Simcha Fisher posted an interesting essay about the novels of E.B White, specifically about several moments of friction in Charlotte’s Web and The Trumpet of the Swan. I’ve become more and more interested in this notion of friction: the idea that there are sometimes elements in a work of art (or even the whole work of art) that create a certain resistance in an individual reader and, further, that if you dig in to those moments friction, if you stop to question your resistance, that’s often where the most fruitful readings occur. Simcha writes:
“As a kid, I read this book compulsively, with fear and loathing. I could see what a good story it was, and how sensitively and beautifully the story was told, but I also felt guilty and ashamed for not being moved and satisfied by how it plays out.”
I like this, she’s positing herself not as the adult reading the novel, but returning to her original reaction when she was a child. She’s of two minds: on the one hand she can appreciate the story, on the other hand, something in her is resistant and even guilty about that resistance.
Now, returning to the story as an adult she is better equipped to probe that resistance, to question it and inquire as to its source and function. Why did she feel so guilty and ashamed for not being moved? What does it mean that she had this sense that she was supposed to be moved by the story and the double sense that she wasn’t having the correct reaction? And what can her resistance tell her about the novel?
“It’s not that I couldn’t get comfortable with the idea that everything passes. I did as well with that idea as any child or any human could be expected to do. It’s that I was angry to be presented with two contradictory realities: That animals are just like us, only we don’t realize it because we can’t understand their language; and that humans can kill and eat these animals, and that’s fine. That even extraordinary people like Fern can penetrate the wall between human and animal . . . until she grows up a little and meets a boy, and then she stops caring, and that’s fine.
That friendship and other relationships between two souls is extremely important, and are what gives life meaning — but someday this will be cut short. And that’s fine.
It’s really not fine. It’s not just that Charlotte’s death is tough. It’s that the entire book is steeped in a kind of mild nihilism, brightened by the suggestion that sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can put off death for a while. How is this a book for children?”
Whether you agree with her conclusions about White’s nihilism or not is sort of beside the point I’m making. The point is there’s a friction she’s experiencing as a reader and somehow it doesn’t make sense within her worldview. Whether or not it makes sense to you or to me, for Simcha it felt like there was a contradiction. And that’s really fascinating to me. What do you do when you hit those moments of resistance when a book seems to be asking you to accept something that doesn’t make sense, or that doesn’t mesh with your worldview? Generally we rebel. But sometimes we probe to get to the bottom of our discomfort.
Think about times when your reaction to a book seemed to be totally different than most of your peers, think about when you disagreed with a teacher or friend or with the popular consensus. It can be so very jarring, especially when you are a child, when everyone sees something you don’t or when you see something that no one else can see. Especially when everyone wants to insist that you are wrong.
* * *
It’s been fascinating to watch how various readers and commenters on social media have responded to this essay and its critique of White’s novels. So many people love Charlotte’s Web and Trumpet of the Swan. And some commenters been very defensive about what they perceive as an attack on White or on the beloved books or on themselves, as readers. Because somehow we’ve all inherited this notion that we’re supposed to agree on what a book means. Maybe this attitude is inculcated by schools, a consequence of the way literature is taught: teachers often imply that there’s only one right way to read a book, only one correct answer, one meaning.
But… the problem with the only one meaning approach is that’s simply not true. There are often many equally valid ways to approach the same book. And maybe, different people are moved by different kinds of stories and what works for you doesn’t work for me and vice versa and there’s nothing wrong with either of us, you’re just looking for different things out of fictional worlds, different kinds of stories? Maybe it’s more about our temperaments or our histories, our families of origin, or the mood we were in when we first read the book?
Now, I don’t meant to suggest that all readings are equally valid. There certainly are readings which are well supported by the text and readings that a closer examination shows are not supported by the text. There are readers who miss important details that give context and shape meaning.
One of these moments of questioning what the text actually says played out in the comments on Simcha’s essay: a commenter challenged Simcha’s reading by supplying additional textual evidence that seemed to directly contradict Simcha’s claim about what the text said about the swans giving away their babies. Curiously, Simcha did not remember that passage.
Now there are two possibilities: Simcha just missed it, or there are two different editions of the book. I’m currently reading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited with a Facebook group and it has come to light that there are two editions and that Waugh made major changes to parts of the novel. So my copy of the book doesn’t have a key passage that other readers were discussing and boy howdy that changed the whole meaning of a particular scene.
So these moments of close reading can sometimes help us to reach a consensus, but they can also leave us still standing on opposites sides of a gulf that seems uncrossable.
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Sometimes when you’re reading in a group—in a classroom or a seminar, a book club, or just among friends— or maybe even when you are writing about publicly about a book, you’ll find that moments where one reader experiences friction and resistance other readers do not. In fact one reader’s favorite moment in a work might be another reader’s stumbling block. Very often when we stumble against these discrepancies, it’s tempting to argue: I’m right and you’re wrong, and to try to convince other people that there is something deficient in their reading. Of course sometimes there is. Sometimes a reader has misread a word, misunderstood, skipped over or overlooked a key word or phrase or paragraph or scene that unlocks the text for the resistant reader and removes the stumbling block. But sometimes it’s really not a matter or right or wrong or one person or the other misreading the text, but just a difference of opinion, a matter of taste, or the different experiences and histories and personalities that different readers bring to their readings.
These different readings can cause acrimony and arguments and defensiveness but I get excited about these moments of resistance. I like to stop and ask myself: why am I (or why is she) experiencing friction here? Why does this moment pull me out of the experience of reading? Or Why do I disagree with other readers?
And I find myself resisting the notion that where readers experience different levels of friction, there must be a right or wrong answer. Instead, I like to use it as an opportunity to learn more about the text and sometimes to learn more about the reader. Moments of friction can help me to become a better reader and to be more aware of myself as a reader. And it can give me insights into how other people read, because not everyone reads the same way— and I find that experience to be utterly fascinating.
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Some commenters said that the essay was just overthinking it or over-analyzing the text. But that reaction leads dangerously close to saying that children’s books aren’t worth taking seriously. I liked how Simcha teases out themes and ideas that might totally go over children’s heads but that I am still pondering as an adult. Good books are worth taking seriously and questioning and thinking about and writing about. Maybe that kind of complexity is precisely what has made Charlotte’s Web such a classic?
“We don’t even have the comfort of knowing that this is fantastical world where the rules are different when magic intrudes, as we do in fairy tales. In fairy tales, everyday life and hardships smack up against supernatural rule-breaking, and it’s easier to accept some hard truths that wouldn’t play well in real life, because magic is present, and magic has rules of its own. Sometimes cleverness beats magic; sometimes humans are helpless before magic’s inexorable logic. But even when the results are weird and scary and unsettling, we can tell our children, “It doesn’t happen that way in real life. It’s just a story.”
But E.B. White, with his clean, lucid, reporterly style, is at pains to present his world as the actual world, where there are seedy jazz clubs and spoiled campers, where Louis frets over the appropriate tip for the bellboy, and must remember to clean his trumpet’s spit valve. He’s not a magical creature, and he’s not exceptional, except that his defect propelled him to take the trouble to learn English. His creatures rejoice in the world, especially the natural world; but it is very clearly the real world. There’s no otherworldliness to reassure us that we may approach the ethics of this particular story through a modified lens. Again and again, he presents troubling questions to us, and does not answer them.”
In response to Simcha’s complaint some readers assert: obviously any story where animals talk is in the realm of fable or fairy tale or fantasy, so Simcha’s objection here is nonsense. But I think this is a fascinating place to stop and ask questions. Why the differences in reader response? Why do some readers feel that talking animals are defacto enough to signal that the usual rules don’t apply, while other readers find the mixture of talking animals and otherwise realistic setting to be disorienting? Is one reader right and the other wrong? Is White right and Simcha wrong?
And maybe we should stop and ponder: what are the conventions of fairy tale, fable, fantasy, and realism? Are the separate entities or do the boundaries blur? How do various elements of the story signal to the reader which kind of world she has entered? And how are the moral and ethical expectations different in these different genres? These seem to me to be serious questions, worth pondering. Perhaps Simcha’s essay is at fault in not asking them more explicitly, not giving them enough space, but surely they are questions worth entertaining? Surely they aren’t questions a thoughtful reader can simply dismiss? Are children’s books mere fluff or are they serious works worthy of thoughtful readers? If they are worth children’s time, then surely they are also worth our time. Surely these aren’t idle questions, but the stuff that literary criticism is made of.
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It was interesting to me that commenters thought that certain questions that Simcha’s essay raised, were too adult and attributed the “overthinking” as a characteristic of an adult reader and implied that children are more simple and wholehearted and more readily enter into a fantasy world But… sometimes kids ‘overanalyze’ things too. As a child I didn’t have all the critical tools I have now as an adult, but I’d worry at ideas, turning them over and over in my head: How does that work, talking animals? Are all the animals in that world able to talk, or just some? What makes the ones that can talk different? If they can all talk, are we eating talking animals? What makes people in Charlotte’s Web eating pigs like Wilbur different from the horror of Jill and Eustace and Puddleglum eating a talking stag in Narnia? Why is eating animals that can talk horrific in one fantasy world but only kind of sad in another? etc etc etc. I pondered all kinds of questions. I wanted to know how and why fictional worlds worked.
When I was little I thought I wanted to be a novelist, but I suppose I was doomed to be an English major and then a literary critic because that’s precisely how my mind approaches these questions. I can both enjoy a story and then thoroughly enjoy ‘overanalyzing’ it and then thoroughly enjoy re-reading it again. ‘Overanalyzing’ things is part of the fun of reading for me and most of the time it in no way detracts from being able to live in the world of the story at the time when I read it. But it gives me something to do when my hands are busy but my thoughts start to drift. Like while cooking or doing dishes. When I was a kid I’d ponder things during car trips or while trying to fall asleep So one of the things that struck me most was that Simcha said that the novels had made her uneasy even as a child. Her essay isn’t just an adult’s reaction or over-reaction to the books that a less sophisticated child reader would accept without question, it’s a mature reflection that’s seeking to make sense of a childhood experience.
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Me, I’ve always had a certain unease with stories about anthropomorphic animals and these are absolutely the kinds of question I’d spend hours mulling over when I was young. Not that my questions barred me from enjoying Charlotte’s Web as a child or from reading it to my kids when I became a parent, but I absolutely spent time pondering the ramifications of sentient animals and eating them and treating them differently.
This question of anthropomorphic animals that White’s books raise niggled at me, as I say, and as an adult I’ve decided that I just don’t like talking animal stories. But even as a child I probably spent a lot of time puzzling over them and worrying at them, like a dog gnawing a bone. I think my discomfort was in part that I’d go round and round trying to make sense of all these sorts of questions about souls and morality and whether sentient animals eat other sentient animals… and there were no real answers. The characters are in an undefined limbo and it’s not clear as to whether in the world the author has created they have souls or not. The text doesn’t answer that question, so it’s up to the reader to grapple with exactly what the book does mean.
It seems to me that when we anthropomorphize animals we step into a liminal space where it’s unclear whether we are attributing to them only sentience and the ability to speak or also treating them as if they had human souls, since in the real world the only beings we know of who are capable of human speech are human beings who have souls.
To some readers it seems absolutely incontrovertible that talking animals are something less than human. They have intelligence and the ability to speak, but not souls. But that in itself is a point of friction for me. What does it mean to have a soul? And what does it mean to be self-aware and to have language and the ability to communicate and yet to be less than fully human, to be merely mortal without that immortal part of you that continues after death. To me that seems like an unutterably tragic state and therefore does nothing at all to resolve the tension these kinds of stories have for me. And yes, these are the kinds of things I thought about a lot as a child and which made me feel uncomfortable with books and movies that had talking animals in them, especially where humans and animals interact or where, as in Redwall, animals have some human characteristics but also retain much of their animal characteristics as well. I don’t think this is an artifact of an adult over-analyzing these stories, but perhaps just the response of a certain kind of reader. The kind of reader I was as a child.
In short, different readers react to talking animals in different ways and there’s not one right or wrong way to process that. It’s interesting to me, as someone who often dislikes talking animal stories, to see how different readers make sense of them. But it does nothing to resolve my own resistance or to eliminate the friction such stories create for me as a reader.
To some readers this seemed like merely a matter of a parent or teacher explaining to the child reader about the difference between human and animal souls. Again, to me as a child reader, this would not have resolved my feelings of resistance. While we as parents can step in and teach our children what we believe about the differences between people and animals, between human souls and animal souls, we are still leaving the resistant child with this story which straddles the line in a not totally comfortable way. And the very fact that their resistance is being explained away might make a child reader feel dismissed or that the adult is minimizing her concerns.
By the way, my discomfort with anthropomorphic animals doesn’t at all mean that I avoid animal stories, but I do continue to note that they always unsettle me on some deep level and I’m sort of fascinated at digging into the why.
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The mere fact of talking animals can transport some readers into the realm of the fable and fairy tale, and allow them to leave behind niggling questions. But, as Simcha says, the trappings of realism in White’s novels can make it harder for other readers to make the leap. Maybe it’s not so easy to read them as merely fable and maybe even reading them as fable and fairy tale doesn’t resolve the tension? Honestly, I find that as I age I become more and more uneasy with talking animals (my husband laughs at this foible of mine) and I’m perhaps remembering more discomfort with them as a child than I actually experienced at the time. Memory is such a tricky thing. Which reading do I remember and how well do I remember it? Still, I think many of these questions are old ones.
As I’ve aged I’ve started to question a lot of the books I read as a child and find myself as an adult reader newly troubled by elements in them that I accepted unquestioningly as a child. I used to love The Secret Garden but now some of the scenes where the children are invoking some kind of life spirit bother me a bit. Things worry at me and I like to tease them out: why suddenly does this story read differently to me?
* * *
I think perhaps a lot of children’s literature lives in an in-between place where if you enter into the world of the book trustingly, like a child, you can reap beautiful and good lessons from it. But at the same you can be standing outside looking in and bemused by the oddness of the fantasy world. Sometimes fantasy can even look grotesque when seen from outside. And sometimes there are elements of fantasy that work better for some readers than for others, some areas where people find it easier or harder to suspend disbelief. And not only adults, but some children find it easier or harder to enter into some stories.
And sometimes I feel like I’m standing astride that line, staring at a box, where if I close one eye I can see into the box and then if I close that eye and open the other all I can see is the outside of the box. It’s full of meaning, it’s verging on nihilistic. Blink, blink, blink, blink. I’m in the story, I’m outside of the story and I can’t find my way into that world. It’s beautiful, it’s creepy. They’re maybe two different sides of the coin?
Like The Little Match Girl. I love that story. But I know there are a lot of people who think it’s grotesque and not fit for children. And if I close one eye I can see their point. Terry Pratchett seems particularly bothered by it and it comes under attack in Hogfather. But if I close that eye and open the other one again, I’m back to seeing the story that I love and the ways that I love it.
Perhaps Plato is right, that teaching poetry to children is fraught. In the Republic Socrates is pretty set against poetry having a place in the ideal city. And maybe it’s partly this that he’s getting at: poetry isn’t safe, it’s not tame. There’s not just one meaning. You can’t be sure what people are going to take away from a story. One person will love it and another person will loathe it. To one person a story is the most meaningful thing and to another it’s verging on nihilism. Stories can lead us astray and they can lead us to God. They can be will-o-the-wisps or lanterns for our feet. And the same story can perhaps be both things at the same time to different people or maybe even both things at different times for the same reader.
Or maybe it’s a kind of parallax? We stand in different places so why should we be surprised when we see the same object in radically different ways?
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Darwin Catholic has written a thoughtful and compelling response to Simcha’s arguments, In Defense of E. B. White’s Talking Animals, focusing on Charlotte’s Web and Stewart Little. And as I read I was still blinking back and forth, finding myself in agreement with points made by both Darwin and Simcha.
Perhaps having animals that talk and think and yet are clearly animals, who eat each other or end up on zoos or may be eaten, is a strange and ambiguous thing, but if so I think it to an extent brings sense to the strange and ambiguous world which as children we create in our heads. Children are still sorting out the fact that they may feel great empathy for a cat, and very little for an annoying neighbor, and yet the cat may be put down if it’s sick while the neighbor may not. White brings to life the kind of world that children are already creating in their imaginations, but brings to it also the reality that animals are animals and humans are humans, and each have their places and limits in the world. This is, I think, why Fern naturally grows away from the world of Wilbur, and why the book doesn’t see this as any kind of betrayal. Fern must inevitably grow up and take her place in the strictly human world, the possibility of talking animals abandoned. As, in the end, must we all.
Coincidentally (?) Amy Welborn has a post up about E.B. White today.
The Story of Charlotte’s Web is a biography of sorts, and an interesting one. It’s also an invaluable peak into the creative process.
Sometimes we think that art springs from nowhere – but it never does. We think that an E.B. White must have just received the story of a threatened little runt and the spider who saves him from nowhere and just written down in a spell. But that’s not the case at all, of course. I loved this book because the author traced the origins of Charlotte’s Web back to White’s childhood then back up through his adulthood and really – it all made such sense . There’s gift, there’s astonishing newness, but what brought Charlotte and Wilbur to life was not a bolt out of the blue, but one man taking his own past and present, his observations and his drive, and fashioning them into a story. He said outright that the process was one of “translating” his own life and spirit into the unexpected form of a children’s book.
As a child I actually always preferred Stuart. Partly, I think,because I was always fascinated by stories of the very small (The Borrowers and so on). But I do think I was also taken with the ambiguity and strangeness of those last few chapters. Of the fact that Stuart just books it and leaves his family. Of the oddness of his search for Margo. Of his temper tantrum at the lake. Of his search.
And reading this book – Stuart Little makes a lot more sense now.
(Except for the author’s contention that White himself said that Stuart was not a mouse – but a child who looked like a mouse. I could not pin this down, and I don’t agree. I believe it’s one of the charming aspects of the book that evokes the innocence of childhood and the power of the artist who could convince you to accept his premise – and so effortlessly. I remember reading this as a child and wondering – but very briefly – how this could be. But also not being distracted by it in the least.)
I’m loving the conversation among various blogs thinking about the same topic. Just like the good old days of blogging.