly-quakes, there don’t seem to be too many lines to draw.  In contrast, we are able to name hundreds of colors and detect subtle shades between thousands more with our naked eyes.  Perhaps there are as many subtle hues to humor as there are differences in the wavelengths of light, or maybe mirth is a solid, unchanging quality throughout the universe: regardless, our senses of humor only seem developed enough to detect, not make many distinctions.

Maybe this is the modern, empirically-obsessed writer’s beef with humor: it is too imprecise.  Whatever the reason, though, it is important to note that mirth does exist; to those with their hearts ready to sense it, it can be found in even the most desperate circumstances.  Literature is about our human experiences, not ideal ones—certainly not ones that make perfect literal sense—and as a result, I’m happy to read a novel about character suffering from a prolonged bout of that critical lack of a sense of humor we all occasionally suffer from (this, after all, is the classic straight-man), but I don’t have much patience for a writer who would purposefully blinds themselves.

Why More (All!) Literature Should Employ Humor

May 21, 2012 § 1 Comment

Because laughing feels good, and I want to do it more.

If this answer doesn’t seem like enough, it’s because we expect our literature to do something more than simply entertain us.  While I think literature would hold a more democratically revered place in our popular culture if many authors focused a little more on being graciously entertaining, I’ll dedicate the rest of this post (and the next few to follow) to the more noble reasons writers should employ humor in their fiction.  Whether you think the sole, true purpose of literature is uplifting our spirits, shining a cold light on dark truths, giving audience to under-represented voices, or toppling the bourgeois hegemony, humor can only help in accomplishing these goals.

Humor is a tool, like characterization or dialogue, and it is foolhardy for any writer to rise to the impossible task of communicating the unspeakable with less than all available tools at their disposal.  Why, then, do some people try to write about parenthood or cancer or vampires without a large box of jokes at the ready?

I wonder if some associate humor with the genre of comedy, a narrative arc which I think literary authors are right in distrusting.  Every element in strict comedies must conform to a path—the protagonist falls further and further before triumphing in the climax— which is much neater and straighter than reality.  In trying to say something astute about life, literary authors need to be looser and subtler, free to let the plot follow the subtext.

But I don’t see why this should keep anyone from using as much humor as their structure allows; no author would think to write a novel without setting because of her distaste for the post-colonial trappings of commercial travel literature.  Nor would she do without a plot because Robert Ludlum could do it better by focusing on plot alone.  There are literary novels that have done so as noble experiments or self-absorbed stunts, but no one except the most fevered manifesto writers (which is probably the farthest one can get from being a fiction writer) have ever suggested that one of these elements is actually a distraction from the story and should be kept out of fiction forevermore.  Why then isn’t humor seen as a necessary element of fiction?

From another angle, humor isn’t a tool but a sense.  We all think of it this way—one’s “sense of humor”—and it is a common admonition in introductory creative writing classes to engage all the senses: the only chance you have of making the world of the story come to life is by stimulating every input the reader has.  A teacher of mine once encouraged the class to revise the first page of a story so that it included at least one concrete detail for each of the five senses.  Why not also engage the sense of humor?

Again, I hope a substitution illustrates my point: it should surely change the story if the narrator were unable to touch the world in a tactile way or if she were fully blind, so it is only a very specific narrative point of view that should ignore humor fully. Full humorlessness, though, seems almost past disability: the man who enters the cancer ward without holding tight to some sense of humor seems as monstrously disfigured as the sociopath who enters without a sense of sorrow or empathy.  While it may be useful to explore characters with these emotional blocks through literature, I fear most of our self-important writers choose to write without humor because they take their own thoughts too seriously.  As a result, their work ends up being evidence instead of an elucidation of this blindness.

Anyhow, that’s probably enough for this week, but I promise there’s more to come soon about humor as a sense and an essential element of fiction.

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