The Sweet Sharpness of the Knife: More Thoughts on Fables of Unconsummated Readings

” The stories we tell about reading need to bound a potentially unending process of interpretation and imagination, even when we do not complete a reading. Or, come to the end of the text.” (from last week’s column)

“[S]tories are never just stories. They are communications and affect both their authors and to whom they are addressed.” – Vincent Crapanzano

In the time between this column and last week’s I’ve had a little revelation: I am still thinking about the reading process incorrectly. I talked last week about failure in reading, and about how we as readers create stories to relate our reading experiences. Many of those stories are told in the form of a casual fable and both arise from and address our own concerns with self-representation and our relationship to the literature we read, and don’t read. But only some of them are characterized or appear as failures per se; many of them are about a lack of consummation, of not completing a reading for some reason. Thus, to call them all failures is excessive.

I bring this up because it is easy to summarize and even essentialize unconsummated readings, especially when the stories we tell about them are brief, commonplace, and often cloak other meanings behind them. Last week I talked about a book that I have so far failed to complete and that I feel is a failure on my part to finish. But there are many other ways that we make sense of and integrate unconsummated readings, and this week I want to talk about another book and why I did not finish it, what stories I have told myself about why I did not do so, and what meanings I found beneath those stories once I examined them more closely.

The book is Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, a gritty fantasy that is also a vague post-apocalyptic tale. The book follows the bloody adventures of a young man who carves his way through an array of foes and innocent bystanders to wreck vengeance on those who did terrible things to him and his family (who are royalty, of course). The book has been lauded and derided for its grimdark setting and its havoc-creating main character. Jorgath does plenty of killing and raping (the latter mostly off-stage) and leads his band of merry/savage outlaws on a furious path of destruction that soon leads to intrigue and fell magic. In some ways it reminded me of the works of Robert E. Howard and Glen Cook, with a contemporary edge of excess and a reveling in the employment of that edge liberally across the novel.

I like sword-and-sorcery; reading it is a guilty pleasure and fascinating experience in equal amounts. But as I read Prince of Thorns something bugged me, and that irritation grew as I read it. One of the strengths of Lawrence’s writing is that it is dynamic; the reader is propelled forward swiftly and even moments of reflection hurl you along the narrative path. There is a leanness to the prose, and a very taut focus on the main character, to the point where the other characters are mostly stage-setting and expendable plot devices, and the world makes little sense. But Jorgath is the core of the story and the other elements of that story all serve to keep our attention on that core.

That in itself did not bother me, but I was increasingly perturbed by the resulting inattention on other aspects of the story. That focus, partly an effect of the character’s narration, made sense since it was quickly made clear that Jorg is a sociopath projecting his rage and pain on the world around him. At the same time, it was clear that Jorg was being set up as the hero, and that in many ways this was a standard hero’s journey. He was more interested in “the game” of his revenge, but despite his internal discussions of what made him into the revenant he had become, the rest of the story serves to make him a heroic, if flawed and grim, hero. This did not emerge as realistic or even very deep; as I noted in another piece on fantasy “‘[g]ritty’ is as fanciful in its way as white-clad paladins fighting black-shrouded demons; neither is a direct simulation of ‘the real world.'” This was especially true in Prince of Thorns, and seeing that led to another, more disappointing, revelation.

As I kept reading I noted the lack of women characters with any agency, and found the portrayal and use of some characters as not only stereotyped, but essentialized and prejudiced. Most apparent was the character of the Nuban, a character of post-apocalyptic African descent, who was deployed as a sort of dark mirror for Jorg’s reflections. His appearance and actions were enigmatic and thoroughly Othering, and this grated as I kept reading (for a more in-depth analysis of the book’s problems than I can provide, I point you to E.M. Edwards’ discussion). And at some point, I realized that I was no longer reading for the story, I was reading to see what trite metaphor or characterization would be presented next. I finally had to stop at page 206 because I could no longer stomach what I was reading. And immediately I crafted a fable of why I could not finish the book.

My story was simple: I did not care for the main character, and the portrayal of women and most secondary characters was just too weak and un-reflexive. Following a maddened teenager with no apparent redeeming qualities who was at the same time the hero of the tale was too much. I did not want to read a book that denigrated or marginalized other characters to elevate a main character that I not only did not like, but was became less interesting to follow as Lawrence’s variation of the heroic formula developed. I was taking both a principled stand and an aesthetic one by not finishing the book, and while it still bothered me a bit that I could not, I took comfort in my fable and its moralizing narrative.

But weeks later, as I read more about the debate over the book, I came to realize that there was more to my abandonment of the book than my story related. I sat with the book and read a bit more, went back and read a few sections that had particularly bothered me, and mulled over the story I had told myself. It was, I realized, just substantiation for eluding a more resonant revelation: I’ve gotten tried of reading about grimdark assholes and the illicit pleasures of voyeuristic slaughter and rapine they allow the reader to revel in, all sideline philosophizing aside. It became clear to me the moment that Jorg fired the crossbow bolt that skewered the Magical Negro and the Temptress and sent them to oblivion that the problem was not just the stereotypes and the thoughtless recycling of tropes with a new veneer, it was the conceits of gritty fantasy that undergirded those elements. For all of its supposed innovation and edginess, there was ample predictability in the plot and characters that except for the protagonist were slightly-tweaked stock characters. I just could not read that type of story anymore, because its baggage was just too heavy to bear; it weighed down the story, corrupted it with its predictable gender roles, unthinking clichés and its quasi-European rote medievalism. I was tired to seeing opportunities lost, paths not only untaken but hidden away, no real point but some sort of voyeuristic thrill, and the repetition of violence and anger as central storytelling conceits.

While I can provide all sorts of reasons to substantiate why I did not finish the book, why I did not want to consummate my reading, in the end they are personal reflections, as all readings are. Sometimes we can modulate or dissociate ourselves from the our stories, but they are always positioned and rendered most meaningful through our own gaze and reflections. This doesn’t mean that we make up reasons to dislike or reject a story, but that we use even the most concrete and obvious elements for our specific purposes. Readers have proven that a story can be poorly written, hackneyed, obvious, stereotyped, derivative, and predictable, and that they can love it. Novels that have been shown to be amazingly well constructed, layered with meaning, and innovative can be rejected easily and dismissed with the faintest of fables, such as “It was too pretentious” or “It was not for me, I was looking for something lighter/quicker/easier to read.” Even single sentences like this tell a tale with a moral, with the failing placed on the author.

So I abandoned my comfortable fable, which is something that I encourage most readers to do when they do not finish a book (sometimes to the chagrin of customers at my bookstore). We often do not want to take the time to ponder why we did not finish a book, or even why we push ourselves to finish books we do not like, and we should. There is nothing wrong with an unconsummated reading, and in some cases there may be value in considering why that choice was made, and what story we really want to tell about our abandonment of a book. For me, this has often resulted on looking for stories that are fresh, difficult, or obscure. I am now less worried about not finishing a story because that moment of incompletion is an opportunity to think about how might be a better choice to read or, increasingly, write. The point of all this is that we need to not only write and read different stories, we need to change the stories we tell ourselves about why we read and write, and examine our unfulfilled stories as well as our tried-and-true fallback fables. That may put us on a new literary journey, or at least give us the space to dream of one.

4 thoughts on “The Sweet Sharpness of the Knife: More Thoughts on Fables of Unconsummated Readings”

  1. I reserve the right to quit reading a book because I don’t want that kind of crap rolling around in my brain.

  2. It seems to be the experience of a lot of readers of Prince of Thorns that there are points where the merits of continuing on are debated in one’s mind.

    It’s not a happy book, and perhaps I was not as sensitive to some of the problems that you have highlighted–I consider it my callowness, and your more erudite nature that I was not as affected by those weaknesses.

  3. Diane, I agree. There is only so much time…and the excess needs to be removed to make room for better.

  4. Hi John,

    I really appreciate your idea that there are positive aspects, in the case above involving self-discovery, that result from a less destination approach to reading, Perhaps, though, even using the word “unconsummated” is over valuing the end point. I am not sure whether, at least from a reader’s perspective, consummation is even the preferred result of reading. Perhaps “unconsummated” readings, since they do not have the illusion of closure that “finishing” a text does and because we may use them to draw lines in the sand, are actually the most revelatory – at least about reading as a integrated process connected to other aspects of our lives. Do we think as much about why we finished a book as we do about why we did not? How we responded to the author’s use or play with tropes and stock characters?


Comments are closed.