More thoughts on something read in pursuit of my PhD thesis. (The verb ‘pursuit’ seems apt and amusing here, like I am chasing this thing down, the thing itself always within sight but out of reach). This, from ‘Understanding Fiction’, made my insides chime and resonate:

‘…a piece of fiction is a tissue of significances, some great and some small, but all of them aspects, finally, or the total significance of the piece. And one must remember that this total significance is not merely some idea which can be abstracted from the ’story’ and stated in general terms. It is the fact of the idea’s living in action, in the ‘story,’ which makes the idea significant, for the underlying significance of all fiction may be the faith of the writer that experience itself is significant and is not a mere flux of unrelated items. That is, in other terms, he has a faith that man is a reasonable being, and he tries to validate this faith by the responsible and vital organization of his art’ (Brooks and Penn Warren 1943: 600).

The concept of fiction as a ‘tissue of significances’ is just beautiful; it captures the density of meaning that sits within a fiction along with the fragility of the imaginative act (both the reader’s and the writer’s) and the story itself (so easy to break the spell of the reading and the writing process).More than that though, this paragraph captures a key point about fiction, that the ‘total significance’ or ‘meaning’ of a piece of fiction is not something that can be excavated from the work. Fiction IS, as stated here, ‘the fact of the idea’s living in action’, and that goes double for the short story.

The short story, particular after the modern short story onwards largely jettisons plot, is an experiential form. The reader of the short story (if that story is any good at least) experiences something through the telling of it. If the short story is done right, this something that is experienced, something that cannot be properly and completely experienced in any other way – this is why the plot summary of any story is such an impoverished experience. It’s also why the age old question ‘what does the story mean?’ is a waste of breath. Meaning in a short story cannot be reduced to a sentence or even a paragraph. The story is what it means and the correct response to the question is to reread the story.

‘The total answer is, of course, the total story, but it cannot render itself at once, and different questions must come into focus at different times in the course of the story’ (585).

If all that were not enough, the idea that the author, in the optimistic act of writing, in the act of making an idea significant, asserts faith that all experience is meaningful and significant and ‘not a mere flux of unrelated items’ had the writer in me grinning from ear to ear. I have talked with my First story students before about writing being an optimistic act and what could be more optimistic than asserting meaning in the face of meaninglessness. Nice to have such a beautifully phrased quote to throw out there when I do again.

The above response is par-boiled and may well be subject to revision at some future time, but then, isn’t everything subject to revision given a long enough timeline?

Reference: Brooks, C. and Penn Warren, R. (1943) Understanding Fiction. Prentice Hall.
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