Why message and meaning are opposites
I want to write about meaning. I know you’re not supposed to.
You’re supposed to be ironic, to pretend you’re too clever for any direct discussion of meaning, for God knows what pitfalls might await if you ever went there. But as I’ve visited middle schools around the country in recent years, to talk about my book The Revealers at the end of all-school or gradewide reading projects, I’ve found myself talking about meaning — in front of a crowd, no less, of adolescents.
You’d think I would be smarter. But this comes up because I get asked what is the message in my book. What I think about this, as a writer of realistic novels for middle schoolers, is that message is the opposite of meaning — so this is what I say.
This all started when, in responding early on to that question, I began trying an experiment. I’ve since tried it dozens of times, and every time the experiment has had the same result. I ask my audience, “How many of you have ever started reading a book, and you figured out pretty quickly that the writer was trying to teach you a lesson?” At this, a certain number of hands — usually around one in four — go up. Kids often have this experience.
Then I say, “Okay. How many of you finished reading that book?” The number of hands that go up now is always a fraction of the first number. Usually, in all, it’s about one in ten.
That’s right, I’ll say — because we don’t want to be preached at in stories. We don’t want to be taught lessons in stories, either. We may learn something from a story, but learning something is different (as every good teacher knows) from being handed a lesson. So message is something a writer tries to put into a book that’s a story; and that will always be a bad book. Message in a story is boring.
Meaning is something else.
Meaning is something the reader gets out of a story. The making of meaning, in reading, is active: it comes from the active encounter of the story with the individual reader’s own life and self.
When you read a story, you bring to it your own experiences, your memories, your hopes and fears, your struggles and dreams. A good story engages you, it pulls you in. This is pretty obvious. And when a story draws on you very strongly, engaging your experiences and your emotions in a profound way, that can become the reading experience you never forget — because it has meant something to you.
So this making of meaning is an active encounter between story and reader. And for every reader it is personal. Someone sitting next to you, in a classroom or a book group, can be bored by the novel that changed your life. And I think this is why there is no formula for making a great or memorable book — because the making of meaning, that which makes a book unforgettable, depends so much not just on the text of the book, which doesn’t change, but on the individual history and emotions and everything else within the reader. And that is the variable to end all variables.
I’ve been thinking about this subject this week because I just finished reading Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, a Viennese psychiatrist who survived Nazi concentration camps in World War II and founded an approach to psychiatry that treats the search for meaning as the primary impulse in our lives. I want to write next week about Frankl’s book, which he wrote not long after surviving the Holocaust — but I need to digest it some, first.
Meanwhile, this idea about meaning vs. message in fiction is something I’ve been trying out on adolescent audiences, and their teachers, for several years now. You’d think it might get a cynical response, as eighth graders can be so quick with that sort of self-protection; but it doesn’t. People take the idea in. They nod. And they don’t seem, in the moment at least, to disagree.
I think the fiction writer’s ultimate goal is, or should be, to make meaning within the reader — and this is why we have to respect readers, and give them good stories that may challenge them but that also pull them in, and in the end offer some sort of coherence, some opportunity for the making of meaning. When fiction-writing is all about the writer, it loses its shot at meaning for the reader, just as visual art and music do when they're absorbed completely into the vision and process of the creator.
I think the purpose of what we do is not simply to express ourselves, but to make that meaningful connection. The creative worker can say this only happens, or that it happens best, when we invest ourselves wholly in drawing something out of ourselves — but I think there must always be the awareness of the receiver, and respect for the receiver. Otherwise you get music no one else can understand, art that has no genuine impact, and written stories that don’t seem like stories, and come to nothing in the end.
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