"I hate your poetry. I hate your significance." Her face soured over as she surveyed the page in her hand distastefully.
They sat in a café off the street, away from the windows.
He snatched the paper away. "You don't have to read it then."
"Yes I do." She cruelly twisted the paper out of his clenched fist. She cleared her throat in an exaggerated manner, with one hand tapping against her breastbone. "'And so, this young man, this man, so good, so honest, who came into Old Benny's life so unexpectedly but with such effect, not only changed the heart of the older man, but gave his life, quite by accident, to save him, with his own heart, his very beating,'" She shot him a sardonic glance, clapping her hand over the left side of her chest, "his very meaningful bodily organ that is apparently so filled with symbolic importance that the reader begs to hurl over the text. But fortunately, a werewolf then jumped from the ceiling and bit the miserable twat of a character's head off, and this unexpected turn kept the reader from throwing the book across the room." She shoved the page against his chest. "Brilliant."
"Of course, I'm paraphrasing."
She smiled and settled her body in a calculatedly relaxed position in her chair. "I'm only helping." She yawned.
She winked at him and took a sip of coffee.
He crossed his arms over his chest. "How the fuck is this supposed to be helping?"
She leaned forward, resting her arms across her knees. "Literature is an affront to human suffering."
"Oh fuck you."
She only grinned. "Literature is hung between two corrupted principles. The first is structural significance. The second is commercial viability. You had the first, I gave you the second. That bit about the werewolf? The publishers will eat that up." She frowned. "Or maybe I should have made it a vampire. In any case, it's the only kind of plot twist the reader wouldn't see coming from a million miles away." She cocked her head and rested back in her chair, satisfied.
He shook his head at her. "You're a writer, too."
She laughed and rocked forward. "Yes. I am. And half the time when I'm writing I have absolutely no idea what it is I'm saying, just that it sounds like it might be good."
"Okay. Fine. Everybody sells out. But structural significance? What the fuck is that?"
A woman at an adjacent table commented angrily, "Now I'm not going to give them any more money if they keep letting animals escape!"
The two looked at her, then at each other.
She shrugged, leaning back again, and continued. "Exactly what it sounds like. In every book structure is an important aspect of the story. Which is why plot twists hardly ever work. Something mentioned at the beginning appears at the end, ideas run in parallel; pretty much everything works out for the author in almost exactly the way the reader would expect. Whether or not the reader likes the conclusion is irrelevant. They know what's coming." She sighed, faux pensively. "It's gotten so that I am never surprised. By the end of the first paragraph I know how anything will end."
She spent a few seconds wiping at her eyes and exaggerating a frown.
Then she continued. "You see, there was some point when I started wondering, why on earth does something always happen to the main character? Why should he matter? In every book the main character has absurd importance. And so I've come to expect the main character to be central to the narrative, no matter what clues the writer might use to try and convince me otherwise. Like, he was a poor lad, or, what an unattractive girl she was, none of that fools me. Nevertheless, it's not at all natural. Out of all the people that live, who is actually that important? That writers stumble upon important people in their fake universes so often might suggest how far imaginations run away from us."
Out on the street, people began to shout in panicked voices.
"Wait." He played his coffee stirrer through his fingers, then chewed on it. "In simpler terms, you are annoyed that the main character is...the main character? The important character tends to end up being the main one, how else would a story work?"
"Don't split hairs. Writers purposefully add unnatural significance to insignificant people. It raises expectations. It's awful, and also lazy. Try writing about someone who is not important and don't make them seem important, either, and still make the narrative worth reading. Now that's art."
"You're so right. And all this time I thought literature was supposed to be interesting."
She smiled. "Of course, there's more to structural significance than just the main character. Writers may argue it any way they want, but since English literature exists as an academic study, in all writing, there is some meaning built in. Ridiculous! Writers have some argument they want to make: comments on life at hand, like current politics or culture, oh and they love to poke at racism or socioeconomic inequality! Or else they have some personal philosophy or stolen philosophy. And without fail, by the end of whatever they've written they've won their argument. It's a horribly cheap tactic."
They heard siren's wail, followed by a horrible shriek of skidding wheels, followed by screams.
She tried to peer to the windows. "You have a better vantage point. Can you see what's happening?"
He glanced over and shook his head. "Well, how is it 'horribly cheap'?"
She widened her eyes. "Just think about it! The writer doesn't tell the reader what he's arguing outright; if he were to do that, he might as well write an essay like any person who decently stands up for his beliefs. Instead, the writer creates a whole fictional world tailor-made to prove his argument correct. It's not the real world, as I think I've already established, but it is similar enough to fool the reader that its ideas merit belief. And inside this world, while opposition to the writer's point may exist, and even very convincingly, at least for a while, eventually everything rolls in the writer's favor. And why? Not necessarily because what the writer has to say is true, but because the writer is the author!" She sat up straight, her eyes bright and excited. "The writer invents truth where he is, essentially, a god, and cannot be contested. If that's not fallacious, I don't know what is. And that's not even the worst bit."
He sighed. "Great."
She drew her legs up into her chair. "The worst part of structural significance actually runs a bit into commercial viability. Do you know what people want?"
"I'm a person, but I'm guessing that whatever you're going to say is far-fetched and highly psychological, so I'm going to say no."
"They don't want things to work out perfectly." She furrowed her eyebrows. "Well, that depends on the definition of perfect, which is a whole other argument. But what I mean is, people don't want everything in a story to be sugary. Think about it! In how many Disney movies does the main character have both parents? And the violence in fairy tales is extraordinary! There's something about absolute happiness that is thoroughly unsatisfying."
The café door opened, and they heard someone say in a loud voice, "...the good news is, they're a match..." before the door shut again.
He shook his head at her. "If nothing bad happened in a story, there wouldn't be a story about it in the first place."
"Maybe. Or maybe those stories just aren't written because people don't like them. Publishers only sell what people buy, and people only buy what they like. Besides, people don't even like happy endings all that much. What classics have happy endings? And I don't mean reasonably happy endings, where there are some compromises, but it's mostly alright and therefore tolerably happy. And then there are those stories whose endings are dreadful, so terrible, so horrible, but we love them anyway, and why? Because we call them beautiful. Tragic, but beautiful. Do you know why people think those endings are beautiful?"
He gestured for her to continue.
"Because they are so perfectly designed. That's what people love. Design. See, at the base of everything, we could never convince ourselves of absolute happiness, because it doesn't exist. Therefore, we can't accept happy endings. We know they're lies. We feel betrayed by them, like there's something missing in them." Her smile disappeared. "But design, that we can accept. Suffering exists, there is no denying it, but if we can see a pattern in it, a purpose, well, that's alright then. It means something."
He looked at the ground.
She nodded sadly. "Structural significance is all about the design behind suffering. Every little comment in a story matters, everything is for some reason relevant. And it lends to commercial viability. Horrible. A lie. Writers sell lies, and readers live by them. Writing is just another kind of religion, really." She stared off across the café. "It's an insult to our pain, our finding ways to call it beautiful."
He leveled his eyes at her face and lowered them again.
There were more screams from outside.
"Really, what the fuck is happening?" he said, tossing his coffee stirrer on the table.
A man burst in. "Does anyone have a shotgun? The zoo's escaped wolf just mauled an old man whose heart failed, just after the ambulance ran over his young friend who could have given him his heart!"
She paused. "Well," she said, taking a sip of coffee, "if you were paying any attention at all, you should have seen that coming."
Katherine Seger is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana and is currently attending Johns Hopkins University.