I am doing an individual study on a writer named Marilynne Robinson this semester. I came across this quote from one of her essays and it made me think about this class:
“I won’t pause here to grumble over the critical assumption that the writer cannot intend anything more or other than his or her culture, class, gender, and so on would permit–as these are understood by critics with extraordinarily narrow definitions of all such terms….It doesn’t really matter what the writer, I in this case, thinks she means. The critic knows better than I do. That’s just insulting. I freely grant, I preach, that the origins of a fiction in the writer’s mind are mysterious. So are all of the origins of complex thought, of dreams. Mysteries in their nature seem to invite remarkably convenient solutions, especially as they pertain to human nature or behavior. But some of us are closer to the phenomenon than others. We’re in a position to say no, that’s not it at all.”
This is relevant to our class because we are studying the literature of several cultures and groups of people. And I’ve noticed in this class and in other English classes I’ve taken that when we study cultural literature, we tend to want to parse out the meaning of every last symbol, word choice, or image, especially in relation to the way that we perceive the author’s culture or experience or intent. We want to understand EVERYTHING. But Robinson’s point is that we can’t understand everything about a text. Sometimes the author doesn’t even understand everything about a text. Sometimes the situations in a novel are just that–situations in a fictional story, not commentary on a cultural issue. Or maybe it is commentary, but it’s intended to be understood differently by each reader. If there’s an easy answer, that means it’s probably incomplete.
Don’t take this the wrong way. Of course there is immense value in reading literature in the context of its “category” (in this case, Asian American literature). But I’m going to try to remember as I read these books that not every element of every story, down to the color of a T-shirt or the use of a certain word, is necessarily a statement on something that relates to the topic of the class. That mindset destroys the mystery of the literature.