Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Art of Asking Questions

A week ago, I piled into a sweaty auditorium with 300 other literati at the Boston Public Library to listen to Salman Rushdie give a lecture. Sir Rushdie discussed the "human scale" of novels, and how dealing with political issues or social climes in a novel directly is more and more possible now. He claimed that traditionally, writers explained a character's life from the inside, the "character is destiny" trope, but that now, acknowledging the "outside" (i.e. class, race, nationality, community, etc.) is also important. The intervention of outside forces, often political or more recognizable state-run forces, into the private lives of novel characters seems more possible, from a technical standpoint, than it used to. "How do we deal with this kind of material, considering that our work can so quickly become dated?" he asked.

The answer, for Rushdie, is that a novel either gets better or worse. If it gets worse, it is because it is only topical, not great in any other way. If it gets better, it is because it is a great example of form, contains excellent character development, in the face of its topicality.

I took notes, learned things, and wanted to ask Rushdie to elaborate on a point he'd made about
how current writers incorporate material of the social & political spheres differently than the political writers of the past. I raised my hand with all the other excitable fans when it was time for Q & A.

I never got a chance to ask my questions. This is due, in large part, to the way everyone else who asked a question sucked up valuable minutes, minutes I could have spent listening to Rushdie talk, telling their own opinion or story before they got to their "question," which was usually not a question at all, but a plea to be agreed with. Someone would begin with "Don't you think that it's just a matter of..." and I would put my hand down again, again, again. I may never have been called on anyway, I realize. But I did start reflecting on the questions that were being asked.

They were bad. This is not a problem that is relegated to those particular kinds of social hangers-on who want a chance to have their literary hero look them in the face. The problem of bad question-asking is visible in every area of my life--in my students, adminsitrators, fellow faculty, fellow writers, people in performance, friends, summer camp staff, and so on. Bad question-asking is a product of bad note-taking, bad reading, bad listening, and bad logic. It's not just narcissim, although for some that plays a part. It's also a failure of education.

A good question after a lecture references some piece of the lecture directly, or some general theme of the lecture, interprets it, and then draws out a new idea from it. For example, "Mr. Rushdie, you mentioned that great novels have both a literary meaning and a political meaning. I'm curious as to the relationship between those meanings--must they always be different? Do they change? Can you provide an example of a literary meaning and a political meaning in a particular text?" Good questions don't seek merely to reinforce the asker's personal beliefs. Good questions, asked in front of a group, open up discussion that other listeners can feel included in. Good questions prompt the answerer to reconsider their own ideas, language, and delivery.

I don't know where and when students are taught to ask good questions. My writing students have to brainstorm questions for their research projects. I've certainly trained my camp staff to do "active listening," but in general , people see personal conversations as separate from public debate. I don't see the big difference, at least when it comes to the best ways to elicit information from others.

At one point, a man got on the microphone and told a very long story about how he'd been ostracized from his cult religion because he wrote a book denouncing their doctrines. "I'm just like you, Rushdie," he said. "I've been opressed for my beliefs too."

"I'll try to find a question in there," Rushdie said, and proceeded to discuss the important of writing novels even under tyrannical governments. He quoted Bellow, "For God's sake, open the universe a little more."

It was a graceful way to evade a self-interested non-questioner. So these are my two new skills to practice: formulating better questions, and finding good questions where they may not have been intended.


  1. Perhaps the fault is the incessant uncritical push to get young students to ask questions. What we would say is ask good questions. That shouldn't shut them up with insecurity if we tell them that the formula for a good question is a simple one: it's born of pure curiousity (i.e. lust to know) and nothing else.
    Curiosity thrilled the cat!

  2. hear, hear! there is nothing more frustrating than listening to a great speaker and then having their Q&A time filled up with people wanting to "relate" rather than glean more information. like you, i'm not sure why people don't know how to ask the right questions, but in college i was constantly having to listen to my fellow students (some of whom were quite smart, actually!) ask "questions" that weren't really questions, it was more that they wanted to convince their professors to agree with them or excuse them from disagreeing. the worst questions were the ones that had already implicitly been answered during the course of the lecture and thus revealed that the students hadn't been listening very well. argh.

  3. Depending on the occassion, I feel if we are hard pressed for time, then a spontaneous quick question can be put forth.
    If there is enough time at hand, then a well formulated question (incl. the art of asking) can be incorporated.
    I have often heard that the best question is the one not asked.
    On a one-on-one interview, there is enough time to include the art of asking and put forth a good question.
    So, generally speaking, it all depends upon the situation.
    But, personally I sure would like to develop the art of asking questions more and more as it will benefit me the most.
    I do agree with your observation of people taking up time the time and opportunity during a Q&A to get a sympathetic answer.