Saturday, December 31, 2011

Curious George and the Artist's Responsibility

Regular ISLF readers know that I like to muse about an artist's responsibility from time to time, the ethics of releasing narratives out into the world. Well, life just dropped a prime example of it right into my lap. A few weekends ago, I got up early with my two-year-old so that my wife (dear, hardworking woman) could sleep in. I had just ladled a scoop of pancake batter into a hot skillet when my high-chaired tot exclaimed, "Curious George, he ... he let the bunny out? He let the bunny out of the cage?"

"That's right," I said as bubbles appeared around the edge of the pancake. We'd recently read Margaret and H.A. Ray's Curious George Flies a Kite, wherein the titular monkey clambers into a neighbor's backyard and swipes a baby rabbit from its hutch.

The rejoinder came quickly: "I ... I let the bunny out."

Wait a minute, that didn't sound right. "What did you say?"

My little one grinned broadly. "I let the bunny out of the cage!"

At first I thought that must be a mistake, a kind of youthful misunderstanding to which children are particularly prone. Nope. When she got up, my wife confirmed that earlier in the week she'd taken our little one to a you-pick-it farm and had a close encounter there with a jailbroken bunny. Who knew that a child of 28-months could work a latch that fast? Fortunately, she'd come to the rescue before the rabbit had gotten properly free of its prison.

You know the moral here, right? Of course you do, and I can already hear the objections to it. Yes, children are far more susceptible to all sorts of media than adults. Sure, stories don't directly cause individuals to behave in certain ways. And, no, narratives don't need to be squeaky clean or devoid of gritty verisimilitude to pass moral muster. I get all that.

Consider, though, what my old lit prof Leland Ryken has written about storytelling in general: "A ... presupposition that I make of stories is that the characters (especially the protagonist) undertake in experiment in living. This experiment is tested during the course of the story. Its final success or failure is a comment on the adequacy or inadequacy of the morality or world view on which the experiment was based." Now perhaps we can find exceptions to this presupposition. After all, the sea of literature is broad and deep, and I doubt anyone has plumbed its every nook and cranny. But it strikes me as a generally sound assumption, one that we need to take into consideration when we write. The actions of our characters tell readers what we think is normative about life, and some of them will take that to heart.

As for Curious George, the naughty little monkey who always seems to escape any lasting consequences for his actions, I think we might read a little less about his adventures.

(Picture: CC 2007 by youngdoo)


Jackie Jordan said...

I agree with the notion that we should take responsibility for our words. However, when it comes to writing, I am a spoiled-rotten brat. I had the privilege of having a critique partner that encouraged free thought and expression. I was young then and had a lot of controversial subjects that I delved into on a regular basis. When I wrote, it was “off the cuff” – anything goes. Now, freedom of expression is not at all welcomed on the internet, given the diverse audience. So, my old method of “dishing it out” has been replaced by “watch what I say” in an attempt not to insult or “disgust” the online audience. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy writing socially acceptable pieces, but I do miss “getting my critique partner’s goat” with a barrage of off-color language and provocative stories. Ahh, it was great to be young and free …

Scattercat said...

Isn't it less about the text and more about how one engages with the text? That is, one could look at these facts as you've described them and say, "My goodness, the child got the idea of letting rabbits loose from the book. We should read less of those books." Alternately, one could also look at the same facts and say, "That child is making connections between fiction and reality, which is only reasonable, since one of the functions of art is to engage the reader. I will discuss the relationship between the fictional rabbit-freeing and the actual rabbit-freeing with this child, including what consequences accrued to the fictional act compared to the real act. In the future, I will delve deeper into such connections when reading such books so that the child can more adequately utilize fiction as a tool for understanding the world in which s/he finds him/herself."

This is not by way of critiquing parenting choices, of course, but merely pointing out that the relationship between art and life is rarely as simple as, pardon the expression, monkey-see monkey-do. Negative themes in fiction only have a negative impact if absorbed carelessly or thoughtlessly; recall the discussion of the "Twilight" saga a few weeks ago and the sensible (I thought) point that the books are not inherently objects of corruption, as many people read them knowing full well that they are intellectual junk food, but that the problem arises when readers are unable or unwilling to use critical thinking skills in their consumption of the text.

Children, obviously, have very little in the way of critical thinking skills, but then, that's what parents are for, ne? To guide and teach the child how to think about the information the world provides.

Loren Eaton said...


Great to see you! I agree that there's something to be said for shocking one's audience from time to time, particularly if it meshes with one's chosen theme. But the problem with shock is that it wears off so quickly with repeated use. Think of Lady GaGa; sure, a meat dress makes one raise his eyebrows the first time he sees it, but subsequently outlandish couture starts to elicit yawn.

Loren Eaton said...

Isn't it less about the text and more about how one engages with the text?

Yes, yes, yes, most certainly and unequivocally -- when you’re a reader. I was trying to approach the subject from a writer’s perspective, though, and guess I didn’t make that particularly clear.

We all know that communication is binary, that it involves an interaction between (in the case of written stuff) an author and a reader. In an ideal world, the author writes cogently in an attempt to communicate his theme and the reader reads carefully in an attempt to understand it. However, we all know that the process doesn’t always work that way. I see the possible interactions breaking down into four types -- author encodes well / reader discerns theme; author encodes well / reader fails to discern theme; author encodes poorly / reader discerns theme; and author encodes poorly / reader fails to discern theme.

There’s a lot going on here, particularly in the “fails to discern theme” sections. Often when a reader internalizes a theme the author didn’t intend to communicate, the result is harmless. Sometimes, though, it’s pernicious indeed. The whole if-he-loves-me-he’ll-leave-me stuff from Twilight comes to mind, and while I’m sure Meyers didn’t intend to communicate that, you can see how her composition could easily cause some people to think along those lines. That’s where an artist’s responsibility comes in, to try and scrub out the pernicious, easily misunderstandable parts. (You can’t avoid them all. It’s impossible to pen a book that’s entirely impervious to misunderstanding.) Meanwhile, the reader should process whatever he reads in the manner in which you mentioned and, in some circumstances, be willing to set the title aside if his processing can’t countermand certain inherently problematic aspects.

Regarding the parenting stuff, I’m really hoping it isn’t all “monkey see, monkey do.” Because to twenty-eight months, that’s more or less how it seems right now!

Chestertonian Rambler said...

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, especially as it applies to one of my novels. What I had intended as a dark noirish fantasy (what would you call that genre: swords and cynicism? Corruption and sourcery? Chainmail and crime?) does, in fact, allow its protagonist to get away with a crime worse than murder. As so, I'm beginning to think it might be mis-read. I'm generally not paranoid about misreading, but in this case, I feel our nation has enough of revenge fantasies in which one person acts violently in revenge for monstrous violence. I think we've read so many such stories we're living one since 9/11, in which (Dirty Harry style) civil rights and common decency are continually violated in the name of bloody vengeance.

But that said...I still don't believe the story-as-vehicle-for-theme model is the only, or even the best, storytelling procedure. Most of the best stories seem to lie at the nexus of themes, many of which the author wasn't aware of. Sure The Illiad is concerned with "rage" and The Odyssey an examination of "the Man;" sure Hamlet is about indecision and madness; sure Crime and Punishment can be read as an allegory of sin, grace, and culture; sure Pride and Prejudice can be read as an exploration of those two mindsets. But I'm really not convinced that these authors have "succeeded" when I discern their theme. Isn't it more important for me to understand the character of wrathful Acchiles (and the earth-shattering moment when he offers forgiveness)? Or that iconic-to-the-point-of-cliche moment when Odysseus sails between Scylla and Charybdis? Or Ophelia's death, one of the most heart-stopping moments in literature? Or Raskolnikov's particular philosophical bent, one in which intellectual pride and understanding conflicts with basic, compassionate passions? Or Elizabeth Bennet, who is far from a representative of mere prejudice, but rather a memorable loving sister, a woman at home with her flaws but fierce in defending those she loves from the flaws of others?

I think these stories, rather than just making propositions (though they do) give us images and icons that help us deal with life. I don't need to understand what The Odyssey has to say in order to realize that I'm stuck sailing between Scylla and Charybdis. In fact, if I say that "the propositional truth of this scene is that one must take the Middle Road" I'll miss out on its limited applicability (sometimes the middle road is wrong.) The same is true of Darcy--obviously not all wealthy gentleman are as concerned as he is with ethical employment, responsible behavior, &c., though some thematic readers do see in him a justification of an older, class-based society. The point is not what the author says, so much as what the images/themes/characters can do for the reader. (Though of course, Hamlet will serve very different psychological purposes than Raskolnikov.)

The same, I think, is true of Curious George. Actually, the more I consider it, the more I think it's a book made for parents, not children. I've yet to meet a non-parent who has the same nostalgia for Curious George as for Dr. Seus's more childlike characters or for classics like Sam and Gus are Friends. But I've known a lot of parents who are better able to communicate their own experiences by saying "it's like Curious George sometimes, you know?"

The fact that other parents are able to nod and agree, I think, is testament to the non-authorial-intended, non-thematic power of Curious George.

Loren Eaton said...

I think these stories, rather than just making propositions (though they do) give us images and icons that help us deal with life. I don't need to understand what The Odyssey has to say in order to realize that I'm stuck sailing between Scylla and Charybdis.

A discussion of the difference between interpretation (understanding the author’s intent) and application (how it intersects with a particular person’s life at a particular point in space and time) would probably prove useful here. Homer intended a certain thing when he wrote about Scylla and Charybdis, but there can be as many applications of that intent as there are people who have ever read They Odyssey. More, actually, because people’s life circumstances change over time.

Also, there’s a reason why lit profs say that literature is concerned with universal human experience. Perhaps that explains “the nexus of themes” (what I would the applicability throughout the ages) of the best works.

I still don't believe the story-as-vehicle-for-theme model is the only, or even the best, storytelling procedure.

Thrall and Hibbard say it better in their Handbook to Literature than I can:

Theme: The central or dominating idea in a literary work. In non-fiction prose it may be thought of as the general topic of discussion, the subject of the discourse, the thesis. In poetry, fiction, and drama it is the abstract concept which is made concrete through its representation in person, action, and image in the work.”

Note that this doesn’t restrict stories to “just making propositions.” It’s far more nuanced than that.

Okay, off to work now!

Aidan Fritz said...

Responsibility to me means trying to empathize with all of the characters (I like Martin over Tolkien here). However, where I sometimes fail is that I have no qualms about delving into dystopian worlds which don't really match where I'd like to see the world move and I'm not sure I approach the worlds with the same eye of empathy that I do with the characters & views.

Loren Eaton said...

That's not a bad way to do it, Aidan. However, I do think there's room for a lessened empathy (or even a revulsion) for characters with terrible fatal flaws. A lot of tragedy seems built on it.

Chestertonian Rambler said...


Martin, I think, is Tolkien's student even here. Gollum comes to mind, and Tolkien even gave an odd moment of orc domesticity in The Two Towers. Yes, Martin is more broadly sympathetic (though he also has monsters--I'm having a hard time sympathizing with certain members of House Frey, or Ramsay Snow.)

But yes, Martin does far surpass Tolkien in his ability to sympathize with a diverse cast of characters, which means his books intentionally force the reader to draw his own moral conclusions, independent of any one character who represents everything good.

Loren Eaton said...

I really need to read Martin one of these days.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

The Hedge Knight. It's distilled Martin. (Though I've heard the sequel is even better.)

Aidan Fritz said...

Chestersonian, you do a good job of pointing out characters that have that murky quality I like in Tolkien. I was probably inaccurately trying to capture the protagonists vs. antagonists in Lord of the Rings where I have little doubt who is good and who evil, and things are much grayer in Martin (although, it's been a long time since I read Song of Ice & Fire... so I may have rose-tinted memories).

Chestertonian Rambler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chestertonian Rambler said...


I guess I'm still trying to come to grips with your understanding of theme. Thrall and Hibbard seem to vastly oversimplify. Certainly if I read a work longer than 10k words, I want there to be more than one "abstract concept which is made concrete..." Unless, of course, the abstract concept is particularly complex.

Maybe musical metaphors work better. The "theme" of Beethoven's Fifth is, famously, the deep, resonant "DUH DUH DUH DUUUUM." Those four notes tie the whole thing together, and give it a very pleasant unity. One can, in fact, see that theme as the protagonist of the work: the astute listener listens as it transforms into minor keys, hesitant higher pitches (do do do dooo)--all sorts of variants upon this central unifying aspect.

But there is also a lot of music in Beethoven's Fifth that doesn't explicitly evoke theme. There is the beautiful romantic, dark, swirling wasteland of the third movement (I think--I'm not musical scholar, and might be miscounting.) Obviously, one can read this negatively in terms of theme. In that reading, it becomes a place of deprivement, of anticipation, waiting for the central "DUH DUH DUH DUUUUM" to re-emerge. But it would be horribly reductive to read this section only that way--it is also, itself, evocative of a different mood, a sub-theme, that was certainly intended by Beethoven and expressive of his mindset, but that departs from the central theme.

All this, moreover, comes with discussions of Beethoven, an artist (like Flannery O'Connor) obsessed with unitary themes. But what of Wagner (like George R.R. Martin?), who foreshadowed the motion-picture soundtrack by assigning themes to characters or motifs, and whose work gains energy not so much by rationally exploring theme but by throwing contradictory themes against each other, and turning the tension up to eleventy-one (as only opera can do). What of Mozart, who weaves together themes in so complicated a manner that I truly don't know how to begin to read his music? What of the fugue, a form devoted to two contradictory themes, and the tension between them?

And all that is only in the classical tradition, where authors are forced to be self-conscious. With jazz, artists pull themes together from their culture's unconscious, playing with reader's familiarity but getting credit for their ability to hold a note almost too long, syncopate a phrase almost out of recognition--all without even using the word "theme" or, indeed, consciously planning much at all.

I guess this is what I mean when I say that a "thematic" understanding of a work often distorts a text, even when "the theme" is in fact the most prevalent theme in a work. And though some form of "theme" (or "themes") may be necessary for a text to stick in a human brain as a unified object, that doesn't mean an author needs to know his or her theme, or that the text is therefore a vehicle for delivering theme. In fact, as an editor I've seen works where mis-identification of theme, or overly dogmatic interpretations of the theme, destroy an otherwise excellent work.

The Lord of the Rings is, as Tolkien repeatedly observed, "about death," but thankfully that realization came after the fact, and didn't stop him from writing, say, the chapters "A Long-Expected Party," or "A Window on the West," or many other sections that have nothing to do with death at all.

Loren Eaton said...

Interesting. You have a point in your critique of Thrall and Hibbard, although I’d say that “central or dominating” doesn’t equal “unitary.” An author’s work can address many things (which it almost always does) and still have a central thing as its focus (which it often does).

My approach to theme is pretty simple. I believe that authors write to communicate something(s) related to universal human experience. When dealing with appropriateness issues, that means content ought to serve that communication rather than titillate. Of course, that line isn’t always as clear as one would like, because readers have different reactions to an author’s intent, even when they properly apprehend it. (See above.) I’m not saying that this is the only way to analyze a work. Various critical frameworks have value. But any framework that ignores or nullifies this ignore or nullifies the reason we write in the first place.