Writing with Meaning

From experience, it seems as writers we inherently aim to write with meaning in our works. We want to portray some message that is important to us, or highlight something wrong or unjust in society in the hope that when the text is read, it might change minds for the better. The idea that literature is something that should educate is a very old idea, yet, it’s also something that comes naturally to us that it feel new and innovative. Aristotle comes up with the idea in his Poetics that people learn by imitation, and that tragedy through catharsis (a word we struggle to define exactly, but it seems to mean a sort of purging of negative feeling) in art can serve a function to better society. Personally, I then fast-forward a bit to Philip Sidney, who in An Apology for Poetry outlined that art is wonderful because it can educate as writers have the freedom to condemn vice and praise virtue. Meanwhile, history rarely sees such judgement because it’s a record of what’s happened and that alone.

The thing is though, literature can become too caught up in trying to have a message that it suffers for it. I’ve read plenty of works from writers all at various points in their careers, and this is one of the points that they’ve all shared. When a story is too focussed on its message, the power of the message gets lost. I find myself rolling my eyes, sighing as another moralistic point comes through in a very transparent, or explicit scene. This is the problem with giving your writing an explicit meaning. You end up alienating your readers not because they’re hostile to your message, but because they’re fed up of having it raised in not so subtle ways, or far too often.

The reason I find myself groaning is that the message is repeated far too often. Rather than being the climax of the story, it is prevalent throughout the book, and as such doesn’t allow any progression, or even any moment of catharsis. No sooner do you feel things have moved on, then you you find that you’re back dealing with the same underlying issues in another recycled scene. At the end of the day, if the novel is to point out a fault, we don’t want our faces rubbed in it continually. Better to have that one single moment where the message is powerfully conveyed than to have it continually recur. That’s the difference between a moment of shock in literature and getting hammered with it.

However, I think messages in literature are just becoming irrelevant now to us. I’d like to say that from the people I’ve encountered so far in life, the majority of us navigate with a good moral compass, and we’re aware and take action upon injustices and faults in society. We don’t really need to be instructed, and especially as adult readers. Frankly, if the basic morals that make us decent human beings aren’t in place by adulthood, then what good is reading a book going to do? That ship sailed a long time ago. More importantly, the emphasis on literature has, and always will be not on moralising or instructing as Philip Sidney imagined it, but in providing a good story. As Francis Bacon correctly identified, we loves lies (art) for “a corrupt love of the lie itself.”

Morals and messages can the cornerstone of a work, but they never should dominate the work. A story is always a complex interplay of many elements, and a message is only one of them. It is always best to have your written agenda in a book to be one that is very well hidden, that a more discerning reader might pick up on, but other readers who aren’t interested in close reading will gloss over. That, and it is also fundamental to make the reader feel that they came to discover that message in the work, rather than have you force it upon them. It leaves a much more powerful impression when you are the one to conclude something, rather than be told it. That’s my personal opinion and how I prefer to write, but I have one final question to pose on the subject.

Since we’re living in the Postmodernist age, we’re increasingly being confronted with pieces of literature that either have no meaning, no single meaning but multiple competing meanings or actually even resist our attempts to give them meaning. How are we able to create and divine meaning when faced with challenges of interpretation like this? The joys of living in a de-centred universe where all language is arbitrary and meaning is only generated in texts but networks of difference and context. Saussure really did open Pandora’s Box (I consider him to be the basis from which Post-structuralism and Post-modernism come from).

But let’s not worry, because even with problems of truth and language, we can find refuge in our own personal truth. Explaining ideas is an act of translation that involves the risk your idea won’t be understood as you understand it, so what you’ve decided yourself is the (relatively) safest option. As with most things in life, the solution is one of moderation. Write with a message in mind, but not exclusively for that message.

Please, share your thoughts about giving your own writing “meaning” in the comments below. How important do you think it is? Do you prefer to find your own meaning or be told one?

– As a note, I’ll explain why I keep referring to the likes of Foucault, Saussure and Aristotle in my posts. To be brief, they came up with ideas that shaped the way we write, read, and interpret literature, and as such it makes sense to understand their ideas so that we may further build our own.


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