How Much Do Readers ‘Get’?

Reading & Writing


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.

6 comments on “How Much Do Readers ‘Get’?”

  1. Keith says:

    Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe is one of my favourite books of all time, as it is Thomas Tessier’s who was kind enough to send me a copy. Please try and be as obscure as possible Chris, with hidden meanings and multiple levels in abundance. The Bothersome Man sounds very Buzzati-esque. I must get to see it.

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    Can’t address the films, but I can comment on the OxCrimes collection, which is really good. Back a number of posts I said how much I liked it and for a number of reasons.
    It had a Spanish setting (yes?), a fresh and “naïve” point of view, a “good, but non-sentamental heart” and it played with the reader;s expectations. The story’s community, which nicely drew the entire town into the success of the story, was simply excellent. There was a “magic realism” aspect to the story, too. The little girl’s unexpected hope for a Queenly honoring gift against all odds succeeds, her town is recognized in a quiet way and your Queen – and her awards selection committee – come off as most worthy. And it all comes together as the reader fills in the gaps and participates in the story.
    For me this is a fine piece of work. When the mood is on you, Admin, I say: More please.

  3. Stefan M. says:

    Interesting thoughts, especially as I saw the Bothersome Man on DVD a couple of weeks ago.

    As far as the downfall of “complex” literature is concerned, I wonder if it was ever that popular in the first place (outside certain circles). Without having looked up historical sales figures, I guess that the majority of “common” readers have always – so probably from the 17th cent. to the present – preferred simple stories to more complex ones. One important reason might be the reader’s psychological needs: I may be oversimplifying, but aren’t simple stories basically reassuring, whereas more complex ones tend to be unsettling, calling into question what we think we know about the world?

  4. John says:

    A few years ago I watched an odd movie called House of Voices.. That’s the English subtitled version, it’s original French title is Saint Ange. I expected it to be a straightforward ghost story about a haunted orphanage, but I was continually frustrated by its self-conscious artiness and ambiguous storytelling. Later, to a satisfy my curiosity I went to an online movie site and read most of the reviews. Not one of them gave a summary that was the same! And none of them touched on the things that I picked up in the movie. I like ambiguity and films open for interpretation but surely when a movie gets several different viewpoints and ideas about it’s “theme” then its not very good storytelling, is it? Cinema is supposed to be the director’s and editor’s medium in art and the purpose of any given film ought to be clear to a majority of its viewers. Novels and short stories since they rely so heavily on subjective perceptions in each reader’s imagination are very different and easily open to freer interpretations.

    The Bothersome Man is now added to my list of must see movies.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Hah! You lie, Dan, you lie! I have thought since I first read this story that it was a little weak for admin, even though it is all you say about “non-sentamental heart”, etc. Liked this book on the whole, bought it in Bristol at the Oxfam shop, which is well worth a visit. Just not on a day when the heavens open and soak the whole city. (We could have done the laundry at roadside, especially since the two laundries himself tried were closed.)

  6. Normandy Helmer says:

    So, does an enforced pause, as in a serial publication, encourage the reader to spend more time thinking about the evolution of a story? More time looking for subtle clues?

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