Dotted Lines & Dynamic Books

If you’ve noticed some radio silence ’round these parts, it’s because my husband and I recently enjoyed a lengthy R&R back in the States. Usually, I’m pretty rigorous with myself about my writing time. But with long-missed friends and family to see–and a few chilly surf sessions thrown in for good measure–I granted myself permission to take a blogging break.

Proof that Dad and I faced off with the 48°F water and 20-25 MPH northerly winds to go Post-Christmas surfing.
Proof that Dad and I faced off with the 48°F water and 20-25 MPH northerly winds to go Post-Christmas surfing.

But of course, all holidays must come to a close; thus I’ve returned to both my writing and my Chinese language lessons.

The transition back has been less than elegant.

As I found myself staring off with my  Chinese lǎo shī (teacher) at that first lesson following my six-week siesta, I knew I was doing a pitiful job concealing my lack of practice in the interim. All my vows to rehearse my vocabulary, to practice Mandarin conversations with my husband… all were forgotten in the happy busyness of the Christmas/New Year season.

And now I’d be paying for my laziness à la linguistic humiliation.

Of course, this is an easy bind to get yourself in when A) your Mandarin level is as negligible as mine, and B) your Chinese lessons are almost entirely structured on the basis of conversation.

Still, when she asked her first question, I nearly went gape-mouthed.

“Tell me about a book you’ve read recently.”

My immediate, nearly verbalized response?

PLEASE don’t make me do this!

Such a reply would’ve been shocking for two reasons.

  1. I’m usually game for most language-lesson challenges.
  2. Whenever anyone asks me to chat books, they always end up regretting it, desperately wishing someone would intervene to make me STOP. Picture some poor victim, backed into a corner, going slack-faced, hope dimming out of their eyes as I yammer mercilessly.

But here’s the issue: When I poke fun at my language level, I’m not being modest. I possess mostly functional survival Chinese: I can order food, negotiate prices, navigate a trip to the tailor (if I supplement my verbal gymnastics with goon-like gesticulations). Complex subjects like narrative subplots are a bit beyond my reach.

Thus, the sad outcome of this tell-me-about-a-novel exercise was my describing Tana French’s complex, multi-award-winning procedural mystery, Faithful Place, as a 5-year-old might: There is a boy. He is a detective. When he was small, he and his girlfriend wanted to run away together…. Etc., etc., etc. (The sad part was how proud I was of this glorious dismal display of my Mandarin maneuvers.)

But this humiliation-fest wasn’t a total loss. I harvested (no pun intended, Mandarin), a new favorite vocabulary term–

xū gòu xiǎo shuō

–which means “fiction.” (Since my last favorite term was lóng xiā, which means “lobster” but literally translates as “dragon shrimp”, I like to interpret this as a sign of my growing maturity.)

Seeing as xū gòu xiǎo shuō is a literary term, odds were high I’d be fond of it regardless. But when my Chinese teacher broke down each character’s meaning, it painted a particularly, poignant picture of what fiction at its best can be.

The first character, , my Chinese teacher demonstrated by drawing this:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

She explained that this dotted line represented the concept of “not real”–the dots are there, indicating the idea of a thing, but the line is not concrete and definitive as a solidly inked line.

The second character, gòu, means “to consist.” Fair enough. Certainly, fiction can be accurately defined as “consisting of the ‘not real.’ ” It is imaginings, fantasy.

The final characters–xiǎo and shuō–combine to mean “noble.” And so the whole concept of fiction becomes this: a work consisting of the not real, meant not to deceive, but to ennoble.

“Nobility”, obviously, can manifest in innumerable ways. A novel’s nobility can enlighten, educate, uplift, encourage, truth-tell, equip, beautify, reveal, transform….

But one of the most fundamental “nobilities” of a novel is its invitation to the reader to enter into the novel and claim it, in a unique way, for him or herself. That’s the true beauty of those dotted lines–the author marks out the points, but each reader fills in the blanks with his/her experience, interpretation, response.

For me, this concept really found life as I was working on my Masters in English and American Literature. There are a plethora of theories one can use to approach literary analysis: feminism, post-colonialism, deconstruction and post-structuralism…. There’s even one known as “Reader Response.”

This methodology’s title makes pretty obvious the way this type of analysis functions–it is based upon the idea of using a  given reader’s reaction to a text to suss out that text’s meaning. (Of course, this is always paired with the caveat that this “reaction” is critically analyzed; it must be something more complex than a reader’s emotional, knee-jerk response.)

Although treatises on Reader Response varying widely in their interpretations of how this analysis works, all carry one common thread:

“The recognition that whatever meanings an author may intend to communicate through a text and whatever meanings a text may generate in seemingly clear fashion through its language or imagery, it is ultimately the reader who must decode those meanings and whose acceptance of, use of, and response to them may vary widely.”

–Donald E. Hall, Literary and Cultural Theory

Truly, this is a slightly terrifying concept for novelists–the idea that although authorial intentions are relevant, the reader actually possesses the greater authority in terms of meaning-making. Many fiction writers are by nature control-freaks; we fabricate people and worlds and plots and make them dance to our tune. The idea of a reader’s entering into this meticulously-constructed world with a different take can be intimidating.

But it’s also thrilling. What writer doesn’t want his or her readers to be so engaged that they are actively, passionately filling in the gaps between the dots? That they’re engaging in debate and joining “teams”–after all, isn’t the concept of “Team Edward” v.s. “Team Jacob” reader-response at its most basic? It is a manifestation of readers interpreting, based on characters and diction, actions and subtext, what the outcome of the Twilight Series should be. What it means, within that universe, to be happy and fulfilled, loyal and worthwhile.

I gave out my most recent novel manuscript to a number of test-readers. Every single one had a slightly different reaction; one of my readers was even mad at me! But that’s the happiest I’ve ever been to be at cross-purposes with someone. The chance to dialogue with my readers, to see my own text as fluid, dynamic, and multi-meaninged in their hands…. As a writer, I couldn’t ask for anything more satisfying.

4 thoughts on “Dotted Lines & Dynamic Books

  1. I really enjoyed reading your description of the Chinese words for “fiction”. I love hearing these stories about Chinese characters and phrases and I just realized you probably feel the same way.

    Also, I think it represents real progress that you can now talk about one of your passions in Chinese, if it’s just a few simplified sentences. Although I can tell people how long I’ve been playing the piano and that I’ve given performances, the deepest statement I can make in Chinese about it is, “I like classical piano music because it sounds good.”


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