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118

On Subtlety

1
terms
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notes

O'Gieblyn, M. (2018). On Subtlety. In O'Gieblyn, M. Interior States: Essays. Anchor Books, pp. 118-127

119

All writers have a chronic foible, a problem that tends to surface, again and again, in criticism of their work. Ever since I began writing, the adjective most frequently ascribed to my prose has been “subtle.” When I wrote fiction, it was employed primarily as a compliment, though I suppose even then the term was double-edged. “One of the strengths of your writing is its subtlety.” Thus began so many workshop transitions from praise to critique that hinged on the doubtful merit of that gift. My classmates were vocal about the many problems lurking in my stories: the character’s motivation was not clear; the backstory should be addressed, not alluded to; the conclusion was too cryptic. At the time, I dismissed this as obtuseness. People wanted things spelled out. They weren’t reading closely. But when I go back now and read those stories, it’s clear that they were right. The clues I thought I had left for the reader are mere shadows, ghosts. There is almost nothing to hang on to.

There comes a point when a reproach is repeated so often it seems less a critique of your craft than an indictment of your character. For a long time, I worried what it said about me that my writing was subtle. I believed I was creating intellectual tension; I’d wanted to seduce the reader. But readers saw these tactics as cagey, as though I were ashamed of my ideas and trying to hide them behind a veil. For a while, everything I wrote seemed to hazard misinterpretation, inviting accusations of chicanery, purposelessness, or bad faith.

—p.119 by Meghan O'Gieblyn 1 year, 1 month ago

All writers have a chronic foible, a problem that tends to surface, again and again, in criticism of their work. Ever since I began writing, the adjective most frequently ascribed to my prose has been “subtle.” When I wrote fiction, it was employed primarily as a compliment, though I suppose even then the term was double-edged. “One of the strengths of your writing is its subtlety.” Thus began so many workshop transitions from praise to critique that hinged on the doubtful merit of that gift. My classmates were vocal about the many problems lurking in my stories: the character’s motivation was not clear; the backstory should be addressed, not alluded to; the conclusion was too cryptic. At the time, I dismissed this as obtuseness. People wanted things spelled out. They weren’t reading closely. But when I go back now and read those stories, it’s clear that they were right. The clues I thought I had left for the reader are mere shadows, ghosts. There is almost nothing to hang on to.

There comes a point when a reproach is repeated so often it seems less a critique of your craft than an indictment of your character. For a long time, I worried what it said about me that my writing was subtle. I believed I was creating intellectual tension; I’d wanted to seduce the reader. But readers saw these tactics as cagey, as though I were ashamed of my ideas and trying to hide them behind a veil. For a while, everything I wrote seemed to hazard misinterpretation, inviting accusations of chicanery, purposelessness, or bad faith.

—p.119 by Meghan O'Gieblyn 1 year, 1 month ago
120

[...] the stories that captivated and unsettled me were those that remained irreducible. In these, there were no codes to be cracked, no definitive meaning to be exposed—just the faintest sense that the surface of the text was undergirded by a vast system of roots that must remain forever invisible.

—p.120 by Meghan O'Gieblyn 1 year, 1 month ago

[...] the stories that captivated and unsettled me were those that remained irreducible. In these, there were no codes to be cracked, no definitive meaning to be exposed—just the faintest sense that the surface of the text was undergirded by a vast system of roots that must remain forever invisible.

—p.120 by Meghan O'Gieblyn 1 year, 1 month ago

the theory and methodology of interpretation, especially the interpretation of biblical texts, wisdom literature, and philosophical texts

120

Literary interpretation is, essentially, a form of hermeneutics - a skill one learns osmotically from listening to sermons

—p.120 by Meghan O'Gieblyn
notable
1 year, 1 month ago

Literary interpretation is, essentially, a form of hermeneutics - a skill one learns osmotically from listening to sermons

—p.120 by Meghan O'Gieblyn
notable
1 year, 1 month ago
127

I worry, once again, that my oblique approach has managed only to muddle things. I suppose I’ve been trying to suggest that subtlety is always a sign of mystery, and that our attitude toward the former is roughly commensurate with our tolerance for the latter. I have come to regard it as something of a dark art, a force of nature that can be summoned but never fully harnessed, and can backfire at the slightest misstep. Anyone can pick up a bullhorn and make her intent clear to all, but to attempt something subtle is to step blindfolded into the unknown. You are always teetering on the brink of insanity. You are always working on a wire strung across an abyss, hoping to make it from one end to the other without losing your balance, or your mind.

Perhaps this is another way of saying that subtlety is a transaction of faith. The artist must have faith that her effects will be perceived in the way she intends; the reader must trust that what he detects, beneath the surface of the text, is not merely a figment of his imagination. The disciple must come to believe that the whispers he hears in the wilderness are not the wind, or the devil, but the voice of his Creator. All religion, all forms of love, depend on this leap.

—p.127 by Meghan O'Gieblyn 1 year, 1 month ago

I worry, once again, that my oblique approach has managed only to muddle things. I suppose I’ve been trying to suggest that subtlety is always a sign of mystery, and that our attitude toward the former is roughly commensurate with our tolerance for the latter. I have come to regard it as something of a dark art, a force of nature that can be summoned but never fully harnessed, and can backfire at the slightest misstep. Anyone can pick up a bullhorn and make her intent clear to all, but to attempt something subtle is to step blindfolded into the unknown. You are always teetering on the brink of insanity. You are always working on a wire strung across an abyss, hoping to make it from one end to the other without losing your balance, or your mind.

Perhaps this is another way of saying that subtlety is a transaction of faith. The artist must have faith that her effects will be perceived in the way she intends; the reader must trust that what he detects, beneath the surface of the text, is not merely a figment of his imagination. The disciple must come to believe that the whispers he hears in the wilderness are not the wind, or the devil, but the voice of his Creator. All religion, all forms of love, depend on this leap.

—p.127 by Meghan O'Gieblyn 1 year, 1 month ago