The Virtue of Directness in Literature: Why Metaphors Are Inherently Defective
G. Stolyarov II
Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2005 and published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007, where it received over 300 page views. To preserve a record of my writings following the shutdown of Yahoo! Voices in 2014, I have given this article a permanent presence on this page.
Tony Earley's model of "the thing and the other thing" - or the frequent use of metaphor - as the core determinant of good fiction fails to convey a literary work's essence to a reader clearly and efficiently. When writing about a given event, character, or concept, the author ought to focus on just that. Along the way, he should make what explicit connections he deems necessary to broaden the reader's understanding of the "thing" he seeks to communicate.
Metaphors, while occasionally useful, suffer from an inherent defect: because the "thing" and the "other thing" compared to it are different "things," their natures differ in some ways. Thus, the "thing" is inherently unlike the "other thing" in some core respects. Hence, a metaphor can only work within a finely delimited set of bounds and must inevitably break down past those bounds.
If either the author or the reader fails to recognize the bounds of the metaphor, they will misapply it and misunderstand its purpose and utility. An author can therefore only use a metaphor effectively if he explicitly defines its bounds, specifying precisely where the "other thing" diverges from the "thing." In essence, the author needs to state: "X is like Y in ways A, B, C, etc. However, X has attributes D, E, etc., that Y lacks, and Y has attributes F, G, etc., that X lacks." Without explicitly illustrating both the similarities and the differences between the "thing" and the "other thing," the metaphor becomes vague and subjective-depending on the personal emotional and cultural context of the reader, which fiction of universal merit and applicability ought never rely on.
Both Earley's and Hemingway's stories fail to identify their metaphors explicitly and to precisely delineate the bounds of the metaphors' applicability. Earley openly defended this defect, claiming that a metaphor clearly defined by the author becomes trite and uninteresting-as if only veiled, opaque, and coded writing presents any interest.
In the text of "Charlotte," Earley makes no unambiguous connection between the narrator's "romantic" relationship and the wrestling match on the television screen. Rather, he just strings the two events along in parallel. He portrays the "thing" qua "thing" and the "other thing" qua "other thing," but never does he - within the story's text - address the specific relevance of one to the other and where the similarities end. The reader is left to draw the comparison himself - without the bounds being delineated for him. Being thus deprived of critical data, he will inevitably misinterpret the scope of the metaphor's applicability.
Since, for a metaphor to be effective, it must be identified exhaustively and often at length - a Herculean labor, the best approach to fiction is to describe the "thing" itself. The author should explicitly present the facts, ideas, actions, and motivations pertaining to his characters and plot.
Instead of focusing on how X is like Y, the author ought to describe in no ambiguous terms what X is and how it develops throughout the story. This can be conveyed through the linearity of plot (as opposed to parallelism), the clarity of dialogue (as opposed to veiled hints), the specificity of descriptions (as opposed to reliance on a reader's own historical or cultural understanding), and the forthright exposition of abstract ideas (as opposed to leaving them open to inference and misinterpretation). The literary work endowed with such directness becomes self-analytical by virtue of it.
The desirable purpose of literature is didactic, and the reader can gain more intellectual instruction from a work that does not attempt to conceal its analysis. Instead of being perpetually mired in unresolved questions and the quest to make connections for which insufficient data exists in the story, the reader can receive answers from a direct literary work, thereby advancing him on the path to a comprehensive understanding of existence.
Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II) is an actuary, science-fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress.
In December 2013, Mr. Stolyarov published Death is Wrong, an ambitious children’s book on life extension illustrated by his wife Wendy. Death is Wrong can be found on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.
Mr. Stolyarov has contributed articles to the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), The Wave Chronicle, Le Quebecois Libre, Brighter Brains Institute, Immortal Life, Enter Stage Right, Rebirth of Reason, The Liberal Institute, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
In an effort to assist the spread of rational ideas,
Mr. Stolyarov published his articles on Associated Content (subsequently
the Yahoo! Contributor Network and Yahoo! Voices) from 2007 until
Yahoo! closed this venue in 2014. Mr. Stolyarov held the highest Clout
Level (10) possible on the Yahoo! Contributor Network and was one of its
Page View Millionaires, with over 3,175,000 views. Mr. Stolyarov’s
selected writings from that era have been preserved on this page.
Mr. Stolyarov holds the professional insurance designations of Associate of the Society of Actuaries (ASA), Associate of the Casualty Actuarial Society (ACAS), Member of the American Academy of Actuaries (MAAA), Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU), Associate in Reinsurance (ARe), Associate in Regulation and Compliance (ARC), Associate in Personal Insurance (API), Associate in Insurance Services (AIS), Accredited Insurance Examiner (AIE), and Associate in Insurance Accounting and Finance (AIAF).
Mr. Stolyarov has written a science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus, a philosophical treatise, A Rational Cosmology, a play, Implied Consent, and a free self-help treatise, The Best Self-Help is Free. You can watch his YouTube Videos.Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.Statement of Policy.
Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.