Orson Scott Card on Fiction

Finding myself bored and in the mall (is that redundant) recently, I thought of the controversy over Orson Scott Card and so picked up his famous sci-fi novel Ender’s Game. I figured it was an easy read and something I could have around work to read at lunch time whenever I found myself without reading material at hand. I haven’t gotten very far (hard to read large chunks on your lunch break) but I did find the introduction interesting. Here are a few quotes worth pondering.
On Ender’s Game and literary criticism:

. . . I have a master’s degree in literature, and in writing Ender’s Game I deliberately avoided all the little literary games and gimmicks that make “fine” writing so impenetrable to the general audience. All the layers of meaning are there to be decoded, if you like to play the game of literary criticism – but if you don’t care to play that game that’s fine with me. I designed Ender’s Game to be as clear and accessible as any story of mine could possible be. My goal was that the reader wouldn’t have to be trained in literature or even science fiction to receive the tale in its simplest, purest form. And since a great many writers and critics have based their entire career on the premise that anything that the general public can understand without mediation is worthless drivel, it is not surprising that they found my novel to be despicable. If everybody came to agree that stories should be told this clearly, the professors of literature would be out of a job, and the writers of obscure encoded fiction would be, not honored, but pitied for their impenetrability.

I think perhaps Card is guilty of a bit of hyperbole here. I am not familiar with the criticisms of Ender’s Game, but I think there would still need to be literature professors even if novels were written clearly and cogently without encoding. Where he is accurate is those that seek to make the study of literature less about the works themselves then an excuse to argue politics and to employ their jargon and expound on theory. To much of academia can be seen as a way to separate the even the intelligent laymen from the scholar; to elevate those in the know as specialists and experts with a language and way of thinking all their own. What do you think? Is Card being fair, or engaging in some populist rhetoric at the expense of literary types?

Card on why we read fiction:

Why else do we read fiction anyway? Not to be impressed by somebody’s dazzling language – or at least I hope that’s not our reason. I think that most of us, anyway, read these stories that we know are not “true” because we are hungry for another kind of truth: The mythic truth about human nature in general, the particular truth about those life-communities that define our own identity, and the most specific truth of all: our own self story. Fiction, because it is not about somebody who actually lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about ourself.

First of all, I have to say that sometimes I do read fiction just to enjoy dazzling language. But it is true that fiction that is just impressive language lacks depth. I tend to agree with card that fiction is another way to understand out condition, to explore ourselves and our world. There is a balance somewhere between skill and meaning. Some very meaningful stories can overcome weak language and sometimes dazzling language can triumph over a lack of depth.

If we take theory and pure language too far we lose touch with the joy of reading and with the average reader. If we push the human angle too far we risk dumbing down and over-sentimentalizing literature. Understanding and appreciating great literature can require work and time but it shouldn’t be made unaccessible by grandiose and desiccated theory filled with jargon and professional code words. I am afraid that much of academia has lost this battle. I was turned away from studying literature early on because of some of these tendencies. I loved to read and explore literature, I didn’t want to lose that love by drowning it in politics and cultural theory. As an adult I am now seeking to go back and familiarize myself with classic literature. For me it is a way to better understand where we have come from and where we are going. They are touchstones and building blocks for western civilization. To be culturally literate I feel I should be knowledgeable about the great works in this field. If that makes me a humanist or an elitist, so be it.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).