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Subtlety

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iouswuoibev
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I've observed that subtlety, by many people, is considered a value in some works of art (particularly fiction and song lyrics/poetry). I've drawn the conclusion that the primary reason for this is because it permits the viewer to use their own mind in discovering the intended meaning of the work. I've come to discover for myself that the kind of art I have come to appreciate most is that which does "show" rather than "tell", because it has been my own personal quest to discover what is being told. The satisfaction from achieving this understanding (which can be grasped in mere seconds, or many years), combined with an uplifting nature of the message involved, is immense.

By contrast, when something is explicitly stated, it is an insult to the reader or listener, because it is (implicitly) saying: I don't trust that you are able to use your own mind to discover my meaning, so I'm just going to have to tell you outright. Or to state it metaphorically: the material you are absorbing from the work is pre-digested by someone else, and that is an insult.

Being subtle does not mean that the artist hides his meaning in any literal sense; rather he "camouflages" it, by means of symbolism and metaphor (and perhaps other devices). It is a talent on behalf of the artist when he succeeds in preserving the meaning uncorrupted within the "camouflage", and this enchances the viewers' appreciation of the artist and his work if and when he understands it.

My question is, do you value subtlety in any work of art, and what are your reasons?

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I've observed that subtlety, by many people, is considered a value in some works of art (particularly fiction and song lyrics/poetry). I've drawn the conclusion that the primary reason for this is because it permits the viewer to use their own mind in discovering the intended meaning of the work.

This is similar to what Ayn Rand says in "The Art of Fiction".

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The issue of showing versus telling in fiction writing is not the same as being subtle and implicit versus being explicit.

Showing and telling is a matter of style, and on this I agree. A writer should show rather than tell the important aspects of his story. For example, it is better to show a character acting mad rather than saying "John was mad as hell."

The issue of implicit versus explicit is a different issue altogether. Should fiction writers use explicit words to name their own ideas in a novel? I submit that if the ideas are complex and not obvious, they should. And many great writers, like Ayn Rand, Victor Hugo, Dostoyevski and Charles Dickens do.

Their genius is in their ability to say it without compromising the realism and integrity of the story, without breaking out of character, and without using floating abstractions (i.e. - they say what they want only after they have thoroughly demonstrated their point through the concrete occurences in the novel, and only if there is a logical plot reason for those ideas to be heard).

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  • 1 year later...

yes, i admire subtlety in literature because it's quite a wonderful thing to see writing, with its points emphasized implicitly through the tone of the story, through certain actions of characters and through certain words used. many writers lately have become quite subtle in their presentation of stories and thoughts, that's there's a certain excitement for me to just see how they'd write whatever topic they have in mind. Subtlety for me, is like looking at a REnoir or Monet or even a rembrandt. and subtlety in writing seems to be difficult, it requires excellent characterization, distinct and constant tone.

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iouswuoibev,

As AwakeAndFree says, there is a difference between showing vs telling and the implicit vs explicit.

"Telling," in fiction, is a vice because the reader is left with a floating abstraction. To anyone with a reality-oriented mind, this kind of thing is maddening: the author is telling you an evaluation or emotion to have, without any concern for why you should be having it. You'll just have to trust him.

The most you'll get out of it is an approximation or an abstract: as Ayn Rand so eloquently puts it, "he expects the reader to accept emotions divorced from facts, and to accept them second-hand." The end result is a bunch of flowery and emotionalist mush which, if you read it while paying attention (and not fall asleep, as this kind of writing is dreadfully dull), you will notice ends up amounting to nothing at all. It's meant to be read with a mind that's out-of-focus, to which it will seem quite brilliant.

As you say, "the material you are absorbing from the work is pre-digested by someone else, and that is an insult" (Ayn Rand also uses the term "pre-digested," btw!)

Writing for someone with an objective epistemology is quite the opposite: You provide facts, and the reader provides his own emotions. It requires the author to actually work at providing his reader with precisely the facts he needs to result in the emotions the author intends.

For the reader, it is as you say: "The satisfaction from achieving this understanding (which can be grasped in mere seconds, or many years), combined with an uplifting nature of the message involved, is immense." (although if the author is good, you should be able to do it in seconds and not years!)

The former can be spewed out by any hack; the latter requires talent.

This is the value you seek in your reading material, not "subtlety." Because "subtlety" could mean anything; including the very nebulousness that is entailed in "telling" emotions.

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  • 1 year later...
Being subtle does not mean that the artist hides his meaning in any literal sense; rather he "camouflages" it, by means of symbolism and metaphor (and perhaps other devices). It is a talent on behalf of the artist when he succeeds in preserving the meaning uncorrupted within the "camouflage", and this enchances the viewers' appreciation of the artist and his work if and when he understands it.

My question is, do you value subtlety in any work of art, and what are your reasons?

Hm, I think subtlety is a bit more complex than that - I do agree that it "camouflages", in a sense, but not solely through metaphors and symbolism, which I consider more obvious/trite forms of subtlety. :thumbsup:

Subtlety extends to implied action and thought - as you mentioned, "showing" and not "telling". One of the more recent works of literature that I've read that has utterly mastered subtlety was Atonement by Ian McEwan. In one particular scene (one of the most beautiful I've read in all of literature), the two protagonists are irritated with each other, and end up breaking a family heirloom out of carelessness, sending a large chunk of it to the bottom of a deep fountain. The woman removes her clothes and dives to the bottom of the fountain to retrieve the chunk, and after surfacing, stomps off to repair the vase. The man is left speechless.

Her action implied several things - most obviously, her intent to prove to him that she wasn't a sensitive, weak rich girl. Additionally, she was also attempting to shame him. But most importantly, and more subtly, she was provoking him sexually (and their attraction to each other is unveiled a few chapters later).

Her intents were not expressly stated, but you had to piece them together based on the information you were given - they were both adults, they were frustrated at their awkwardness around each other, and they were male and female.

I hope you understand what I'm getting at - and obviously, my description does NO justice to McEwan's art. Incidentally, it's one of the most misleading and disgusting books I've read, but the language was so beautiful that I was able to justify the time I spent on it.

Oops, forgot to add: I think it takes a lot of strength as a writer to effectively write subtlety in a novel, and I admire any time it's done well. I think the technique is easily abused, though, especially through metaphors, which I think often APPEAR complex because of their cultural ties, but are really just trite - especially the use of colors, animals, and flora.

Also meant to add: Subtlety and "showing" are not the same thing, as someone said above. I think subtlety is a form of showing, though.

Edited by Catherine
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Incidentally, it's one of the most misleading and disgusting books I've read, but the language was so beautiful that I was able to justify the time I spent on it.

I saw the movie Atonement few weeks ago. James McAvoy and Keira Knightley were superb in their roles (you would not have been disappointed by their enactment of the scene you mentioned or a few similar others) but the story overall was awful. I left the theatre thinking: What was THAT about?

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Really? What was it that you found disgusting and misleading? I really enjoyed the book.

It was possibly that

the titular 'Atonement' was never actually really brought about in the story, but instead, was just all a fictional part of the book-within-a-book.

I mean, that annoyed me but I didn't find it disgusting, I just felt it was unnecessary and incomprehensible why Ian McEwan went that route.

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It was possibly that

the titular 'Atonement' was never actually really brought about in the story, but instead, was just all a fictional part of the book-within-a-book.

I mean, that annoyed me but I didn't find it disgusting, I just felt it was unnecessary and incomprehensible why Ian McEwan went that route.

I can see and understand your point.

However, I think what McEwan was trying to say is that no amount of authorial or physical work (as a nurse ect..) can atone for what she did. All she can do is recreate their life as art and as an ideal for the ages. Thats her gift to the lovers and the world. Create something beautiful out of something irrevocably destroyed.

"As long as there is a single copy, a solitary transcript of my final draft, then my spontaneous, fortuitous sister and her medical prince survive to love "

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I can see and understand your point....

Did she actually do anything in reality to correct it? Robbie spent three years in prison before being released on condition of enlistment in the army (and later loosing his life) - 3 years! By then she was 16 - not a small child anymore.

This attempt at atonment through changing the ending to a happy one is no atonment at all. Her excessive fantasizing, allowing herself to detract from reality, partially caused this terrible situation in a first place.

The ending attempts to consider lies in reality vs. in fiction suggesting that while the first is destructive, the second (we are talking about a lie here) can offer a chance at happiness unachieved in life. In what way? Happiness for whom? The primacy of consciousness over existance?

Finally, I did not like the way with which it was revealed to the audience, at least in the movie (audience already cheering for the two lovers, uplifted in thinking that things worked out for them afterall), that it actually did not happen. It was like being given something great and then, just when you came to be attached to it, it being yanked from you with force. It is not something a romantic heart appreciates~

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  • 1 month later...

Did she actually do anything in reality to correct it? Robbie spent three years in prison before being released on condition of enlistment in the army (and later loosing his life) - 3 years! By then she was 16 - not a small child anymore.

This attempt at atonment through changing the ending to a happy one is no atonment at all. Her excessive fantasizing, allowing herself to detract from reality, partially caused this terrible situation in a first place.

The ending attempts to consider lies in reality vs. in fiction suggesting that while the first is destructive, the second (we are talking about a lie here) can offer a chance at happiness unachieved in life. In what way? Happiness for whom? The primacy of consciousness over existance?

Finally, I did not like the way with which it was revealed to the audience, at least in the movie (audience already cheering for the two lovers, uplifted in thinking that things worked out for them afterall), that it actually did not happen. It was like being given something great and then, just when you came to be attached to it, it being yanked from you with force. It is not something a romantic heart appreciates~

I ended up seeing the movie, and agree! The acting was great, and I loved the cinematography (especially for the scene on the beach during the war). Otherwise, the book was better.

As for why I found it disgusting, I found that

the death of Cecilia and Robbie trivialized the actually story - had Robbie died in jail, and Cecilia, a widow, it would have made more sense. Instead, they were both killed because of the war - it just seemed unrelated and random.

Furthermore, I felt as if Ian McEwan had betrayed his readers. I can understand Rearden_Steel's point, but there was a specific line in the novel (and ugh, I don't have it with me, sorry!) that suggested more mockery of his readers than a romanticism. Sorry, it's generally not my policy to make statements without proof - but again, I don't have my book. When I get it, I'll go back and read it, though, because you might be right about it!

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