15th June 2005: Being a reader and writing

The whole “Mundane SF” thing leaves me cold. It doesn’t do anything for me as a reader.

What SF and fantasy give me is that moment when I as a reader don’t know, when the strangeness turns around and looks back. I see them both as ways of approaching what Tolkien called “history, true or feigned”, and increasingly I don’t see a difference between the way I approach them as a writer. History, true or feigned, doesn’t have to do with plausibility, but the entirely orthogonal concept of feeling real.

When, to take an example of an utter absurdity E. Nesbit has a quarry suddenly full of magical gold coins, it feels real because she talks about the children burying one another in it as they would with sand at the beach, but with the gold being so much heavier than sand it soon becomes uncomfortable. Oh yes, you think, it would be. When Cherryh makes my stomach clench at the thought of going through Jump without drugs, and there is no Jump and the idea that humans need drugs to survive it is entirely made up, that’s the same thing, and I don’t believe it because of the scientific likelihood of FTL working that way, I believe it in my gut.

What I want from my SF is not more science, more accountability, more plausibility, but more moments when what I thought I knew turns out not to be the case, and yet that feels right. I want histories that are not our history, worlds that are not our world, dilemmas that are not our dilemmas, and I want to believe in them. And as a writer, that’s what I want to write.

Likewise, it is as a reader that I entirely dismiss Orson Scott Card’s reported comment that all writers are rapists raping the reader. That is so different from my experience as a reader that I can’t map it onto my experience as a writer even slightly. I can see a writer “raping” their own experience and their friends experiences, as in Martin’s chilling “Portraits of his Children” and indeed A.S. Byatt’s The Game. There’s definitely a grain of truth in that.

But when I read I am not being violated, nor even seduced, as Elizabeth Bear suggested. My metaphor for that is that I am standing where I am standing, shaping my side of the story being told in the space between me and the writer where the text unfolds. When I’m writing, I’m standing on the other side of that space, working in bas-relief. This is why it’s so hard to read one’s own work as a reader, because doing both sides of that at once is difficult.

It’s really odd to try to apply metaphors of sexual violence onto what appears to me to be collaborative art. It makes me wish Mr. Card, who I’ve never met, but was one of my favourite writers for years, better reading experiences in future.

[Then this was the next day, from comments]

Shewhomustasked in the comments to my last post:

I wonder if you are saying as much about “being a writer and reading” as about “being a reader and writing”. That is, is the very active, collaborative reading process you describe something that writers are inclined to do? It doesn’t really describe my reading process, but a couple of writers I’ve talked to have both confessed to being unable to read a book without mentally re-writing it (“I would have put it like this, I would have resolved the plot like this…”).

I replied to this:

No, that’s not what I mean at all, not even slightly. I hate doing that, that’s my reaction to a badly written book that doesn’t draw me in. I don’t want to read thinking about how to mentally fix it, the editing process had better be somewhere else entirely.

I’m genuinely talking about the ordinary experience of reading.

You read: “She looked in the mirror and tried to accept the fact that she was middle aged. Of course, she knew she was. Eight hundred years old, yes, and she remembered every day of it, but inside she still felt twelve.”

Now as those sentences unfold, with the introduction of the character and the surprise of the actual age, you’re building up an understanding of what’s going on, of the character, of the world — no plot there, but never mind. That process of understanding the words and making sense of what’s happening is the collaborative process I’m talking about, the mirror of the process of making the words up.

Now if I wrote: “Distrained by glimmerodes, compassed by cimmerons, she bobbed in a ocearine, solitary.”

It had better not be the first sentence, because if you read on after that, with the awkward structure and the combination of odd use of real words and incomprehensible made-up words, it’s purely because the rhythm promises eventual comprehensibility. It doesn’t actually make any sense. You’re trying to build it up, and it isn’t there. You can’t do your side of it as a reader, or only in a very abstract way. I might have a reason for starting with that, and the reason would be to do something to your expectations, to put you in a place where you could read on making different assumptions. That’s the way you shape it from your end.

As a writer you need to think about what the reader knows when for it all to come together, what to mention, pace of revelation. As a reader you need the clues set up in the right pattern for it to make sense in the right way at the right time. That’s what I mean by collaborative reading.

Does this make sense?

Shewhomust replied:

OK, yes, that makes sense. The word “collaborative” made me think of a more active participation, as did your metaphor about “shaping my side of the story”. I wasn’t suggesting that you were mentally re-editing the text, only that you were describing something more active, less pasive, than my reading experience. But yes, I read, I aim to understand.

That said, there’s a process of considering what I have just read, and what it implies for the story, which I see something other rhan reading – a standing back and putting pieces together. If I know I’m doing that (as opposed to doing it subconsciously as I go along), then I’ve probably paused in my reading. It’s also an enjoyment of the text, but it’s a different one. Is that the sort of thing you’re describing?

If I have a metaphor for how I read, it probably involves swimming…

I think the whole process from the way one word follows another to considering what’s happened and what it implies, paused or not, is reading, is engaging with the text. Swimming is a perfectly reasonable metaphor for immersion. I’ve said before that plot is the path the writer lays down for the reader to take through the story, with its twists and turns and occasional broad vistas where what was glimpsed before becomes clear.

I think this is actually easier to think about if you look at the kind of poetry where there are no distractions of plot and characters and rearrangements but you still read and it still unfolds as you read.

Phantomwolfboy then said, of

“Distrained by glimmerodes, compassed by cimmerons, she bobbed in a ocearine, solitary.”

Except that, confronted by that sentence, I would want to read on and find out what it means. Maybe I am strange?

Strange? Maybe, but on the other hand maybe not strange at all. You read SF. I deliberately wrote it to be a sentence that could make sense, that hinted at sense, that used the rhythm of language, the obscureness of the real words, and the sound-patterns of the made up words, to hint at a comprehensibility it didn’t attain. It took me ages to write it, using some methods previously only seen in forms of obscure Welsh poetry which puts sounding good first and actually meaning something ninety-fifth. I wanted the deliberate effect of something that couldn’t begin to build up anything but which had the effect on the reader of making them go: “Huh? Where’s this going? Let’s see.”

I’d read on from it if I trusted the author at all.

I wanted it to seem like a sentence that in SF, could be the first sentence of something where it would make total sense as the last sentence, by which time you’d know what glimmerodes and cimerons and ocearines were, and possibly seen people pouring over engineering diagrams for one of them and considering the degree of terraforming necessary for one of the others.


Posted in Books, Writing