Thursday, April 2, 2009

Are Ambiguities Allowed Anymore?

Some of the world's most interesting and influential stories are written with ambiguity. The Bible, the Koran, Shakespeare's plays and sonnets--all of these works are heavy with language that can be interpreted different ways. Was the world created in seven 23-hour, 59-minute, 47-second days, or does the word "day" in Genesis represent a different, longer period of time? What does Iago really mean when he says the line, "Though it be fit that Cassio have his place, for sure he fills it up with great ability?" when talking to Othello about Cassio's possible affair with Desdemona?

The modern publishing world doesn't seem to allow much ambiguity in writing anymore. So often we are told to strive for clarity, but maybe clarity only leads to less memorable stories with shorter lifetimes.

I recently wrote a story called "Red Man, Blue Man," where I tried not to have any point or transcendent ending to the story. If anything, the story is simply a sequential series of events focused on two characters, red man and blue man. I posted this up on an online workshop and got several different reactions to it. The people who admired my work in the past tried hard to find a unified theme of the story. As a result, these readers came up with multiple layers of meaning, pulling in much of their own life experiences. The people who did not admire my past work found a lot of problems with the piece. They suggested dramatic revisions, including breaking the story up into multiple pieces, in which each piece had more of a central focus. Granted, this is a different level of ambiguity that I described above, but it still led to readers finding different meaning in the same piece of prose. Personally, I considered this to be a new kind of success, a new style of writing for me that engaged a reader differently. Whether or not I will continue to pursue this idea is yet to be determined.

Could such amibiguity, either on a language level or a story level, work throughout a novel? Do you think modern readers could appreciate such writing?

Sorry I've been out of touch for a few days. I just flew back to Los Angeles from Paris, and boy are my leathery pterodactyl wings tired.


  1. "Do you think modern readers could appreciate such writing?"

    Unfortunately, no. Maybe cool guys like us could, but I think the masses are interested in being spoonfed. None of this "deeper meaning" stuff for them, puh-leese.

    Am I misanthropic? Perhaps.

  2. I can't say anything intelligent about the "red man, blue man" story because I haven't seen it, but I will say that I think ambiguity is still allowed. Certainly passages have to make at least one kind of sense, but they can make more than one kind of sense. Vague is bad, but multiplicity of meaning is still being used. Salman Rushdie does some of this. So do I, but then I'm heavily influenced by Shakespeare right now for some unknown reason.

    Probably ambiguity of language is less likely to get past an editor than is ambiguity of overall meaning in a story, because editors are trained to hunt down imprecision and kill it.

    Two paragraphs later, I still haven't read "Red man, blue man," but I wonder if perhaps that's the sort of writing that could work in short pieces or long passages in a novel, but maybe not for the entire length of a novel.

  3. This topic really piques my interest. When I read a book with an ambiguous or unresolved ending, I want to argue with it. But I find I'm in a situation similar to what you describe - I force myself to reason though the story, adding to it on my own.

    From a writer's perspective, my debut novel has an ambiguous ending. The story is designed to put you in the jury box, having you decide the protagonist's fate. I, of course, LOVE it and this was something my publisher adored. But I also get a lot of reader mail with people arguing with me or demanding to know what happened. To which I respond (privately) Mwah, ha, ha. :)

    Great post.

  4. "Vague is bad, but multiplicity of meaning is still being used."

    I once thought those two equivalent. Bad, bad Justus!

  5. Oh, Davin: Please e-mail me at .

  6. I think it depends on the reading experience. On one side of clarity, we have Dick and Jane. On the other side, a riddle. Somewhere in between, an acceptable balance that is unique to each reader.

    Being vague is different that layering multiple meanings. Please don't take away the intentional double entendre!

    As an example, here is a line from a lyric/poem I wrote:

    Our land is in our hands again
    But in in our hands will it remain?

    I wrote this intentionally to mean two things: Will the land be taken away from us again, and Will we destroy the land now that we have control. It's ambiguous, but not vague.

    I think the degree of ambiguity is inversely proportionate to the size of the prospective readership, i.e. more ambiguity leads to a smaller reading audience.

    PS Welcome back, Davin!

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  8. Any kind of experimental writing is easier to digest in short story form than in novel form. I'm willing to set aside my need for clarity for the duration of a short story. In a novel, I prefer clarity.

    There have been successful novels which are ambiguous. Beloved comes to mind, perhaps because it's one of the few experimental, literary novels I read and somewhat enjoyed despite its form. But in my opinion, the story would have been much stronger if she had told the story clearly and simply, without all the deconstructionist crap.

    There are other forms of ambiguity which do work for me. In The Life of Pi you think you are reading one kind of story, until the end, when you are suddenly offered the possibility you have been reading an entirely different story. Which is the true story is left ambiguous; if that ambiguity had been resolved, one way or the other, the book would have been ruined.

  9. I like ambiguity (that makes you think)! I think of it as artistic. Of course, there has to be rhyme or reason to it. I agree with Scott...I think it would get tiring if the whole novel was ambiguous. Poetry is a better medium for that.

    Scott...I agree Rushdie can be ambiguous. I am not sure if it's the good kind. he he

  10. Litgirl: What I worry about in Rushdie's books is the way his structures are ambiguous, not necessarily his prose. "What the hell is this story?" I found myself asking while the narrative of "Satanic Verses" started sliding around like a bad simile. Still, I really liked the book.

  11. Scott...VERY TRUE! I read Midnight's Children in grad school. I wanted to shoot myself. I think it's supposed to be "literary." have no idea how impressed I am with your Shakespeare obsession! :-D

    Great post Davin...when I saw the title I thought about Faulkner for some reason. Hmmm??

  12. Justus, ah the masses. Why are they so influential? :)

    Scott, "Red Man, Blue Man" teeters on the border of becoming "What the heck is this?" I agree that shorter forms may have a better chance of getting away with this.

    Karen, That's a great situation, so have the reader be the "judge and jury." I always really admired Sharon Stone for answering so directly when someone asked her what she thought happened at the end of Basic Instinct.

    Rick, Maybe you're right. I can see that more ambiguity would decrease readership. But, then you have those religious texts. They definitely have large readerships!

    Tara, Yeah, I almost mentioned the Life of Pi, but I didn't want the post to get too long. That definitely worked. I thought the middle of the book was slow, but the ending saved it.

    Litgirl, could it be Absalom, Absalom!?

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  14. That's breathtaking.

    And, I thought, a pretty linear narrative. I don't have any trouble with this at all.

    And I repeat: breathtaking.

  15. I'll back up Scott, Red Man, Blue Man is not a confusing or ambiguous narrative. Reading it is like watching someone create origami. You see the paper with a few simple folds, and you wonder what it will be, but when it is done, it is a recognizable object.

    In regard to the ambiguity of spiritual texts, that opens up a whole different can of worms, because the faith people place in the works has a profound impact on the interpretation.

    For the fundamentalist who views the Bible as 100% true dictation from the voice of God to the writer, even clear prose has a different meaning than the historian who views it as an allegory, written to describe the social and environmental challenges of that day and age. I am not very familiar with other spiritual texts, such as the Koran or those relating to Hindu beliefs, but I imagine similar principles apply.

    I recommend DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT THE BIBLE by Kenneth Davis. Whether your beliefs are fundamentalist or practical, it is an excellent review of the Bible from a historians perspective. It doesn't discredit the spiritual aspects of the book, but it does frame them in the reality in which they were written.

  16. Davin, yay, you're back on my time schedule! Can't wait to chat with you soon. When your wings are rested, of course. :D

    I think ambiguity is a MUST in my writing. I hate straightforward stuff. To me, it's one sided. It lacks depth. It makes me end up feeling stupid as a reader. What does this author think? That I can't make my own conclusions?

    Lots of readers see symbolism as ambiguous. But in reality, it is what really adds that extra layer to the story that allows the reader to get involved. I hate being spoon fed. Let me think!

    And I'd love to read that story of yours. Red Man, Blue Man. Sounds like I'd love it. :D

  17. Oh, never mind. You posted it in the comments. Cool!

    *goes to read*

  18. Is ambiguity the same as a story that hasn't been tightened up?

    I LOVE "Red Man, Blue Man" though. That is simply, lyrical. Thanks for sharing it with us. And it is NOT ambiguous. I enjoyed reading but now I must go and brew some tea! :)

  19. For me, my story is ambiguous in that, although the narrative is linear, finding a point or central theme to the story is harder--mostly because I didn't attempt to have one. I've gotten multiple interpretations of it, including discussions about racial dilution, patriotism (red, white and blue), and loyalty. I felt like readers had to bring more to the table to make sense of it. This is a different type of ambiguity than double entrendres, but I think it is in line with ideas on symbolism that Lady Glamis brought up. Are there symbols here or not? I know that as a writer I did not try to put in any symbols.

  20. "I know that as a writer I did not try to put in any symbols."

    I don't want to get all deconstructionist here, but you chose specific images even if you consciously attach no specific meanings to them. I would not have chosen any of these images, so at some level, they are informed by your worldview, interests, history and all of that. Certainly readers bring themselves to any work and the interpretations you get from a group of readers will vary among each reader. The story feels like it's trying to tell me something even if I don't know what it is. Certainly it makes me sad in a good way, if you know what I mean. There is a sense of otherness, of dislocation and longing in this.

    The main point: you should do more of this kind of writing, I think. I like it a lot. I'll post something sort of like this if I can find it this weekend.

  21. I'm glad you posted the story. It's lovely. If that's what you meant by ambiguous, then yes, by all means, be ambiguous!

    The story itself is perfectly clear. The setting, the details of business, the office, the relationships, everything sparkles like transparent river water. The story does not attempt to yell at you, "I mean this!" yet it clearly invites reflections and interpretations of all sorts. I'll be thinking about it a long time.

    And I learned a new word: phallocrypt. I had always just used the bland term, "penis sheath" for the frequent occassions when such came up in casual conversation. I now have a term somewhat safer for use in fine dining establishments.

  22. ...To me it seems that very little is "allowed" by the status-quo today, especially very little originality. Nevertheless, I ignore that and write what I want, no matter how original, unoriginal, ambiguous, unambiguous, explicit, angry, sad--whatever. I just write. No one tells me what to do--so there!

    Actually, I'd say both "the bible" and Shakespeare's plays are very clear basic writing. I once wrote a looooooong analysis of classic works, including the bible, and why I think they've endured. I intended to repost the essay on RR. Maybe I will now....

    Red Man, Blue Man is very fine writing--that's really the only kind of descriptive that can count with me: a quality descriptive.

  23. I find that many of my students ADORE ambiguity. In my creative writing club (high school level--typically 15-18 year old kids), they'll submit pieces with ambiguity, and the other kids will specifically state that's the thing they like about the story. So you might have trouble with it now, but I'm sure it'll be a hit when these kids grow up a bit more! Wave of the future, man, wave of the future.

  24. Davin,

    I've read short stories like this one, Red Man, Blue Man, but the truth is that some of them leave me wanting something more. I always try to find a meaning to it, of course, and the beauty of these stories is that there are more meanings, you can find your own. But some of them are just too complicated for me. And in that case, I feel so frustrated, longing for something else. As I read, a certain feeling is developing inside me and my mind is sketching various scenarios for the ending, and when there's nothing, I feel cheated. You know what I mean? Has it ever happened to you?

    Red Man, Blue Man was beautiful, I loved the way it made me feel. It's an overall feeling, almost inexplicable. It’s a feeling I identify with, maybe for being an immigrant myself. I loved it. It left me wondering, as though the ending was just the beginning of something.

    I think you should submit this somewhere, really.



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