Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Triggering Town

What follows great tragedy? Policy of course. Virginia Tech has comes up with a litmus test for disturbing writing:

Are the characters’ thoughts as well as actions violent or threatening?

Do characters think about or question their violent actions?

If one set of characters demonstrates no self-awareness or moral consciousness, are other characters aware of or disturbed by what has taken place?

In other words, does the text reveal the presence of a literary sensibility mediating and making judgments about the characters’ thoughts and actions, or does it suggest unmediated venting of rage and anger?

What this really speaks to is point of view: the author’s psychic distance from his or her speaker, and how that distance is betrayed or communicated. Obviously, the negotiation of this contract is much more explicit in fiction than in poetry (if for no other reason than the sheer amplitude of text available--the longer you go on, the more chances you have to reveal authorial attitude toward the weaknesses and biases displayed in the characters). In one sense, you could look on every story as a trial, wherein the characters are cross-examined for their likeability, moral fiber, and entertainment value. (Where’s Kafka when you really need him?) Most modern fiction has to take the moral equivalent of aesthetic stands (as opposed to post-modern fiction, where the reverse occurs). Poetry is dodgier. (In fact, how often does one hear of poetry triggering the same kind of scrutiny and alarm?) Perhaps because it is often much less representational and there is a lack of surprise when it comes to a poetic narrator serving as a stand-in for the author (coupled with a much weaker imperative to conclude whether or not the author is trying to advance a view about or desired outcome in the world). Alternately, there is less expectation in poetry that cathartic expression of transgressive sentiments will lead to transgressive acts (the poem being in itself being commonly thought of as a speaking “act” rather than blueprint to be acted out, which is a fancy way of saying many people think fiction writers make more meticulous and motivated planners than poets). Is there really a divide in poetry and fiction when it comes to these issues, or do such “triggering” texts possess the same inherent quality?

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