Tuesday, 11 November 2003

Literary Depth

Layers in literature

Texts can be seen as having layers. From low to high these layers comprise

  1. The physical medium - atoms, molecules, chemicals (screen/paper). Note that these can change while level 2 remains the same (or at least irrelevantly different) to the reader, just as chessplayers rarely care whether the pieces are resin or wood.
  2. Letters - fonts, color and the quality of the handwriting can matter
  3. Units of meaning - words, phrases, sentences or lines. In a piece like Finnegan's Wake the letter->word phase is non-trivial
  4. Interpretation - which in turn is multi-level

Reading through layers

Upper layers can have emergent features absent from lower ones (and vice versa). For example

  • Emotions only exist at higher levels
  • A story full of jokes can be sad

Interpretation is not a straightforward progression from lowest to highest level. A higher level interpretation can provoke a re-interpretation of a lower level. Often the lower levels (the choice of font, color, etc) is soon ignored. But lower levels can show through. Some examples:

  1. If in a hand-written letter one reads "this is written with my blood", the physical medium becomes significant again.
  2. When reading handwriting one might reinterpret letters after having failed to deduce a satisfactory meaning.
  3. "Janet likes John" is a simple enough sentence. The interpretation of "Janet likes John" is slightly different.
  4. "love's sore return" - The letters painlessly form into words that in turn combine to form a sentence. When appended by "(4)" and seen as a cryptic crossword clue however, words are broken down into letters, and the meaning of the apostrophe changes.
  5. "Flower: exploding star in retreat" - An imagist poem? No, another clue. An exploding star is a nova, which reversed spells the solution Avon - something that flows and hence is a 'flower'. In this case we need to regress to level 2 back to letters. The sound and meaning of 'flower' changes

This situation might better be described in terms of processes rather than layers, with feedback between the processes.


In this document I'll stick with layers for the sake of argument.

Layer confusion

The layers are not always clearly distinguished.

  • Cryptic crossword clues conflate the layers
  • Phrases like "love is a four letter world" make readers change depth
  • Finnegan's Wake exhibits layer instability, as do poems like 'What's in a Homophone' (Josephine Abbott, Staple 25) which begins
    How can I bare it?
    My idle,
    My bridle partner
    Left me last weak
    For a made.
    What a waist
    Of ours
    And ours.

When the boundaries between layers are crossed by characters or other textual elements we have 'metalepsis ' - a term first used by Gérard Genette. In Coleman Dowell's novel "Island People" a low level framed story becomes the top level, taking over the narrative, creating a kind of Mobius band.

Compressing layers

Sometimes, especially during reading, the concept of layers is ignored; layers are merged together. This is also done in Cartography, in painting (perspective), and in Photoshop (to save storage space). It's often done with a particular aim in mind, fixing from a particular viewpoint. The disadvantage is that the process is irreversable and makes alternative interpretations difficult. During reading some people resist the movement between layers. They become stuck in a layer, trying to read Finnegan's Wake as if it were a poorly spelt straight story. They lose the possibility of seeing how the 2 movements (forwards and backwards; up and down) interact. It's as if an archaeologist ignored the depth artifacts were found in.


We haven't yet mentioned the reader-time component. Within a layer each new element can suggest meanings or eliminate possibilities (for example, consider the effect of each new fact in a whodunit). There can be an association with other phrases in the same layer or with elements in other layers. E.g.

  • 2 ambiguous phrases taken together can produces an unambiguous result. Juxtaposing...
  • 2 non-surreal phrases taken together can produces a surreal result.

Reading often doesn't proceed linearly through the text. Even in prose there's typically 10% of saccades (eye-movements) backwards. In poetry this percentage is likely to be higher. In particular ambiguity and confusion will provoke backtracking. The amount of backtracking needed will influence the reading strategy. Options include

  • serial processing (if readers pick the wrong alternative they backtrack to the last fork)
  • parallel processing (keeping all options open)
  • minimal commitment (choosing an option but accepting that the chosen option is provisional)

Chapter-ends and poetic line-breaks tend to force a decision/resolution. The sentence above in the 'layer confusion' section works better with line-breaks

love is
a four letter

Rather than just using the emergent meaning one can have a richer reading experience by retaining the lower-level meaning too, letting it show through, leaving that dimension open for traversal. End-rhymes force an awareness of the lower level of sound, though it's only one of many poetic effects that do this. In general, the path through the text is less linear for the poetry reader than for the prose reader. The following graphs illustrate the idealised differences one might expect to find.


Prose which forces a poetry-like reading strategy might encounter reader-resistance, reminding the reader of the extra dimension.

See also

Hofstadter's strange loops, tangled hierarchies, and hierarchy violation.

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