Sunday, July 12, 2015

"Distortion" as a Literary Technique

Flannery O'Connor once said, "I am interested in making a good case for distortion, as I am coming to believe that it is the only way to make people see."

Distorting something to make people truly "see" it seems to be counter-intuitive, though one could argue that all literature distorts information in order to make the point clear.  From exaggeration to understatement to stock characters, metaphors, and cliched endings, literature must make the truth plain to see.  Often that can only come from - in Flannery O'Connor's word - distortion.  How often have we encountered characters who only truly exemplify a trait or an idea because the trait is so glaringly obvious?  How often have we told "some stretchers," as Huck claims Mr. Mark Twain did, in order to  impact an audience and help them "see" what we mean?  Distortion - or hyperbole - is a natural part of our language and our thinking.

This concept of distortion is particularly interesting because the word has a negative connotation.  Certainly, to exaggerate a detail is in some ways deceptive.  It might even be dishonest.  But if we shift from the concept of "distorting" and instead focus on simply emphasizing, then the act seems almost necessary.  Artist John Kascht, whose caricatures of many iconic figures have become iconic themselves, explains that he is not distorting the figures he draws but instead magnifying their traits.  Kascht's works have been featured in the Smithsonian, and his video explanation of his craft as he draws Conan O'Brien is fascinating in its analysis of the concept of artistic distortion - or magnification, emphasis, exaggeration, etc.

This concept of somehow emphasizing beyond the reality is integral to our understanding of art.  And whether it's the writing of Flannery O'Connor or the art of John Kascht or the entire genre of Romanticism, discussion of "distortion" is a necessary tool in the English classroom.

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