Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Facts versus emotions

As you might imagine, during these times I am coming up against quite a lot of anti-Israel sentiment and feel - as many of us do - compelled to try and provide counterarguments to at least balance things out, directing people towards sources of reading that might provide information that their own media don't. That kind of thing. (In case you're wondering, this blog post isn't going to be about politics or war, it just raised something interesting for me in terms of writing.) So, anyway, today I stumbled upon a Facebook discussion about the situation here and I realised something: the one person who was attempting to persuade the rest of Israel's point of view was doing it with facts and figures: this is how long X has been going on, this is how many rockets Y has fired etc... Yet, the others were expressing how they felt about the situation, about how many people had been killed.

Facts versus emotion? A losing battle. Is anyone going to be persuaded to change how they feel, their gut reaction, by statistics? I don't think so. Logical arguments versus passion and belief?

OK, how does this tie in to writing? It happened that today I was critiquing a short story and I had to keep stopping to write in the margin: "Too technical" or "This sounds like journalism". I won't go into specifics but there were so many facts that it sounded like the author was trying to teach me something, and that is not what I feel literature should be for.

The most beautiful and touching passages in this story were the ones where the author wrote about people, what they thought, how they reacted to the situation. Emotion. That is what touches me as a reader: human responses to situations. Yes, there are probably a minimum number of facts that are necessary to set the scene, but after that, I don't want to be taught anything, to be informed. I get irritated, it throws me out of the narrative, it confuses the narrative. Don't confuse and irritate your reader!

I can see how those on the receiving end of many facts and figures about the conflict here might similarly be irritated and confused. They are expressing emotion and are met with numbers? So, when I respond, which I am trying not to do too much because it is very exhausting and distressing, I talk about how it all makes me feel, and that what I am feeling can be more than one thing at a time, can be compassion as well as concern for security.

This was excellently expressed in my opinion in this article from the Huffington Post in which Marty Kaplan talks about how his feelings change with every newscast, every picture he sees from Israel or Gaza, everyone he hears interviewed. We humans are complicated, we are able to feel more than one emotion at a time, and this is not just permitted it should be celebrated - otherwise we would all be Star Trek's Mr Spock. We are irrational and passionate. The greatest literature is that which manages somehow to convey this ambiguity, this mess, this lack of clarity. Nothing in this world is ever black and white, and that, surely, is what makes it interesting.


annie clarkson said...

beautifully written and very apt. I am struggling to say anything other than I agree I agree I agree. I change my emotions every minute/hour/day regarding all kinds of things.

SueG said...

A very interesting and important blog, T. Thanks. It reminds me of the Cambodia novel I'm writing...I keep putting in facts about the country, religion, history etc. Luckily my writing group yells at me. They keep saying, "If the reader wants to know about the facts of all this, tell them to get a bloody reference book." :-)

Amy Charles said...

OK, just to complicate matters:

I think it depends. What would _Moby Dick_ be without reams of instruction (besides shorter)? And how would Powers have gotten across the story in _Galatea_ without teaching a bit of connectionism first? What about _Riddley Walker_ and _Waterland_, both of which sit down, mid-story, to explain how something works? Even Roald Dahl did bits of it -- think of the stories in _Henry Sugar_ and all the realistic exposition in _Danny_. If you're going the children's-book route, there's stacks more, incl. the obvious _My Side of the Mountain_.

I'd submit this: The problem is not instruction. The problem is voice. If you have a topnotch narrative voice, you can pull it off, because there's reason for the explanations, it's natural to the narrator, and it's told as the best kind of teaching, not as textbook.

Wha think?

Tania Hershman said...

Annie, I am like that too!

Sue - wierdly, when you look at comments on this post as they appear under the blog post itself, it has replaced your word "blog" with "a glob of spit" - how odd! Anyhow, I learned this from Aimee Bender's amazing workshop at Tin House two years ago. She kept sayin "This is too technical", and she was right.

Amy - feel free to complicate matters! Embarrasingly, I haven't read any of the books you mentioned, except the children's books, and I guess perhaps there is an element of "teaching" in some of those. I do think you are right about the voice though. If what was in the story I was reading was told more naturally and not as a textbook, it may not have thrown me out of the flow of the story. I do believe with short stories, though, that there is very little room for explanations, but I did say "literature" in my post and not "short stories" so that's my problem!

Nik's Blog said...

Good post Tania. I wonder whether it's the scientist Vs the artist in us. Reminds me, in a way, of a workshop I led a while ago where I'd asked the group to write a story from a photo prompt. Some could do it, others couldn't - they needed to descrive EXACTLY who the people in the photo were, EXACTLY where they were, to the point that one even turned the photo (it was actually a postcard - it's all coming back to me as I'm writing) over to see the info on its back to be more accurate!


Lauri said...

I hate to admit it but I skip over long technical bits, as well as authors that blather on about scenery but that's another issue. Tania, I think you're spot on with this. Good literature for me is getting insight into other human stories and sometimes that gives me some insight into my own.

Having said that, I also go for potty breaks during car chases and fight scenes in movies. Dead boring if you ask me, BUT I always wonder there must be some people who like them or why waste all of the money.

Debi said...

Clever, clever, Tania!

This is survival - linking in a very real way a hideous reality, an emotional response, an intellectual analysis and highlighting the complexities. All in one short blog post ...

AS well as facts and figures (left/right side of brain?)being problematic, I have an issue with the idea that this dreadful situation can be neatly packaged into simplistic slogans. It can't.

Amy Charles said...

Could be, Tania. What I know of your stories says "short" means "very short indeed" for you, and maybe there really isn't time for it...and yet I doubt it, because the implication is that fact is divorced from feeling. Fact is only divorced from feeling if it lacks interpretation and context, I think. And, again, voice.

I've been reading my daughter the Moomin books lately, and Tove Jansson had a number of characters prone to facts. The Snork, the Whomper, even Moominpappa in a literal moment. The way they go about it is psychologically astute, timingwise, and true to character, so that their statements of fact and tendency to instruct are not only generated by, but generate, all kinds of anxieties, hostilities, satisfactions, pathos, and even rousing triumph. I wouldn't rule out an entire mode of communication.

I see it myself every Saturday -- we have a member of the congregation who's very, very good at what he does; he's a CS guy who works on voting machines and does elections observation all over the world. He also lectures loudly and incessantly, on any subject you please, and will not stop once started. He's frequently very interesting and almost always maddening, not least because he's got a thin little wiry beard which keeps moving as he talks. But apart from the inherent interest of whatever he's saying, people's reactions to him are good, too, from open hostility to defensive interest to vigorous engagement to point-missing groupie-ism.

As for Aimee's advice -- I think there's big difference between "too technical" and "too boring", but that much has to do with the intent of the writing. If you're looking for something solidly commercial then the threshhold for exposition might be much lower than if you don't give a damn whether most people can or will read it.

Yeah. I do think there's a big difference between being boring and making the reader work.

Having said all that, I can't remember the last time wrote long, undramatized exposition. But I don't like the idea that a whole category of writing should be no good. Sounds like blaming the racquet to me.

Tania Hershman said...

Hi Amy - goodness, I think you are taking me a little too literally! As I said on someone else's blog today, this blog post was how I felt yesterday and, being human, am perfectly able to change my mind a few minutes later and admit to loving facts and that logic can win over emotion.

These are just my ramblings, this ain't no journalistic article where I present proof of any theory. Just my personal take on what I do and don't like in a short story. But it most definitely depends on the quality of the writing, yes. Excellent writing and I will read almost anything at all!

And there is a difference between "technical" and "informative", that is what Aimee was saying. Technical, to me, implies a dryness to the presentation, whereas informative can be entertaining while imparting information, such as in the Moomins, which I loved but can't really remember since I am ageing rapidly! This blog post was just my brain tying two scenarios together somewhat tenuously - the pro- and anti-Israel arguments and a short story I was critiquing. It all seemed to fit at the time, but today is just fish'n'chip paper, really. Thanks for commenting, though. It's always good for me to be made to think.

Tania Hershman said...

Nik - isn't that fascinating? I guess it is just a question of different responses to a prompt, eh?

Lauri, this is what you and I like, it seems. Some other people might not read literature for the same purpose. And I always doze during car chases!

thank you, glad it spoke to you. This is just something that hit me as I was writing my response on this Facebook thread - which, of course, no-one then responded to. Ah well. I can't spend too much time doing this, it is too tiring and upsetting.