Writer’s Intent, (Non) Causality, and Orson Scott Card

TM: You have written that “good artists do their best to sustain that which is good though their art, and call for the correction of that which is destructive of happiness.” Can you give examples of how your work tries to accomplish that mission?

OSC: I don’t consciously attempt to do any such thing. I’m not prescribing in that statement, I’m merely describing. Without any conscious thought at all, artists select the subject and the medium, the matter and the manner of their art. The very choices they make declare what they value and believe to be important. Artists are at their least effective when they try to make conscious statements through their art (they’re always free to write essays to make their case); the conscious statements are as obvious and empty and ineffective as “Rosebud,” while the unconscious statements are powerful because they are rarely noticed by the audience even as they have their effects. Orson Scott Card, Author of Ender’s Game and famed writing teacher, as interviewed my The Millions. Read the full interview here.

I like this cover best.

Orson Scott Card is an interesting figure. His political views, especially on homosexuality, are very controversial. Despite this his famed work Ender’s Game remains an enduring science-fiction classic. He is also well known for his books on writing and his writer’s boot camps. I first encountered Mr Card’s writing as a young man in this capacity, reading his book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, as soon as the local library could procure a copy. A few of my favorites among new Fantasy authors have string ties to Mr Card.

I find myself wanting to like him, and yet often annoyed when I read something he writes these days. It reminds me of Frank Miller, actually. I love his stuff, too, but anything he comes up with now seems like a salute to fascism and xenophobia.

The idea that a writer’s culture influences their work is hardly controversial, although it does lead to all sorts of sloppy critique in modern day. The environment that we are raised is responsible for a great deal of our knowledge and language skills. It certainly influences our writing. Every book has some level of unconscious subtext, which can be examined and analyzed for additional insight. In some cases this insight is more interesting than the content of the novel.  I do take exception to the idea that an artist is at their least effective when they try to make conscious statements through their art, however.

The modern novel is a child of the Enlightenment. The best and most enduring writers of the western tradition have generally been those who make conscious statements. Dickens is a good example. It seems odd to me to say that the obvious and conscious statements of Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol are in any way diminished or ineffective, despite being purposeful. A skilled rhetorician might try to argue that Dickens was mostly an inspired  product of his culture expressing the zeitgeist of the moment, but this argument seems hollow. Dicken’s novels are very purposeful and the narrative is strongly crafted to purposefully carry his statement to the reader. The structure is the key here: what separates modern novel from the romances of the middle ages, and many novels that are still written following that tradition is the emphasis on causality to deliver a powerful message to the reader.

Take A Christmas Carol as an example. The structure moves from cause to effect. We are introduced to Scrooge, a miserly, but wealthy man. He is puposefully and obviously unlikable to almost every human being I have met, a crafted caricature purposefully created to illustrate a point. Scrooge really isn’t left open to reader interpretation, as one might expect from an unconsciously created character. He is ruthlessly pared down, the form of a miser, given just enough life to seem human and nothing more. Every scene in the book works towards Dicken’s purposeful statements about greed and happiness, his refutation of the culture of poverty that gripped his time. The story is exceptionally structured and consciously so. Scrooge is visited by a succession of Ghosts, starting with his recently deceased partner, followed by the three ghosts of Christmas: Past, Present, and Future  in an effort to show him the error of his ways by showing him the outcome of his life’s decisions. Causality rules this tale, which never wavers from its statement.

The success of Dicken’s approach can be measured in how few outlying interpretations of his work exist. Very few readers (some of them purposefully obstinate), deviate from the point that Dickens was trying to get across.

There are some interesting unconscious elements that can be examined, especially in the religious and pagan symbols used, but these are secondary. One can alter the symbols (which is often done in modern day) and the story remains essentially the same and successfully convey’s the authors points as strongly as it did when it was first written.

A more complex example would be Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Hugo brilliantly contrasts God as the causal act of Kindness that turned Valjean into a good man with the non-causal ideology of Javert and the broken Justice system that birthed him. Valjean’s story is purely causal. He serves his prison term, and is unable to find work. He steals from the priest because of his anger and desperation. The priest, who believes in redemption and compassion, forgives him and lies to the police to give Valjean as second chance. All of Valjean’s actions in the book stem from this single pivotal moment, from his adoption of Fantine’s daughter to his return to Paris to save the man who is mistaken for him from death. This is a purposeful vehicle for a statement. The causal structure is too tight to be otherwise. The second story in the book, that of Javert, acts as a counterweight to Valjean’s tale. Javert believes in fate, that the end of a man’s tale is determined at the beginning (written in the stars above, by God). Javert’s view of the world is exceptionally ordered, but non-causal. When he is finally, irrefutably confronted with proof of Valjean’s redemption, after Valjean returns to barricades to save him, Javert commits suicide. He cannot reconcile his belief with reality, because his belief is not based on cause and effect, it is based on a broken ideology that has given birth to a grotesque system that requires him to persecute men like Valjean, even after they have been reformed. It is a brilliant juxtaposition of the causal with the fate-driven and it serves the novel too well to be unconscious; it is an obvious statement on the part of Hugo.

These two novels are undeniably effective. You could swap out the characters and the cultural elements in both and they would convey the purposeful elements just as strongly and effectively. The modern novel has a strong history as a vehicle for rational critique that goes far beyond making unconscious statements in the right hands. It seems beyond refute that some writers are consciously able to use a powerful, purposeful, causal structure to make a strong statement that stands the test of time and interpretation.

Still, perhaps in his own case, Orson Scott Card is correct. He lets his unconscious mind dictate the flow of his works. Some authors seem to stumble upon brilliance in this manner. Perhaps Orson Scott Card truly has tapped some deep well of culture. I cannot gainsay this technique  in the case of Ender’s Game. I just wonder if that work has a powerful impact because of Mr Scott or in spite of him.

Just because a psychic makes an accurate prediction now and then, doesn’t mean that they can actually see the future…

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