Reading Between the Lines

Jane Mendelsohn (photo by Nick Davis)

Bestselling author Jane Mendelsohn explains why — in literature and in life — it’s best not to take things at face value

Remember college? I do, vividly. Back then, I was an English major and nothing thrilled me more than finding the hidden layers of meaning in a work of literature. My most ecstatic academic experience was probably the graduate seminar in Spenser I took senior year. In my senior essay I tackled Book V of the “Fairie Queene,” which I interpreted as Spenser’s argument about the dangers of taking things too literally: the perils of not understanding the symbolic meanings of events or actions. I won’t recap the essay here — wouldn’t want anyone to drift off to sleep before the end of my first paragraph — but suffice it to say that the ideas I explored in that essay still matter to me. I still believe that it’s important not to take things at face value. But what I’ve learned in the intervening years is how to apply those literary lessons to everyday life.

My first life lesson in this regard came shortly after I finished college. I spent one year working as an assistant to the literary editor of a newspaper books section, enjoying the stimulation but making virtually no money and watching mice scurry across my desk, before heading to law school. I went because I couldn’t figure out how I was going to survive as a writer. I also thought law school would be an education in moral philosophy (it wasn’t) which I figured would be useful for my imagined future novels about big ideas.

Law school was interesting and I learned many useful things, but I struggled with the feeling that it was not where I belonged. After the first year, I fell sick. The University heath service’s doctors had many tests at their disposal, and I was given possible diagnoses of lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or scleroderma. Thankfully, I found a rheumatologist outside of that system who had an intuitive sense that I was not seriously ill, and as it turned out, I recovered shortly after leaving law school. I learned that I didn’t have to take the symptoms and test results quite so literally; there were other possible interpretations. I came to understand, after I started making a modest living by writing book reviews and tutoring, that my health scare had enabled me to make a very difficult decision. My body had told me something that my conscious mind, at the time, was having difficulty articulating: that I had to go directly to my dream, even if it meant facing a tough road along the way.

I learned this same life lesson again when I tried to sell the manuscript of my first novel. I had spent two and a half years writing the book and the first agent I sent it to, a very successful New York agent, responded to it by informing me that it was too literary. “I can’t sell this,” she said, “And if I can’t sell it, no one can.” Well, the book may have seemed “too literary” (whatever that means) to her — but at least my literary mind had been honing the skill of not taking things literally. I was able, after a few hours (was it days?) of lying on the couch with my eyes closed, to see past her words and realize that such an extreme statement could not be taken at face value. Did she have a crystal ball? How could she know whether or not someone else could sell it? I persevered. Eventually I sold it without an agent. The manuscript was picked up from the slush pile at Knopf and became a bestseller. Lesson learned.

As I have published each of my three novels, I have had the opportunity to hear many different opinions and interpretations of the books. Each of my novels has taken a premise that is not realistic in order to explore emotional and human truths. (Again, my literary education at work.)  “I Was Amelia Earhart” is a fictional autobiography of Amelia Earhart that tells the imagined story of what happened to her when she disappeared. “Innocence” is a coming-of-age horror story about a teenage girl who believes that she and other girls at her school are being preyed upon by vampires. “American Music” is about a wounded Iraq war vet whose body contains stories that are unleashed by the touch of a woman who then shares these visions with him. In none of these cases did I intend for the stories to be taken literally — and yet again and again some readers have, to some extent, read the books that way. Is that a problem? Not really.

Again, the ability to see things as more than what they appear has helped me navigate life as a writer. Interestingly, the same way of thinking that led me to write these kinds of books has also enabled me to see that every reader deserves his own interpretation. I may be surprised when someone thinks that I must believe that Amelia Earhart landed on a desert island and survived (I don’t) — but who am I to take someone else’s reading too literally? Any reader who surrenders themselves to the story and the experience of the book is a reader I value, am grateful for and deeply, deeply respect.

I respect them because reading and life are both experiences that we need to surrender to in order to get the most out of them. Then we can reflect and interpret. It’s this dance between living and understanding life that reading is such good instruction for, and that my literary education, and literary life, have taught me about again and again. Now, as a parent, I have put this hard-won education to use many times; for example, when communicating with a toddler whose dramatic mood shifts can be Shakespearean in their breadth and depth (all before breakfast), or listening to a tween whose exasperation with her parents can only mean that she loves them dearly. Right? I hope so. Perhaps in that instance it is better not to try to interpret at all, but to lie on the couch. For as long as possible. With a good book.

Jane Mendelsohn is the author of American Music, just published in paperback. Her previous novels include the New York Times best seller I Was Amelia Earhart. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.


2 Responses so far.

  1. avatar calgal says:

    Spenser? OMG You’re the first person I’ve encountered who’s also taken a course on the “Fairie Queene”. Maybe most don’t live to tell about it. My use of that literary background was an 8-yr stint as a proofreader for an advertising firm. It left me time to write a novel, which when finished after I retired from a full career as a mainframe computer programmer (a lesson in NOT following your heart), was about deceptive appearances, as you say your novels are. A lingering Spenserian influence? Congratulations on following your heart, a lesson I didn’t learn until I retired. Too late to make an impact on the world, perhaps, but early enough to make a miracle of my golden years.

  2. I loved this article. It’s so nice to read someone who isn’t afraid to write about a deeper and more symbolic life. I sometimes wonder if we’re all starving for a bit of depth, since our consumer and celebrity-driven culture can be so shallow. I think we live bigger lives than we realize. Joseph Campbell used to say that there’s a greek myth playing out on every street corner. I think those same myths are playing out inside ourselves, too.

    btw, I’m so glad you didn’t listen (literally) to that first literary agent! It was definitely hubris on their part to say that if they couldn’t sell it nobody could. And such sweet revenge to sell it anyway!

    author of Seeking Sara Summers (.com)