In a recent conversation, a friend talked about the kind of writing that is like an iceberg: there’s the obvious bit, the part you can see; but below the surface there’s so much more. He was referring, of course, to Ernest Hemingway’s “iceberg theory” –
“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them” (Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon – see Note 1).
In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway, an aficionado of Spanish bullfighting, “explores the metaphysics of bullfighting – the ritualized, almost religious practice – that he considered analogous to the writer’s search for meaning and the essence of life” (Wikipedia).
Just as only about one-tenth (Hemingway says one-eighth) of an iceberg is visible above the waterline, the bulk of an ‘iceberg’ text – its substance, its depth, its connotations and cultural context – lies submerged beneath the surface of the printed words. Although often complex and richly layered, any ‘meaning’ the reader derives from such a text is invariably apprehended largely at the level of the unconscious; most readers will not think to investigate or question the unseen portion.
A SparkNotes essay on Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” states that “[the author] firmly believed that perfect stories conveyed far more through subtext than through the actual words written on the page. The more a writer strips away, the more powerful the ‘iceberg’, or story, becomes.”
Of course, not all writing is deep and dark and difficult; much of what is written is more-or-less direct and straightforward. In earlier life, when my work was largely in the field of public sector communications, most of what I wrote was as straightforward as I could make it. I recognise that much of my writing now tends, and intends, to be less unequivocal.
Among the kinds of text that qualify as iceberg texts, we would probably want to include many (though not all) works of literature – poems, prose, plays, essays – whose intention is, as Roland Barthes puts it in Essais critiques, “to unexpress the expressible” (Barthes, 1972: p15 – see Note 2 below). But since writing now takes so many forms – including, of course, the still-proliferating variants of social media, web logs, web sites, and ‘apps’, the set comprising all possible types of iceberg text must, in a sense, remain open and incomplete.
As Barthes confidently asserted, “the text is not a line of words releasing a single theological meaning (the message of an Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash” (Barthes, cited by Jonathan Culler – see Note 3). Barthes’ approach to literary criticism thus entails “[treating] the work as an intertextual construct – a product of various cultural discourses on which it relies for its intelligibility – and thus consolidates the central role of the reader as a centering role” (ibid).
My friend’s background includes sociology and psychology, so it was not surprising that one of the central metaphors employed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt was soon part of our discussion: “the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.” (Haidt, 2012 [p xiv] – see Note 4).
It goes without saying that each reader sitting down with a book, or opening a web page, brings their own elephant into the room. My immediate question is, who is going to ride the elephant? – the reader or the writer? Will the reader surrender to the writer, and allow the text to influence and persuade the elephant? or will the writer and the reader struggle for control?
Assuming Haidt’s hypothesis to be apt and its details accurate, one would expect the reader’s “conscious reasoning” to take in the writer’s text and work with it, integrating it into “the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware”. Uncontroversially, then, the reader is the elephant’s rider. Sometimes, though, we find a text difficult to read – perhaps because it is poorly written; or because it is dense and complex; or because it contains material that disturbs and distresses the elephant. We do well to remember that “the rider’s job is to serve the elephant.” So what, then, is the writer’s job?
Before answering that question, it might be worth explaining that, so far, I have treated the reader as the one with the elephant and the rider. But of course, all writers have elephants of their own, and their own riders. We are reminded that each text the writer produces is a product of conscious and unconscious thought processes. Bearing in mind the Jungian concept of the “collective unconscious”, we can confidently affirm, at least, that a shared heritage of unspoken things lies deep within the interior of all language-based communication. Whether assumed (and taken as read) or signalled (however subtly or overtly), there is much that writers and readers share – archetypes, icons, histories, mythologies, memes, and cultural norms.
It occurs to me that what is apprehended by the unconscious mind of the reader has not necessarily been formulated by the conscious mind of the writer. Some of its references and inferences will have been included deliberately; others will have insinuated themselves into the “multi-dimensional space” – between the lines, as we say – without conscious intent. Other elements of a text may serve as triggers for the reader, who embroiders, interweaves, or overlays threads drawn from their own experience, with no involvement from the writer at all.
I cannot avoid mentioning, at this point, something that has recently been termed “dog whistling” – the use of particular vocabulary, phraseology, connections, and connotations to alert and arouse “those who have ears to hear”. Whilst dog whistling is not new, its role in the transmission of meaning has come to prominence in recent years. And it’s one of those things which detractors (and even some practitioners – albeit speaking behind their hands) take delight in bringing to the attention of readers.
Urban Dictionary gives an example: “Republicans say they want to make civil rights for gays a state issue, which is really just a dog whistle strategy for saying that they will refuse to grant equal rights on a federal level.”
Writing is, as Roland Barthes reminds us in Writing Degree Zero, “an ambiguous reality: on the one hand, it unquestionably arises from a confrontation of the writer with the society of his time; on the other hand, from this social finality, it refers the writer back, by a sort of tragic reversal, to the sources, that is to say, the instruments of creation” (Barthes, 1982: p36 – see Note 5).
And now, once again, that question: “So what, then, is the writer’s job?” Various authors have framed their responses to this question in very different ways. For the moment, I find myself focusing on words from Anaïs Nin: The role of the writer “is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say” (see Note 6).
- Hemingway, E. 1932. Death in the afternoon. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
- Barthes, R. 1972. Critical Essays. Translated by Richard Howard; copyright © 1972 by Northwestern University Press. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Translated from the French Essais critiques, copyright © 1964 by Éditions du Seuil.
- Culler, J. 1983. On Deconstruction : Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. London: Routledge. “First published in Great Britain in 1983 : Reprinted in 1985 and 1987 by Routledge & Keegan Paul Ltd.”
- Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The righteous mind. New York: Pantheon Books; Toronto: Random House of Canada [p. xiv]. “I developed this metaphor in my last book, The Happiness Hypothesis.” In an endnote, Haidt credits Erikson and Tedin 2003, p. 64, cited in Jost, Federico, and Napier 2009, p. 309.
Haidt, Jonathan. 2006. The Happiness Hypothesis. New York: Basic Books, a division of Perseus Books Group.
- Barthes, R. 1982. A Barthes Reader : Edited and with an Introduction by Susan Sontag. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. ‘Part One’, from Writing Degree Zero. Translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. Translation copyright © 1967 by Jonathan Cape Ltd; Preface copyright © 1968 by Susan Sontag; translated from the French Le degré zéro de l’écriture, copyright © 1953 by Éditions du Seuil.
- From The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5, as quoted in Moving to Antarctica : An Anthology of Women’s Writing (1975) by Margaret Kaminski.