How Much Do Readers ‘Get’?
I don’t believe in lowest-common-demonenator writing. There should be books we’ll never fully understand and tales of such complexity we have to wrestle with them, even though there are fears that the days of complex or obscure writing are coming to an end, partly due to the new ADD that has replaced quiet contemplation (there’s an article on that here).
Recently I wrote a short story called ‘The Caterpillar Flag’, which went into the ‘OxCrimes’ collection that’s out at the moment. A friend read it and said that she didn’t get it. I had deliberately written the story so that one of its key events was behind the foregrounded action and remained invisible, and we just saw its consequences. It’s a pretty simple tale otherwise and I assumed that most people would put two and two together and understand it.
Admittedly this was one of my flakier friends complaining about the outcome, but it set me thinking. In the past I’ve written storied like ‘Thirteen Places of Interest in Kentish Town’ in which the main event is carefully concealed behind the story, and I’d been thinking of constructing a novel in this manner for quite a while. But do you run the risk of creating something too obscure? Are you only writing to please yourself?
When David Mitchell wrote part of ‘The Cloud Atlas’ in futuristic Hawaiian slang he made the book sound meaningful, but as a film, which cleared away the reading hurdles, critics complained that his theme was exposed as being simplistic and over-sentimental.
Writers often start out with fairly blunt, bald novels, and develop a more sophisticated, oblique style. This loses them the readership that preferred the earlier stories that were constructed in a kind of A+B+C=D style – the most extreme example of this would be Dan Brown, who moves characters around as if they were toy soldiers. At the other end of the spectrum is someone like Dino Buzzati (one of my favourite authors) who is oblique, yet conveys exactly what he wants the reader to absorb.
Over Our Heads?
The other day I watched a Norwegian film called ‘The Bothersome Man’, about a chap who works in an anonymous city as an accountant, who slowly comes to mistrust everything he sees and hears around him. His alienation from this new passionless, consumer-friendly world where everything is too easily available and people only smile if you behave exactly like them, is drily funny and utterly terrifying, and I sat through it riveted.
Then I looked up some of the reviews. Typically, one in Slant magazine said; ‘Maybe The Bothersome Man is meant as an allegory about modern life, in which case the film doesn’t fly at all, or completely flew over my head’.
To me it felt completely obvious what the film was about, and I was with the character every agonising step of the way. But this was a film of ideas, and that’s not something everyone’s comfortable with. Novels are always more open to interpretation, but films, especially ones in the US mainstream, tend to show so much that you feel as if you’re watching a dumb-show, a vaudeville of sentiment. Obviously there are many exceptions in US film from Michel Gondry to Charlie Kaufman, and from ‘Winter’s Bone’ to ‘The Conversation’. But for the most part, the ones that sell tickets have every last scrap of meaning on display, or often have no meaning at all. That’s entertainment.
Probably what disturbed me most of all about the critic who didn’t ‘get’ ‘The Bothersome Man’ was that his dismissal reinforced the film’s message. In the film the hero tries to describe a dream to his uncomprehending wife and she tells him off for making her feel uncomfortable.
In the past a great many books were written that had endless interpretations. Is it still possible to write a modern novel that has multiple levels – or just one level – of hidden meaning? Allegorical tales – especially dystopic ones – remain open to interpretation, and it seems that the stripping back of a story into its most basic elements can free it from only having one meaning. Franz Kafka’s work always feels like this, partly I suspect because he never truly finished anything he started.
I think the arts fluctuate in depth according to format, and right now television is the place for complexity and hidden meaning. But the long, demanding novel now feels reserved for literary festival awards, read by the academically-minded leisured classes – and perhaps that’s its rightful place in a fast-forward world.