26 January 2012

A Few Reasons I Prefer Mysteries to Literature

by Deborah Elliott-Upton
As a person who believes we start to die the moment we stop learning, I decided to take a class on literature. I am reading selections by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. It's not that I have ever read these authors; it's just that my personal tastes run toward Christie, Spillane and Chandler. Still, to learn is to grow and I am certainly not ready to die.
In deciphering the meanings behind the sybolism within these author's works, I am not what the teacher expects of her students. The second day of class she asked if we were alone in a room with Hitler and knew for a fact all that he would do to the world and we had a gun, would we kill him. She knew my name and I sat on the front row, so she directed the question to me first.
I said I would have no problem killing Hitler. She was a bit taken aback and after several other students agreed with me, she said, "My other classes always say they couldn't shoot an unarmed man."
I silently wondered if my fellow students were mystery buffs like me. Of course, since I am not alone and armed in a room with Hitler and completely sure he would try to take over the world, we'll never know if I could actually commit murder and pull that trigger. But, that wasn't her question. If I find a way to time travel and have that opportunity, I'll let you know the outcome. (That is, if the world hasn't changed so drastically that neither of us are here to discuss those actions at this particluar time and place on the Internet.)
My opinions on symbolism are not necessarily that of the instructor and obviously not shared by most literary authors according to the grades on my last quiz. I don't necessarily believe that is a bad thing. I am merely tracking clues to find another answer, one that may not be ones looking for the obvious. I feel a bit like bumbling Columbo who seems to be asking questions that don't make any sense, but do lead to another corridor, albeit not the one expected.
That's one of the thing I like about mysteries: there is an obvious point made by the story's end. It isn't shrouded in symbolism; it simply is a bad guy caught or at least recognized as the bad guy. In most cases we know should he show up in another book, he will be chased down by our hero for his criminal activity.
Crime doesn't pay in most mysteries. That sets mystery stories apart from literary works, too. In literature like life, anything can happen. A mystery novel's probability is it will end with someone being tagged as guilty and going to jail or paying his debt to society with his life. Real life and literature isn't as neat and tidy. I like tidy.
In mysteries, you never turn a page expecting to see more and find the story has ended abruptly and without tying up all the details into a nice, satisfying package. If the detective hasn't bound the criminal to face his judgment by the end of the book, it better be that he managed to escape from the authorities grasp ala Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs or Moriarty in a Sherlock Holmes story and not that they simply didn't deduce who the culprit could be.
So, why am I taking a series of workshops on literature? Because I love to discover more about good storytelling from every angle. I want to learn from masters whose works lived long beyond them. I want to see if I can learn to do a better job figuring out their intent through the mysterious methods of symbolism.
If I had my druthers, I'd want to be Agatha Christie instead of Ernest Hemingway any day. Maybe it's because I'd enjoy y work being discussed for its clever clues more than what think I meant in a storyline. Maybe it's just because I wouldn't look so great in a mustache and beard.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'd like to think I would shoot too, Deborah. A host of people I would have been only two degrees of separation from (European relatives and their friends) would have had a lot longer lives and more peaceful deaths. And I'm shocked to hear your instructor takes off points for your OPINIONS. IMHO, a good teacher's goal is to get students to think for themselves!

Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

In her defense, she is urging us to think for ourselves, I think she was just surprised we had a different viewpoint on this one. Guns and questions about using them often open up conversations people don't expect. It's a hot button topic, so of course, I enjoy debating the pros and cons.

R.T. Lawton said...

Deborah, loved your blog.
It seems to me that understanding the meaning of a lot of symbolism in writing depends upon the reader having the same experiences and/or background knowledge as the author who sets up the symbol. And while symbolism can increase the reader's pleasure by adding another layer to the story, it also approaches a form of elitism in the manner of an inside joke in which someone has to explain it to the outsider. Then us outsiders go "Oh" and it becomes a learning experience.
Have fun in class.

Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

You have a point, R.T.! I do appreciate the fact that this class invites lots of discussion. There's nothing better for those of us who love reading than to discuss books, their authors and sideways comments about how a certain book made someone feel.

Kate Irving said...

I think finding symbolism in literature is the same interpreting
Modern art. It's all in the eye of the beholder. I think R.T. has a valid point about the 'elitism'. Of course, I will only call it 'elitism' if I'm the outsider. If I'm the insider, it's just simply,truth. Great post as always Deborah.

Kerry said...

So it is the need to be in control that draws you to mysteries? It is nice to have things neat and tidy in the end, but rather predictable.

I like literature, but I have issues with it when my interpretation of the symbolism is different that my professors. Like the story can not be different to different people. And who is to say that my critic even got it correct. They probably made up an answer or read someone else's interpretation and claimed it as their own to sound superior and smug.

I take it your not a big rum drinker.

Great post!

Leigh Lundin said...

Yeah, what RT and everybody else said.

I do like to add little hidden things in my stories, but lighter, not heavy symbolism. In one story, if you happened to put the surnames of suspects together in the same sentence (which I didn't), they were Marks, Lennon, and Engles. I don't see it as a joke at someone's expense, but little 'Easter eggs' to have fun with.

About Hitler… did the teacher recall that Hitler's top men tried to take him out?

And no, you wouldn't be beautiful in a mustache or beard.

Travis Erwin said...

Hemingway would have shot the bastard as well. Just saying.