Narrative does not show, does not imitate; the passion which may excite us in reading a novel is not that of a “vision” (in actual fact, we do not “see” anything). Rather it is that of meaning, that of a higher order of relation which also has its emotions, its hopes, its dangers, its triumphs. “What takes place” in a narrative is from the referential (reality) point of view literally nothing; “what happens” is language alone, the adventure of language, the unceasing celebration of its coming.
Roland Barthes, ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives’, 1975
This seems opaque, but Barthes is actually suggesting something simple: that when we’re reading a story, the desire that draws us on most powerfully isn’t (as is commonly claimed) the desire to find out what happens next: at the deepest level, it’s the desire to find out what this thing means. When I’m absorbed in a story about a character going on an adventure, what’s really happening is that as reader I’m going on an adventure in interpretation.
Having mentioned this in workshops, I know some writers find it a pointless distinction… but for some it can be a useful way of thinking about what happens when a reader reads, and how we can handle that process in the writing.
On the other hand, Verlyn Klinkenborg sees the idea of ‘meaning’ as a distraction from what really happens when we write and read:
You were taught that reading is extraction. / You learned to gather something called meaning from what you read, / As if the words themselves were merely smoke signals / Blowing away in the breeze, leaving a trace of cognition in the brain. / You’ve been taught, too, that writing is the business of depositing meaning to be extracted later, / That a sentence is the transcription of a thought, the husk of an idea, / Valuable only for what it transmits or contains, not for what it is.
What if meaning isn’t the sole purpose of the sentence? / What if it’s only the chief attribute among many, a tool, among others, that helps the writer shape or revise the sentence? / What if the virtue, the value, of the sentence is the sentence itself and not its extractable meaning? / What if you wrote as though sentences can’t be summarised? / What if you value every one of a sentence’s attributes and not merely its meaning?
The purpose of a sentence is to say what it has to say but also to be itself, / Not merely a substrate for the extraction of meaning.
Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing, 2012
Klinkenborg and Barthes don’t necessarily disagree. Barthes might be saying that reading for meaning is the learned method or habit by which I lead myself through a text — and in doing so I find something else, which is what I’m really looking for.
& cf Will Self on the snare of narrative — here shown as the basic addiction of Western culture:
“How does it all end?” was how the anthropologist began today’s homily. “Isn’t that the question that torments the Anglo — bothers him like a fly in his eye? The Third Act problem, the thrilling climax… then the drowsy resolution. Yes, yes, the Anglos’ lust for this is blatantly bloody sexual […] Sitting in the dark and smelly multiplex of their minds, gagging to know how their lives would turn out, while completely neglecting to bloody live them!”
Will Self, The Butt, 2008