Change of Perspective

Musings on Writing, Reading, and Life Narratives

Fiction writers and literary critics speak of point of view. Social scientists are more likely to discuss perspective. But both of these terms refer to essentially the same construct: the consciousness behind the perception and narration of experience. Each individual’s point of view is unique, and point of view shapes the stories people tell to themselves and to others about themselves and their relationships with their environment. The same event narrated from two different perspectives will produce two different stories.

A change of perspective can expand our perception and reframe our thinking about our experiences. We can all benefit from an occasional change of perspective.

[Return to MetaPerspective]

Monday, May 4, 2009

Marilyn French, Novelist and Champion of Feminism, Dies at 79

Marilyn French, Novelist and Champion of Feminism, Dies at 79 - Obituary (Obit) -

Marilyn French, a writer and feminist activist whose debut novel, ‘The Women’s Room,’ propelled her into a leading role in the modern feminist movement, died on Saturday in Manhattan. She was 79 and lived in Manhattan. . . .

With steely views about the treatment of woman and a gift for expressing them on the printed page, Ms. French transformed herself from an academic who quietly bristled at the expectations of married women in the post-World War II era to a leading, if controversial, opinionmaker on gender issues who decried the patriarchal society she saw around her. ‘My goal in life is to change the entire social and economic structure of Western civilization, to make it a feminist world,’ she once declared.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

With ‘Angel at the Fence,’ Another Memoir Is Found to Be False

With ‘Angel at the Fence,’ Another Memoir Is Found to Be False -

In media circles, there is a joke about facts that are too good to check. This week Oprah Winfrey and the New York publishing industry stumbled on yet another unverified account in the form of a Holocaust survivor who said his future wife had helped him stay alive while he was imprisoned as a child in a Nazi concentration camp by throwing apples over the fence to him.

And so another memoir is pulled from publication. This is getting to be such a common occurrence that it's almost not worth pointing out. Really, where does the blame lie for this kind of thing? You could lay it on the agent, who should have made sure of the manuscript's authenticity before she shopped it around for publication. Or you could lay it on the publisher, who should have checked out the manuscript's veracity before agreeing to put its imprint on it. But I place the blame squarely on the writer. It may be a good story, but if it's not true, it's fiction, not memoir.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

The Long Run - Writing Memoir, McCain Found a Narrative for Life

The Long Run - Writing Memoir, McCain Found a Narrative for Life - Series -

Let me say right up front that this post is not an endorsement of John McCain in next month's election.

Regardless of one's politics, this article in the New York Times features many of the most salient aspects of memoir, life writing, life narrative, and the power of stories. The article covers the writing and the effects of McCain's 1999 memoir Faith of My Fathers, written with McCain's speechwriter Mark Salter:
Mr. Salter, taking a little literary license, assembled from Mr. McCain’s recollections a neat narrative that he had never before articulated. It became a best seller, a television movie and the first of five successful McCain-Salter volumes. And on the eve of Mr. McCain’s 2000 Republican primary run, its story line reshaped his political identity. In interviews and speeches, Mr. McCain has increasingly described his life in the book’s language and themes. . . .

We do not just create our life stories; in reality, those stories often, in turn, shape who we are or who we become:
Politics was imitating art, said Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown who has studied Mr. McCain’s career and memoir. “It is almost as if McCain had described himself as a literary character,” Professor Wayne said, “and then he tried to be that person in real life.”

Some friends say it is only natural that Mr. McCain would begin to sound like his autobiography. “If I have some thoughts in my mind and I take the time to write them down,” said Orson Swindle, a close friend from prison camp, “I find that I will be inclined to say them exactly that way over and over, too.”

And this process can be interpreted either positively or negatively:
Robert Timberg, a marine wounded in Vietnam who became Mr. McCain’s biographer and admired his memoir, said the John McCain he knew 15 years ago would never have suggested that he was more patriotic than a rival the way the senator has in attacking his Democratic opponent, Senator Barack Obama.

“Political campaigns have a way of distorting reality and turning political candidates into caricatures of themselves,” Mr. Timberg said, adding, “In some ways that has happened to him, and in some ways he may have contributed to that.”

The article also treats the relationship between literature and life:
The John McCain of “Faith of My Fathers,” for example, bears more than a little resemblance to the fictional Robert Jordan of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the Hemingway hero Mr. McCain later celebrated in another book with Mr. Salter, “Worth the Fighting For,” which was named for a line of Jordan’s dying thoughts. He was “a man who would risk his life but never his honor,” Mr. McCain wrote with Mr. Salter, a model of “how a great man should style himself.”

Mr. McCain owes much to the book, said Mr. Weaver, who guided the senator’s 2000 campaign. “It made his persona much grander, much more cause-oriented,” Mr. Weaver recalled. “The book played a major role in creating the brand that has served McCain so well.”

We all are our stories. The stories about ourselves that we tell ourselves and others become who we are.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Book Review: The Reader, the Text, the Poem

Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978)
Carbondale, Ill., 196 pages, $10.95 hardcover
ISBN 0-8093-0883-5

Rosenblatt is one of the proponents of the reader-response theory of literary criticism, a concept that emerged in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s as a reaction to New Criticism, which treated a literary work as an object that should be considered without reference to the reader’s experience of it. Reader-response criticism emphasizes the reader’s reaction while reading a literary work in what Rosenblatt in the preface of this book calls “the reader’s contribution in the two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship with the text” (p. ix). In reaction to the New Critics, Rosenblatt tells us, “I rejected the notion of the poem-as-object, and the neglect of both author and reader” (p. xii).

In Chapter 1: The Invisible Reader, Rosenblatt says that toward the end of the eighteenth century, the author emerged as a dominant entity in a work of literature. “Even those who seemed to continue the concern for reality admitted ultimately the preeminence of the author […]. Thus the reader was left to play the role of invisible eavesdropper” (p. 2). Further, the “twentieth-century reaction against the obsession with the poet and his emotions” brought “even more unrelenting invisibility” to the reader (p. 3).

Chapter 2: The Poem as Event rejects New Criticism’s contention that a literary work exists on its own, independent of either its author or the reader:
The poem […] must be thought of as an event in time. It is not an object or an ideal entity. It happens during a coming-together, a compenetration, of a reader and a text. The reader brings to the text his past experience and present personality. Under the magnetism of the ordered symbols of the text, he marshals his resources and crystallizes out from the stuff of memory, thought, and feeling a new order, a new experience, which he sees as the poem. This becomes part of the ongoing stream of his life experience, to be reflected on from any angle important to him as a human being. (p. 12)

“The text of a poem or of a novel or a drama is like a musical score” (p. 13), Rosenblatt says. Further, “’The Poem’ seen as an event in the life of a reader, as embodied in a process resulting from the confluence of reader and text, should be central to a systematic theory of literature” (p. 16).

Chapter 3: Efferent and Aesthetic Reading sets out to define the difference between reading a work of literature and reading another kind of written communication such as a newspaper article or scientific treatise “by showing how the event that produces the reading of a poem differs from other reading-events” (p. 23). Rosenblatt defines the type of reading in which the main purpose is to take away information (e.g., reading a newspaper article, a recipe, a history book) as “efferent” (p. 24). “In aesthetic reading, in contrast, the reader’s primary concern is with what happens during the actual reading event” (p. 24). She acknowledges that sometimes “the same text may be read either efferently or aesthetically” (p. 25). In explaining her theory of the reader’s experience, Rosenblatt refers to Coleridge’s famous statement about poetry: “The reader should be carried forward, not merely or chiefly by the mechanical impulse of curiosity, or by a restless desire to arrive at the final solution; but by the pleasurable activity of mind excited by the attractions of the journey itself” (p. 28; Rosenblatt’s italics).

In Chapter 4: Evoking a Poem Rosenblatt explains that the experience of evoking the poem goes on as the reader gets further into the work. The term poem here refers to the artistic creation that the reader constructs while reading a literary work. (Rosenblatt is not discussing only poetry here, but any artistic work of literature.) The reader, she continues, “is immersed in a creative process that goes on largely below the threshold of awareness” (p. 52). This process “imposes the delicate task of sorting the relevant from the irrelevant in a continuing process of selection, revision, and expansion” (p. 53):
As one decodes the opening lines or sentences and pages of a text, one begins to develop a tentative sense of a framework within which to place what will follow. Underlying this is the assumption that this body of words, set forth in certain patterns and sequences on the page, bears the potentiality for a reasonably unified or integrated, or at the very least coherent, experience. One evolves certain expectations about the diction, the subject, the ideas, the themes, the kind of text, that will be forthcoming. Each sentence, each phrase, each word, will signal certain possibilities and exclude others, thus limiting the arc of expectations. What the reader has elicited from the text up to any point generates a receptivity to certain kinds of ideas, overtones, or attitudes. Perhaps one can think of this as an alerting of certain areas of memory, a stirring-up of certain reservoirs of experience, knowledge, and feeling. As the reading proceeds, attention will be fixed on the reverberations of implications that result from fulfillment or frustration of those expectations. (p. 54)

This process itself is part of the appeal of reading a work of literature:
interest seems to be the name given to the reader’s need to live through to some resolution of the tensions, questions, curiosity or conflicts aroused by the text. This need to resolve, to round out, gives impetus to the organizing activity of the reader. What we call a sense of form also manifests itself in such progression, the arousal of expectations, the movement toward some culmination or completion. (pp. 54-55)

Perhaps this notion of interest explains the appeal of a book like Corelli’s Mandolin, in which not much seems to happen for the first 150 pages or so. “Underlying all this organizing activity […] is the assumption that the text offers the basis for a coherent experience […]. If such a putting-together, such a com-position, does not eventually happen, the cause may be felt to be either a weakness in the text, or a failure on the reader’s part” (p. 55).

One potential objection to the reader-response theory of literary criticism is that it suggests that anyone’s reading of a work is just as valid as any other reading, since the whole point is for a particular person to react to the work. But Rosenblatt explains that some readings are more informed than others and that people can become better readers through practice and experience:
Past literary experiences serve as subliminal guides as to the genre to be anticipated, the details to be attended to, the kinds of organizing patterns to be evolved […]. Traditional subjects, themes, treatments, may provide the guides to organization and the background against which to recognize something new or original in the text […]. Awareness—more or less explicit—of repetitions, echoes, resonances, repercussions, linkages, cumulative effects, contrasts, or surprises is the mnemonic matrix for the structuring of emotion, idea, situation, character, plot—in short, for the evocation of a work of art. (pp. 57-58)

“For the experienced reader, much of this has become automatic, carried on through a continuing flow of responses, syntheses, readjustment, and assimilation. Under such pressure, the irrelevant or confusing referents for the verbal symbols evidently often are ignored or are not permitted to rise into consciousness” (p. 58). Anyone who has seen the movie The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis knows how this process of ignoring what doesn’t fit works. The reader’s reading process allows “compatible associations into the focus of attention” (p. 60).

Rosenblatt further addresses this potential objection to reader-response criticism in Chapter 5: The Text: Openness and Constraint. Here she is concerned with “the wide range of referential and affective responses that might be activated, and the fact that the reader must manage these responses, must select from them” (p. 75). Remembering that the reading process is a “two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship,” she insists that a reader’s response to the text must be grounded in the text itself: “when we turn from the broader environment of the reading act to the text itself, we need to recognize that a very important aspect of a text is the cues it provides as to what stance the reader should adopt” (p. 81).
The importance of the text is not denied by recognition of its openness. The text is the author’s means of directing the attention of the reader […]. The reader, concentrating his attention on the world he [the author] has evoked, feels himself freed for the time from his own preoccupations and limitations. Aware that the blueprint of this experience is the author’s text, the reader feels himself in communication with another mind, another world. (p. 86)

Finally, one becomes a better reader through practice and experience: “As with all texts, the reader must bring more than a literal understanding of the individual words. He must bring a whole body of cultural assumptions, practical knowledge, awareness of literary conventions, readinesses to think and feel. These provide the basis for weaving a meaningful structure around the clues offered by the verbal symbols” (p. 88).

Rosenblatt continues this argument in Chapter 6: The Quest for “The Poem Itself,” where she emphasizes that she does not “claim that anything any reader makes of the text is acceptable. Two prime criteria of validity as I understand it are the reader’s interpretation not be contradicted by any element of the text, and that nothing be projected for which there is no verbal basis” (p. 115). The New Critics, she argues, sought
to rescue the poem as a work of art from earlier confusions with the poem either as a biographical document or as a document in intellectual and social history. A mark of twentieth-century criticism thus became depreciation of such approaches to literature and development of the technique of “close reading” of the work as an autonomous entity […]. The reaction against romantic impressionism fostered the ideal of an impersonal or objective criticism. Impressionist critics were charged with forgetting “the poem itself” as they pursued the adventures of their souls among masterpieces. (p. 102)

In the final chapter, Chapter 7: Interpretation, Evaluation, Criticism, Rosenblatt addresses what she sees as a division that has resulted from too great an emphasis on New Criticism:
Recent critical and literary theory is replete with references to “the informed reader,” “the competent reader,” “the ideal reader.” All suggest a certain distinction from, if not downright condescension toward, the ordinary reader. This reflects the elitist view of literature and criticism that in recent decades has tended to dominate academic and literary circles. (p. 138)

Let us look at the reality of the literary enterprise, of “literature” as a certain kind of activity of human beings in our culture. Instead of a contrast or break between the ordinary reader and the knowledgeable critic, we need to stress the basic affinity of all readers of literary works of art. The general reader needs to honor his own relationship with the text. (p. 140)

She wishes to break down elitism based upon the supposed quality of one’s reading preferences: “Despite the differences between the readings of great or technically complex works and the readings of popular ‘trashy’ works, they share some common attributes: the aesthetic stance, the living-through, under guidance of the text, of feelings, ideas, actions, conflicts, and resolutions beyond the scope of the reader’s own world” (p. 143).

The literary critic is, after all, just another reader.
Like other readers, critics may reveal the text’s potentialities for responses different—perhaps more sensitive and more complex—from our own. The critic may have developed a fuller and more articulate awareness of the literary, ethical, social, or philosophic concepts that he brings to the literary transaction, and may thus provide us with a basis for uncovering the assumptions underlying our own responses. In this way, critics may function not as stultifying models to be echoed but as teachers, stimulating us to grow in our own capacities to participate creatively and self-critically in literary transactions. […] we must at least hope for an increasingly independent body of readers, who take the critic not as model but as a fellow reader, with whom to agree or disagree, or whose angle of vision may in some instances seem remote from their own. (pp. 148-149)

Finally, Rosenblatt wants to put the joy back into reading: “it is hard at times, in reading twentieth-century analyses of the themes and symbols and technical strategies of a work, to discover whether the critic had even a glimmering of personal pleasure in the literary transaction, or a sense of personal significance” (p. 158).

The concept of transactional analysis of literature has profound implications for the educational system, Rosenblatt says:
a primary concern throughout would be the development of the individual’s capacity to adopt and to maintain the aesthetic stance, to live fully and personally in the literary transaction. From this could flow growth in all the kinds of resources needed for transactions with increasingly demanding and increasingly rewarding texts. And from this would flow, also, a humanistic concern for the relation of the individual literary event to the continuing life of the reader in all its facets—aesthetic, moral, economic, or social. (p. 161)

This theory of reading, she implies, will give literature back to the people: “The academic critical culture persists in ignoring, or at least laments, the mass and ‘middlebrow’ literary institutions in our society. The transactional formulation offers a theoretical bridge between the two literary cultures that now exist side by side” (p. 160). Indeed,
Perhaps we should consider the text as an even more general medium of communication among readers. As we exchange experiences, we point to those elements of the text that best illustrate or support our interpretations. We may help one another to attend to words, phrases, images, scenes, that we have overlooked or slighted. We may be led to reread the text and revise our own interpretation. Sometimes we may be strengthened in our own sense of having “done justice to” the text, without denying its potentialities for other interpretations. Sometimes the give-and-take may lead to a general increase in insight and even to a consensus. (p. 146)

And it is this final point that makes the reader-response theory of literary criticism so appealing right now. For what is Rosenblatt describing in this passage but a book group? And, even before Oprah jumped on the bandwagon, book groups were among the hottest crazes across America.

© 2000 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Feminist Doris Lessing Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Doris Lessing Wins Nobel Prize in Literature - New York Times:
Novelist Doris Lessing, 87, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The writer was born in Persia (now Iran), raised in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and currently lives in London.

Ms. Lessing's breakthrough novel was The Golden Notebook, published in 1962. The Swedish Academy, which chooses Nobel recipients, cited the novel as "a pioneering work" in the "burgeoning feminist movement." The novel deals with the inner lives of women and suggests that women should not have to abandon their own lives for the sake of marriage and children.

New York Times writers MOTOKO RICH and SARAH LYALL say:

Because she frankly depicted female anger and aggression, she was attacked as “unfeminine.” In response, Ms. Lessing wrote: “Apparently what many women were thinking, feeling, experiencing came as a great surprise.”

Lessing is the 11th woman to win a Nobel Prize in literature.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Gender Perspectives on Reading

From National Public Radio (NPR) comes this article about why women read more than men do.

“Surveys consistently find that women read more books than men, especially fiction. Explanations abound, from the biological differences between the male and female brains, to the way that boys and girls are introduced to reading at a young age.”

Americans of both genders are reading a lot less than they used to. The article reports on a recent poll released by the Associated Press (AP) that found that last year the average American read only four books and that one in four adults read no books at all. The poll further found that the average American woman read nine books last year, whereas the average American man read four. “Women read more than men in all categories except for history and biography.”

The gender gap is greatest for fiction, with men accounting for only 20% of fiction sales, according to surveys conducted in the United States, Canada, and Britain. Book group participants are predominantly women, and, according to the article, most literary blogs are produced by women.

The article discusses several theories that attempt to explain the fiction gap. Cognitive psychologists say that women are more empathetic than men, a trait that makes fiction more appealing to women. Another possible explanation, offered by Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain, is that girls are able to sit still for a long time at a younger age than boys; girls therefore are more suited to the sedentary activity of reading. Yet another theory focuses on “mirror neurons,” brain cells that are activated both when we initiate actions and when we watch actions being performed by other people; the presence of these mirror neurons may explain why we feel pain when we see someone else in pain. Although research on mirror neurons is still quite new, preliminary findings suggest that women have more of these cells than men do and that mirror neurons are the biological basis for empathy, a capacity necessary for the appreciation of fiction.

Finally, according to the article, young people read much less than do older people, a fact that has publishers and booksellers wondering what will happen as the population ages.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Monday, September 3, 2007

Quotation of the Day

book cover
“. . . we need stories that normalize our suffering and show us we are part of a community of pain, sin and suffering. We need to be known, to be understood. Fellow sufferers who can empathize contribute to the process of normalization.”

Joseph Gold, Read for Your Life: Literature as a Life Support System (pp. 353-354)

Thank you, Joseph Gold. This is exactly what I was trying to say a few days ago in my review of The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood. During the course of the novel Mary Baxter learns that other people have also experienced pain; each one’s pain has been just as deep as Mary’s, and each has lived to tell the story. Our individual stories differ, but they all illustrate the great abstraction of suffering that is an inevitable part of the human condition. Telling our stories to each other helps us to cope with and heal from the traumas of our lives.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Book Review: The Knitting Circle

book cover
Hood, Ann. The Knitting Circle

New York: Norton, 2007. ISBN 0-393-05901-4

Highly Recommended

This novel is all about perspective, and about the healing power of telling our stories.

When Mary Baxter’s five-year-old daughter dies suddenly of meningitis, Mary finds herself unable to read, write, go to work, or do any of the other activities that formerly filled her life. Her mother suggests that she take up knitting to occupy her hands and her mind. Reluctantly, Mary goes to see Alice, who teaches her to knit, and joins the knitting circle at Alice’s store. Over the next few months the members of the knitting circle all, one by one, tell Mary their own personal stories of pain and loss.

As I read this book, I kept wondering when Mary was going to tell the other knitters her own story. Dealing with pain and loss takes time, of course, but eventually Mary does tell her story. In the process she also reconnects with her own mother who, Mary is stunned to learn, also has her own story to tell.

A loss the size of Mary’s can seem overwhelming; we think that no one else has ever been through anything as huge as what we’re going through. But hearing other peoples’ stories can gradually give us a new perspective. We gain empathy by looking at life from their perspective. We also see that they have endured, and recognizing that truth lets us know that we too will survive. And we gain support from the sharing of stories with a group of compassionate, caring, non-judgmental people who understand what we’re going through.

The author herself experienced the sudden loss of her young daughter and afterwards took up knitting as a way to calm her spirit and soothe her soul. That is probably why the character depictions in this novel ring so poignantly true. Anyone who loves good literature with strongly drawn characters will appreciate this novel.

© 2007 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Quotation of the Day

book cover
“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (p. 723)

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