Cards on the Table

BY NELL STARK

I have a new book out this month: All In, a romance between a professional poker player named Nova and a casino host named Vesper. The book is about many things, but one of those things is poker. In many ways, poker is a microcosm of life. Your luck can change in an instant. Deception is a powerful tool, but it has its limitations. Those with more money have certain advantages, but sometimes an underdog is capable of usurping them. Risks are not always rewarded, but if you venture nothing, you gain nothing.

 

Having a book come out is a lot like laying your cards on a table after the river. Once your cards are down, the game is frozen—open to reaction and interpretation, but not to revision. You, the player, recede momentarily into the background. The cards speak for themselves.

 

As do all texts. Back in 1946, the field of literary studies (specifically, two British blokes named Wimsatt and Beardsley)[1] spawned a concept known as the “intentional fallacy.” It goes something like this: the author’s intent behind a work is not special or privileged. It is only one interpretation among the many that may exist. As long as a reader can prove his or her theory about a text in a responsibly justified literary argument (ie. not taking quotes out of context), his/her interpretation is valid. Some people hate this idea, and I can understand why; even though our culture venerates movie stars and athletes and wealthy entrepreneurs, we still get excited about authors. There are plenty of examples ready-to-hand: the powerful public reaction to the death of Maya Angelou; the buzz about J.K. Rowling’s male pseudonym; the anxiety over whether George R. R. Martin will live long enough to finish A Song of Ice and Fire. Authors are powerful because they have answers. Or so we think.

 

I recently finished reading John Green’s The Fault in our Stars, which I picked up because a solid third of my college freshmen students named it as their favorite book. In July, I will be on a panel at the Golden Crown Literary Society’s conference about so-called “Young Adult” literature, and so I figured I’d better read a book so popular with the genre’s target market. The Fault in our Stars is viscerally beautiful and tackles many themes, but the central quest of the narrator is to find out what happens to the characters in her favorite novel after its abrupt ending. And she believes there is only one way to do this: by seeking out the author.

 

While listening to an audio book about Egyptian history[2] a few months ago, I learned that for 700,000 years, humanity had only one kind of tool: variants on a saw made of stone. But I don’t think that’s true. If those prehistoric people had language—even a very rudimentary one—then they had two tools, because they were able to tell stories to one another. Stories allow us to construct meaning out of a life that can seem, at times, utterly senseless. They are the building blocks of myth and religion, creating frameworks that help us understand everything from natural phenomena to human motivation. The story is the essential human tool. Without stories, we would have no laws, no history, no science. Like genes, stories pass from person to person, evolving through time. And also like genes, stories do not have intrinsic meaning, but rather find their meaning in expression.

Neither the bards of old nor the authors of today can determine the meaning of the stories they tell. That power belongs to their audience.

 

As our stories have evolved, we humans have done what we do to everything we touch: we have labeled them. A story, we learn, fits into a box: it is told in poetry or prose; it is an epic or a tragedy or a mystery or a romance or a thriller or erotica or YA or NA or… While these labels have a certain utility, they are also constricting—as constricting as the ones we apply to ourselves. We pin down our stories like dead butterflies, and then we ask them to fly. But the miracle is that even as we sort and categorize them, stories help us transcend our labels. They prompt us to peek over the edge of our boxes—to reach out and make connections. They create empathy.

 

Some authors feel called to stretch our imaginations by portraying the fantastical or the future. Others make meaning out of the simplest details of daily life. Some urge us to confront the darkness between the stars, or the darkness that hides monsters, or the darkness in our own hearts. They compel us to laugh, to sob, to gasp, to shake our fists. Each of us prefers certain stories over others, but humanity needs them all.

 

At the climax of James Joyce’s Ulysses, his protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, confronts the ghost of his mother and asks her the question that drives him as both a man and an artist: “Tell me the word, mother, if you know now. The word known to all men.”[1] She does not give him an answer. Scholars have argued over “the word” for decades, and if Joyce were still alive, they would doubtless beg him to tell us the word that was in his mind. I don’t think he would oblige them. I think he would say that whatever word he was thinking of—if, in fact, he was thinking of only one—is just as “correct” an answer as anyone else’s. That meaning, in other words, is constructed not by an author, but by their readers.

 

For me, “the word known to all men” is love. And that is why I write the kinds of stories that we have chosen to label romances: because love has been the structuring principle of my life and the lens through which I understand the universe. Love is my strong nuclear force and my cosmic background radiation. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”[2]

 

All In BSB-AllInwas created in the service of this love. It lies open on the table, in your hands.

 

 

[1] Wimsatt, William K. and Monroe C. Beardsley. “The Intentional Fallacy.” Sewanee Review, vol. 54 (1946): 468-488. Revised and republished in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry, U of Kentucky P, 1954: 3-18.

[2] Brier, Bob. The History of Ancient Egypt. The Great Courses: Ancient History. The Great Courses: 2013. Audiobook.

[1] Joyce, James. Ulysses. Ed. Hans Gabler. New York: Random House, 1986. 474.

[2] 1 Corinthians 13:7

16 Responses to “Cards on the Table”


  1. 1 Henriette June 24, 2014 at 11:38 AM

    Nell, All In is an excellent read!

    Like

  2. 2 Devlyn67 June 25, 2014 at 2:02 AM

    Nell, I am currently reading ‘All In’ and I have to tell you I am loving the characters and the action. It makes me want to play poker for real, love it.

    Like

  3. 3 Nell Stark June 25, 2014 at 7:23 AM

    Thank you, Henriette!🙂

    Like

  4. 4 S.A. June 25, 2014 at 3:18 PM

    Lovely blog; some profound insights there. I like the idea of authors as a conduit – sharing a story that, in the end, the reader interprets in his/her own way. And your discussion of poker as a metaphor for life made me smile. I’m not a poker player myself, but your description was spot-on. Looking forward to the book!

    Like

  5. 5 Nell Stark June 25, 2014 at 3:57 PM

    Glad you’re enjoying it, Devlyn! If you do give real poker a try, I hope you have better luck than I’ve had!😉

    Like

  6. 7 Nell Stark June 25, 2014 at 3:58 PM

    S.A., thanks for reading. I hope you enjoy the book, and I’d love to know what you think.🙂

    Like

  7. 8 Lisa T. June 25, 2014 at 9:11 PM

    I enjoyed your very thoughtful blog, and the way you brought up the point that the interpretation and meaning of a story lie in the hands of readers. Looking forward to reading All In.

    Like

  8. 9 Kim June 25, 2014 at 10:10 PM

    Nell, love your work and look forward to reading this one! Thanks for the blog.

    Like

  9. 10 Cliffi June 26, 2014 at 12:51 AM

    Nice thoughts. Love that about interpretation.

    Like

  10. 11 Nell Stark June 26, 2014 at 9:39 AM

    Dev, glad to hear you enjoyed the book all the way through.🙂

    Like

  11. 12 Nell Stark June 26, 2014 at 9:40 AM

    Thanks for reading, Lisa! As a reader, I find myself empowered by the intentional fallacy. As an author, it’s both scary and exhilarating.🙂 Hope you enjoy ALL IN.

    Like

  12. 13 Nell Stark June 26, 2014 at 9:41 AM

    Kim, thanks for reading!

    Like

  13. 14 Nell Stark June 26, 2014 at 9:53 AM

    Cliffi, your books are so marvelously open to interpretation. You’re one of my literary heroes!🙂

    Like


  1. 1 Cards On The Table | Bold Strokes Books Authors’ Blog | Net Hustlin Trackback on June 26, 2014 at 5:22 AM
  2. 2 Did you catch this? | Women and Words Trackback on August 9, 2014 at 12:34 PM

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