Hidden meanings and rereadings

What I find particularly interesting about writing fiction is the option to write in multiple layers, an option that we may employ purposefully for any number of reasons or may even make use of by accident. Let me explain what I mean by that.

On the surface of course is the main storyline, what happens in the piece to whom when and how the characters react to these events and each other. Immediately underneath this is the world they inhabit; in some ways this is a hidden, though default, sublayer because we often don’t consider just how much influence the contextual elements in our lives have on us and hence don’t extend that to the characters in the stories we read (though hopefully we consider this when writing). These influences are deep and profound and go far beyond their most obvious examples of culture and culturally-directed thought. A person (characters’) historical setting, geographic location, climate, socioeconomic standing, early childhood experiences, linguistic input and framework, genetic inheritance, personal goals, the obstacles to achieving those goals (very often the results of random processes), and current mood as connected to the immediate past all have a very large part to play. And that is just to name a few. These are the automatic layers but much more is possible.

We may, for instance, wish to add elements that are not obvious initially, that reward diligence, or that are directed at a particular subgroup of readers – those in the know, so to speak. Nick Cody has written about such here in his “Shall We Assume They’ll Google?” post. (Nick starts with the accusations of plagiarism directed against Bob Dylan and goes from there; it’s a post worth revisiting.) If we are subtle and not heavy-handed in our approach we can communicate with readers in multiple dimensions: telling the overt story to everyone, telling the overt story and a hidden story to those picking up the hints, telling the overt story and a hidden story explained by a further hidden story to those picking up the interpretative hints, etc. The possibilities seem endless.

All of this of course stacks up and could easily make for a very confusing read; as Nick points out in the above post the writer is advised to exercise restraint. If we choose to write this way though we may also choose to do so in a demanding way such that readers can only really “get” our text if they go through it either very carefully or multiple times. (Nick has also posted on rereading, find it here: “Reread it? Why?“.) Depending on the type of reader the latter method may make for a more enjoyable experience as the story can be allowed to unfold itself without the reader being overly bothered about the details. Personally I read slowly and carefully regardless of what I’m reading and will often flip back to re-reference earlier portions and so I probably fall into the former group, though I will on occasion reread an entire book.

How may we write this way by accident? Hermeneutics pops its hand up here; no matter how cautious and clear we may think we’re being there is always the chance that a reader may read into what we have written, and this seems an especially clear danger if we are employing certain symbols to stand in for ideas that we wish to communicate (perhaps only by subtext). In a sense though that makes using symbols all the more enticing. If we are really adventurous we may even wish to mislead our reader by making them think we’re writing in layers by accident and do not mean to suggest the interpretation they have arrived at – perhaps by thinking they’ve seen into our subconscious – but which in fact we invite purely as a red herring to what we really want to say, all of which is buried in the background symbology. No wonder William Burroughs called language a virus.

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  1. Nick Cody
    Posted January 21, 2016 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    The thing that astounds me about those who mastered the “hidden meaning” layers to their work (speaking about Nabokov and Kubrick) is that they never let the cat out of the bag. That must have taken courage, to create something so intricate and then keep that fact pretty much a secret.

  2. Paul j Rogers
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Nick, I think it’s essential not to explain your work. Once you start explaining a piece, you immediately dilute its power and mystique. This, of course, becomes very difficult if you are famous and are being cajoled by interviewers, journalists and fans for answers.

  3. Andrew Oberg
    Posted January 22, 2016 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    I think too such artists might take a certain satisfaction in not overtly sharing their secrets, particularly if they think they’ve given enough that some few will figure out.

  4. Nick Cody
    Posted January 23, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    You can read the Afterword to Lolita and decide how much Nabokov was giving away. Kubrick was totally tight lipped, perhaps because he had some big reasons to keep his structures secret. When asked by friends or acquaintances how he was doing, he’d often say, “I’m still foolin’ em!”

  5. Andrew Oberg
    Posted January 23, 2016 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Gotcha. I meant in the sense of placing hints within their works, not in the sense of talking about them.

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