I’m currently in the middle of the five hour flight to San Francisco. To keep me company I have Gene Wolfe’s Latro in the Mist, an omnibus of Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete. I love Wolfe’s writing, but he makes you--the reader--work to appreciate it. Of his works that I’ve read, I wouldn’t say any were easy to read, nor would I call them difficult but he is far from a conventional storyteller.
Is it okay today to ask a reader to, ‘work’ or do we expect to pick up a book in the same passive manner we do the remote control? The work that Wolfe ask of his readers (and I’m sure there are many other who write in much the same style) is not so much work in the sense of a murder-mystery, who-done-it sort, it is the expectation that the reader really take an active role in the story: making inferences about events, characters, and supposition about untold things based on what is known. Is there a regular audience for such writers? I’m wondering if a book can be written today where the reader is the detective and not the main character doing all the work for the reader, or would today’s book buying populace shy away from such effort.
What I don’t want to digress into is, what is ‘commercial’ and what is ‘literary.’ I have no idea what the real or perceived connotation of those words are and as a matter of principle I wouldn’t accept an explanation from anyone that dared to tell me.
Soldier of the Mist was written in 1986. Writing trends, publishing trends, and the all-mighty consumer trends have changed since then. In a time where it seems that all things are becoming increasingly streamlined and ‘commercial’ and vendors adhere to the ‘give what’s proven to sell’ ideology it seems that their is a distinct opportunity for true originality to be obscured and forgotten, or deemed unsell-able and never truly ‘discovered.’ Happily, I’m not an agent nor editor but that “unique voice” (oh, how I hate the phrase!) that is so highly sought after probably hasn't been proven at retail and logic would lead me to believe that such a voice probably wouldn’t be a successful retail endeavor. (I feel it necessary to say that I am not that ‘voice.’ To indemnify myself--if you will--from being portrayed as the jaded wannabe author. I’m speaking in generalities, not personal specifics.)
Returning to Wolfe and his work, the main character is named Latro and the Mist is a reference to his memory. He forgets everything upon going to sleep and writes down as much as he can when he is able in a book. (Latro only remembers this fact as the first chapter of his book--Wolfe’s novel--is called “read this each day.”)
The book is written in first person and while Latro isn’t exactly a standard unreliable narrator he certainly has his flaws. Who is manipulating him, to what end and how far can I trust Latro in terms of how he spins things? This is complicated by the fact that Latro is trying to figure out all of the same issues while trying to keep some manner of focus on what he thinks is his objective. On top of which, a great deal of what Latro recalls, and thus writes, is given to him second hand; as in he forgot and someone else told him about it. How believable is this information? It is an interesting story mechanic to be sure, but makes for anything but a casual, light-hearted, ‘fun’ read.
Is that okay? Most great books are dictated to the reader more than a little bit and I don’t just mean 19th literature where everything was ‘told’ to the reader. Sure authors employ more ‘showing’ than ‘telling’ but it still comes down to giving a reader something that will make them turn the pages really fast.
I compare this kind of literary work to The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (obviously, I’m speaking of the films.) In the first as the moviegoer you sit there and enjoy what is given to you. You get a fairly simple story, phenomenal dialogue, and brilliant acting. Everyone leaves the experience understanding what went on. You can’t sit and watch Part II in the same way. You’ll probably hit pause a few times and ask yourself: “Why are they in Cuba, who is this Jewish guy, and when was it okay for Corleones to kill family members?” I don’t think the experience is any less enjoyable than the former--in fact I think it’s better on all levels--but at almost all times I would rather watch the first over the second.
Is it okay to write books today in the same manner as Wolfe has, and still does? Well, obviously he can. But a first timer? I doubt it. I don’t know that such a ‘unique voice’ would be accepted on any level without a preexisting a fan base.
So which do you prefer, the easy road of, take what’s given no thought necessary fiction or do you enjoy reading for some unknown ‘beautiful and lofty’ pretentious reasons that I’ve alluded to here? As for me, I can say a little of both.
Wow, I surprised myself. I almost made it through a post concerning Gene Wolfe without mentioning The Book of the New Sun.