Friday, July 30, 2010

D, All of the Above

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate.

~ Flannery O'Connor, from Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

When I was a kid, I loved standardized tests. Twice a year, we took the California Achievement Test, and I relished the chance to fill in those bubbles, to have the answer to a question simplified to one of four answers. (In the Montessori classroom, answers were never multiple-choice; tests never required us to color in tiny circles using #2 pencils). I did pretty well on these tests, too, scoring in the top 5% of my age group.

The exception? Reading comprehension. I never scored nearly as well in reading comprehension as I did in math or language. The question read, "What is the author's purpose?" and the answer was supposed to be "to entertain," "to persuade," or "to inform." It had to be one of them. How was I to know the author's purpose? Couldn't he have more than one aim? What if I were both entertained and informed by her passage? I felt like I was missing some kind of trick.

The same thing happened when I tried to identify the theme of a story or fiction excerpt. How could I sum up the meaning of a story in one phrase, apart from the elements of that story? Give me three-hundred words, I'll tell you what we can take from a story, how you can pull meaning from it, but don't boil it down to one of four choices, none of which are adequate.

So imagine my excitement when I discovered Flannery O'Connor in college. Her characters, her settings, her plots are so ripe with meaning. For her to acknowledge that theme and story are inseparable validates my suspicion: standardized tests are bunk!


mkcillip said...

Haha, awesome! Maybe a better response to the debate of life-is-like-a-short-story / short-stories-are-like-life. As for the tests, I was the same way, too: English/reading was always my lowest score. Go figure.

mkcillip said...

BTW, I love that quotation!