Friday, October 2, 2009

Intellect and Emotion: A Comparison of WHITE TEETH by Zadie Smith and OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

It is the nature of humans to experience emotion first and then respond intellectuallyA , therefore, tapping into reader emotion, as far away from intellect as possible, will make the fictive dream more effective. It is my opinion that sensory detail is particularly effective because it taps into the non-logical part of the brain—that part that was first to develop, that part that does not question as much as it accepts. Therefore, if a writer aims to reach the reader emotionally, it is essential that sufficient sensory detail be provided. This theory of mine came to mind while reading Zadie Smith’s WHITE TEETH. I was not particularly engaged with the story or characters and began to wonder why. Upon closer reading, I realized that the large majority of the details are factual or visualB . Take, for example, the opening passage of TEETH; a place it would seem the author would most want to engage the reader emotionally:

"Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 0627 hours on January 1, 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat in a fume-filled Cavalier Musketeer Estate facedown on the steering wheel, hoping the judgment would not be too heavy upon him. He lay in a prostrate cross, jaw slack, arms splayed on either side like some fallen angel; scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medals (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him. A little green light flashed in his eye, signaling a right turn he had resolved never to make. He was resigned to it. He was prepared for it. He had flipped a coin and stood staunchly by the results. This was a decided-upon suicide. In fact, it was a New Year’s resolution." (p3)

The reader sees the fumes, the character’s body position, and the items in his hands. While there is opportunity for the author to provide details that would allow the reader to hear, smell, touch, or even taste Archie’s demise, these details are not provided. As I continued to read, and found that the opening was not an exception but a rule, I determined this lack of sensory detail had a significant impact on the novel. While I did find the novel intriguing on an intellectual level, and was interested, I did not feel emotionally connected to the characters. I was not experiencing the story with them; I was not empathetic; I was not transported.

The opening of Elizabeth Strout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE, is quite different in regard to reader engagement as a result of sensory detail.

"For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summer-time roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold." (p3)

Here the reader is provided with less factual detail and a wider variety of sensory detail. For example, the reader can hear and feel the car tires. I believe the sense of smell is especially important to engage; because it the first of the human senses to develop it is the sense farthest from our logical thinking.

Relying heavily on sight and factual details prevents the reader from engaging emotionally with the story and its characters. This statement is not meant to imply that such writing is ineffective or undesirable. In fact, it may be the writer’s intention to limit the reader’s emotional response because by doing so the writer is compelling the reader to engage with the text primarily on an intellectual level; I believe this is the case with Smith’s WHITE TEETH. By contrast, Strout desires that emotional connection and relies on it to deliver the promise of the novel OLIVE KITTERIDGE.

End Notes:
A To be realistic, fiction should imitate reality. (p54, Techniques)

B In my opinion, visual detail is close to factual detail. Vision is the last of the senses to fully develop; it is the one humans rely on most. For those two reasons it is the sense most closely linked to the logical, critical, area of the brain.

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