"I'm not an answering machine—I don't have a message for you!"

Ursula K. Le Guin talks about Story versus Message:

The complex meanings of a serious story or novel can be understood only by participation in the language of the story itself. To translate them into a message or reduce them to a sermon distorts, betrays, and destroys them.

This is because a work of art is understood not by the mind only, but by the emotions and by the body itself.

It's easier to accept this about the other arts. A dance, a landscape painting—we're less likely to talk about its message than simply about the feelings it rouses in us. Or music: we know there's no way to say all a song may mean to us, because the meaning is not so much rational as deeply felt, felt by our emotions and our whole body, and the language of the intellect can't fully express those understandings.

In fact, art itself is our language for expressing the understandings of the heart, the body, and the spirit.

Any reduction of that language into intellectual messages is radically, destructively incomplete.

This is as true of literature as it is of dance or music or painting. But because fiction is an art made of words, we tend to think it can be translated into other words without losing anything. So people think a story is just a way of delivering a message.

CBC Magazine

This is one of those wondrous pieces that I found it difficult to find a simple snippet to quote; I kept wanting to snag the entire piece.

It is precisely this reason I loathed English classes in high school. The texts were (often, not always) taught as if there were pat answers to the analysis, as if a book is not a deeply personal experience. (Even if that experience is the absence of connection to the story at hand.)

4 thoughts on “"I'm not an answering machine—I don't have a message for you!"

  1. I was quite good at giving pat answers, actually. Or, I should say I was quite good at knowing what the teachers were looking for. There weren't many books we studied in high school that actually interested me.

  2. Yeah, so was I. But I never enjoyed the process. Funnily enough, one of the books/plays I studied in high school which I enjoyed was King Lear 😉 Not as good as Macbeth though

  3. I -wanted- Macbeth, but instead they gave me Romeo & Juliet (le sigh), A Midsummer Night's Dream (which I adore) and Hamlet.

    Hamlet we studied in year 12.
    Then, funny haha! First year of literature studies in university, guess what we studied? Bit sick of Hamlet. He needs a box around the ears.

  4. Poor Hamlet. He does get a little bit lost in the sulks for a while there. Macbeth was definitely the goodness. Disney even quoted Lady Macbeth in "Beauty and the Beast". I still haven't figured out if it was deliberate; could it really be…?

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