This meme has been doing the rounds on Facebook again. There seem to be a never ending stream of people who like and agree with it, and every time I go argue. It keeps me out of the Guardian comments…
There are so many different ways in which this is wrong.
First, it suggests that teachers are rubbish and know nothing of the “real world” – because that’s what this is fundamentally about. It’s an argument about the nature of reality, and who gets to define it. Now me, I’m not particularly authoritarian (pun not intended) and I like to rebel more than the next person. But just as a teacher doesn’t get to define reality for me, neither does a writer. I would prefer to engage with both before coming to my own conclusion. Which may change at any point in the future….
Second, teachers and writers are not always mutually exclusive groups. I expect quite a high proportion of English teachers – and these are the targets of this simplistic, reductionist, ill thought out meme – also do a bit of writing.
I’m going to lose count at some point, so I’ll give up here.
If you’re reading a story and the curtains are mentioned, I’m just guessing – but if we’re beyond Ladybird books and Janet and John, there’s some meaningful thematic reason for the damn curtains to be mentioned.
Anyone who’s ever tried to write a story knows description is hard. If you write too much of it, it slows the story down – and in the words of Elmore Leonard that becomes the bit that readers skip. If you’re otherwise offering them enough reason to keep reading and not fling the book across the room, that is.
If you don’t offer enough description then you fail to create a world in which the reader can lose themselves in the fictive dream. Your writing is too abstract and fails to engage the reader’s emotions.
So the writer has to select the details they choose to include very carefully. They must be details which make the story come alive for the reader, they must be visual or sensory in some way. But if you waste a detail like the colour of the curtains to convey something only about the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum then you’ve wasted an opportunity. Perhaps you’ll get away with it in a hundred thousand word novel, but not in a short story, that’s for sure.
There’s another question this raises. Does the author always consciously know what their intention is when they describe the curtains.
I think you’ll know what I think. Sometimes I think we barely know what we consciously mean when we converse in our daily life. But I’ve certainly had the experience as a writer when I’ve re-read a piece where I’ve written better than I consciously knew. (I’ve also had pieces of intended symbolism miss the mark completely and fall flat, of course.) But perhaps a text that is being discussed by a teacher is more likely to contain the former – symbolism which works.
And finally – for now, at least – reading is a collaborative process. As is all communication. We all bring our own experiences to it, and every reading, every instance of understanding – and misunderstanding – takes the work of more than one conscious mind.
Note I am not saying there’s no such thing as misunderstanding. Of course there is. Sometimes it is just mistaken, sometimes it is self-evidently wilful. However the point I am making is that there is nothing clear cut about these blue curtains. They could be a pretty floral print that represent depression because they are drawn on a bright sunny day, failing to keep daylight at bay. Or they could be a deep blue silk velvet that represent security and safety to a girl who grew up on a sink estate with grey nets and Woolworth’s finest.
But if they’re in a story, they’re not just curtains.