Monday, September 8, 2008

The Power of Choice

Over at the Good Letters blog, Santiago Ramos has posted about this How Fiction Works book (by James Wood) that I've been reading, blogging about, and enjoying. One comment he made is one that a lot of my classes have also been focusing on lately--the power of the author to both choose and exclude certain items from the story.

Both Ramos and Wood speak of this option in terms of the novel and speak of it as a potentially beautiful, artistic act, and I love that. The reason I love this is that the world of critical theorist academics so often speaks of all choice as negative, and arising from malign motives.

Often they are right, and have valid points--and social justice is a truly beautiful thing, highlighting the downtrodden and the oppressed. And I think that it's very important for us, when looking at something like a historical archive in the library, to be aware that how the items were chosen and what might have been excluded were important choices to analyzing the collection and towards building our view of history.

But I don't think that such exclusions are always made out of malign motives. I think that those who were building the literary canon, for instance, were simply trying to come up with a good list of literary works. And I think they did a good job of that. Sure, other things are worthy of study, and we ought not become snobby about sticking with the canon all the time, or assume those who made the choices or those included within it are unimpeachable. But I think we need not knock down these authors simply because they've been considered great. In fact, I think we should take some time to revel in the excellent choices these great authors made within their works when it came to language.

And we ought not think that choice is always a negative thing. Sure, as deconstructionist literary theorists such as Derrida famously pointed out, choice always involves both the chosen and the unchosen, but we couldn't live without making choices in our written and spoken words: in the things we choose to do each day, in the writing projects we choose, and in the details we choose to include within each line of poetry and sentence of prose.

I appreciate the attention the critical theorists have brought to the ethical significance of these choices and their potential exclusionary power, and I try to think more about these choices on a daily basis as a result, but as Ramos and Wood remind us, it's worth also remembering that these choices, on the aesthetic level, can create great beauty, and on a deeper level, can provide great meaning and dignity, helping us to appreciate how much we share in the human condition through beautifully chosen words.

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