Thursday, August 27, 2009

Between good and great

Because my Literatures of the World class is composed of young students in their late teens and early tweens, fantasy stories exerted a natural attraction for them. Fortunately, I had a little leeway with the selection, and so I decided to spice up the proceedings with a little Neil Gaiman. I asked some friends for freely-available short Gaiman prose recommendations, and almost unanimously, the answer was "Snow, Glass, Apples."

And, of course, the story was a hit with the students, who found it more accessible than the more usually dense classics. Some of them found the themes disturbing, yes, but on the whole, they said they enjoyed it.

Now, since our weekly class runs three hours, we usually take up two or three stories per session. I try to work around a common theme for the stories each session: feminist literature, Asian literature, African literature. In this case, I paired "Snow, Glass, Apples" off with Gabriel Garcia-Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings", in keeping with the fantasy element. Such a combination allowed me to compare the two works, and led me to some surprising conclusions.

On the whole, we found a lot more to discuss with "A Very Old Man" than we did "Snow." "A Very Old Man" held several meanings and symbolisms that were just ever so slightly out of reach. What did the old angel symbolize? The priest? The spider-girl? And despite the fact that the characters in "A Very Old Man" were not fully fleshed out, they still managed to convey enough depth for the archetypes whom they represented.

What's more, "A Very Old Man" raised interesting questions as to human nature. How do we react to the marvelous? How do our cultural background and dominant mores influence our reaction? What is the author trying to say? What, ultimately, is the meaning of the story? And to all these, there are no simple answers. We the readers have to bring our own experiences and imprint it into the story and in so doing produce our own interpretations. In a word, the story is rich.

In comparison, "Snow", while being immediately accessible, seems to rely simply on a gee-whiz gimmick of deconstruction. To be sure, the story still has appeal, but it seems to come from the familiarity with the fairy tale. While "Snow" is deft in execution, beyond the central what-if question, there's really nothing more.

None of this is meant to denigrate Gaiman (nor would he care, I think), and after all, "Snow" was written much, much earlier in his career; but in placing "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" and "Snow, Glass, Apples" side-by-side, we get a comparison of a good story and a great story.

The other stories I've asked my students to read, many of them taken from "The Art of the Tale" have the same quality of just-slightly-out-of-reach inaccessibility, the kind which encourages questions more than answers (supported by my two latest readings: "Flowering Judas" by Katherine Ann Porter and "A Company of Laughing Faces" by Nadine Gordimer.)

I think that Chekhov, ever the astute master, had it right when he said that the writer is not supposed to give the right answers, but instead must frame the right questions.

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