Understanding Fiction: A Qualification


I should have mentioned before that most of the stories in the 1st edition of UF are famous, and all of them are by famous writers. (One of the criticisms of the 2nd or 3rd edition is that Warren started putting his own stories in.)

The next story I read in UF was “The Furnished Room” by O. Henry. My heart sank when I reached the end and felt that it was a stupid story, one I would’ve been harsh to in a write-off. Here I’d just advised you all to go out and fight over the handful of cheap copies on Amazon, and now it was going to praise this lousy story.

But it didn’t. The editors threw that story in the mud and stomped on it, and showed why it was stupid, which I hadn’t figured out: It had the makings of a good story, but O. Henry botched the character development, so that the character’s crucial action wasn’t sufficiently motivated, and, trying to fix it, tacked on a twist ending that only made everything more confused by resolving an already-troublesome ambiguity in the wrong direction.

So I breathed a sigh of relief.

I also began to notice, as I read further, that the editors kept building as they went, comparing each story to some of the ones before it; it seems they were selected carefully to present different views of a few basic problems.

But I also ran into an annoying feature: The book was written for teachers, and so it often has questions at the end of each section. This would be fine if they were the sort of questions that have no definite answers, but it seems they are questions that the editors already have a specific answer in mind for. And sometimes they ask the most important questions about the story, ones I can’t figure out, without answering them. What is the significance of — in “The Man Who Would be King”? Is any revelation of character accomplished by withholding from the reader the knowledge that the action in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is —? Does the fundamental meaning of “The Necklace” depend on the loss of the jewels? I don’t know! Tell me!

This is because teachers like to have their books provide questions so they don’t have to think of any. I find this irritating. Usually the questions are only a small part of the story interpretation, but for “The Necklace” there were only the questions.

Understanding Fiction


I was writing an essay about how fan-fiction transcends literary movements, and got stuck on New Criticism. Everybody said it was important, but I didn’t know how it fit into my grumpy meta-narrative that those damn 20th-century kids ruined everything.

The definitive reference for the New Criticism is supposedly Understanding Fiction by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren (1943, 1959, 1979). I trust writers more than scholars to write usable literary theory, and Robert Penn Warren is the Pulitzer-winning author of All the King’s Men. So that’s promising. But I expected to hate the book.

I’ve only read the intro and chapter 1 so far, but even if the book ended right there, it would still be the best. Book. Ever. … on writing.

This isn’t any ideological crusade. It isn’t “New Criticism.” It doesn’t do any of the things people accuse New Criticism of doing, like downplaying the reader’s emotional response or the author’s biography or other works. It is just going back to the old idea that stories mean something. It tries to show, analytically, how they can mean something to readers.

The book is written for readers, not writers, but so what? Should it be shocking that knowing how to read and how to write should turn out to be pretty similar?

The intro, “Letter to the teacher,” says why they think readers read fiction and how fiction works. They say that simply giving people books won’t help them become better readers, because they won’t understand why they liked what they read, and will attribute it to the story’s trappings (horses, ray guns, cynical detectives) instead of to its structure:

A student likes Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” because it is a story of romantic adventure, because he wants to know how it “comes out,” but does not like Chekhov’s “The Kiss” because “Nothing happens in it.” … It is improbable that he likes “TMWWBK” simply because of the suspense concerning the external action. Matters of character, psychological development, and moral decision are inextricably involved with the action…. A little reflection should bring him to the conclusion that, even in the crudest story of violent action, he demands a certain modicum of characterization, a certain concern with the psychological basis of action, a certain interest in moral content and general meaning. And a little further reflection should lead him to the conclusion that his liking for the story may depend upon the organic relation existing among these elements.. He may realize that his liking for a story does not depend finally upon his threshold interests [e.g., Westerns], but rather depends… upon the total structure, upon the logic of the whole, the relationships existing among elements of character and psychology, action, social situation, ideas and attitudes, style, and so on.

…A man who knows the world of baseball may come to fiction that deals with that subject expecting the pleasure of recognition, of dwelling on what he knows and likes in real life…. But another reader may come… expecting the pleasure of escape from a life which does not afford in sport or adventure. He is scarcely concerned with incidental realism, with recognizing a world which he already knows, but with extending his experience into a world which he does not know.

Both of these impulses, the impulse to dwell on the known world in fiction… and the impulse to enlarge experience through fiction, are perfectly normal and admirable…. They are pernicious only when the operate in isolation from each other and when they stop at the level of the threshold interest…. If the reader who goes to adventure stories for escape from a humdrum existence could realize that his experience could be extended more fully by reading fiction which does not merely emphasize the elements of violent action and romantic setting but which also leads to some understanding of the innter lies of other people, or to some understanding of his own life, he might be less content with the escape based on merely external differences…

And now we come to the part that is going to be abused by people who want to claim that New Criticism “close reading” is all about focusing on the text, not on the author or the reader or the historical context:

This book is based on the belief that the student can best be brought to an appreciation of the more broadly human values implicit in fiction by a course of study which aims at the close analytical and interpretive reading of concrete examples. It seems to us that the student may best come to understand a given piece of fiction by understanding the functions of the various elements which go to make up fiction and by understanding their relationships to each other in the whole construct.

The first chapter starts with three narratives that aren’t stories, for three different reasons; and then it contrasts them with three stories, each paralleling one of the non-stories in some ways, but having extra components that make them stories.

The rest of the book consists of short stories followed by analyses, organized into sections on Plot, Character, and Theme. The final, largest section is on more technical problems of style, atmosphere, indirection, irony, tone, and symbolism.

It doesn’t exclude readers’ emotions or authors’ biographies. That’s a false charge leveled later by reader-response theorists, to try to make themselves look important. Brooks & Warren sometimes discuss the authors’ biographies or other works, such as in the sections on Hemingway and Faulkner, and they are always concerned with the reader’s emotions. It’s just that they don’t see the reader’s emotion as a thing to be manipulated with style; they believe that readers are thinking beings, and that their emotions are engaged primarily by the content of the story. Each analysis is about how the different parts of the story combine to deliver an emotional message.

So it’s very unlike other books on writing, which are either

– how to write with a beautiful prose style (eg Ursula LeGuin’s book)

– how to solve particular technical problems (everything from Writer’s Digest)

– inspirational (Bird By Bird)

– collections of essays about particular topics (Aspects of the Novel)

This book is a systematic, reductionist analysis of how stories structurally work, at the very highest level of theme and meaning. It takes stories apart, looks at the pieces, and then shows how to put the pieces together again. It assumes that stories have a meaning and a moral, and that they are written as stories rather than essays in order both to have emotional appeal, and to avoid the truth-destroying categorizing and concluding found in essays.


I feel like this is the book I’ve been trying to write with my blog posts.

If you love Ulysses, you might not love this book. If you’re the kind of writer who writes beautiful, poetic chapters that fail to hang together, you might not like this book. But you are the person who needs most to read this book!

I know that beautiful prose is important, but it’s damnably hard to teach or learn. This structural stuff can be taught! I know that I’m overly-intellectual and care more about the structure of a book more than most people, and that may be why it seems to me that the main reason stories suck is that they fail to have a meaning. But I still think I’m right. This is what authors should learn before they start worrying about their style, or how to transition between scenes.

There’s no death of the author here. They assume that authors write stories deliberately, and that good stories don’t happen by accident, and so you will probably get the most out of a story if you interpret it the way the author “intended”, which I agree with, although “intent” may be ambiguous and partly subconscious.

The analyses of “The Man Who Would be King” and “A Rose for Emily” made me appreciate those stories a lot more. I’d thought of “A Rose for Emily” only with scorn, as an inferior horror story made famous only because its author was famous, but they convinced me there may be something more going on here than just a horror story.

I’m blogging about it now because you can, temporarily, afford this book. When I bought it a few weeks ago, the cheapest copy on Amazon was $90. I finally found a 1st edition on Alibris for $20 and snatched it up. It turns out some people think the early editions are better because of the story selections.

Famous old textbooks often get bizarrely high prices on Amazon, with prices over $100 even though there may be 50 used copies which nobody has bought any of in a year. The big sellers all set their prices by robots, which probably can’t tell that the books aren’t selling, only how many there are and what the prices are.

Right now, you can get used copies of the 3rd edition for $30+shipping from Amazon. Or you can get the 1st edition for $35+shipping.