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Overload and Escape: Two Perspectives on Writing and Reading Narratives

“Science fiction at its best should be crazy and dangerous, not sane and safe. Overly polished, stingy, lifeless stories are the bane of the genre.” – Paul Di Filippo

“The immersion you have in a dream can be like the immersion you have in a film or book. The imagined world rolls on, and you roll with it, taking for granted the twists and turns and impossible demands made of you. This is a peculiar thing.” – Tom Stafford

“While we read a novel, we are insane–bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices… Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.” – Ursula K. Le Guin

One of the conundrums that preoccupies my mind far too much flourishes in the fecund interpretive ground that lies between what writers and readers do when they perform their particular construction of texts. While writers compose texts, they do so in an extended process not just of composition, but also of reading, re-reading, and shaping the text to communicate particular meanings, whether of exacting specificity or vast interpretability or something in-between, with some conception of a reader in mind. Readers come to a text with assorted expectations and preconceptions (often of the writer, not just the book) and through their reading construct their own interpretation of the author’s representations. The conundrum that worries at my thoughts is: if both reader and writer bring the text into being, can we ever really know whose understanding of and influence on the text’s meanings and messages more profoundly shapes its reception?

This is, I admit, a rather daft thing to fret about, partly because there likely isn’t a definitive answer to the perplexing question. But when I was offered the chance to review a few of the essays from the e-book publisher 40k Books, I quickly noticed several titles in their catalog that promised to address that thorny, perhaps unanswerable, question. I chose one that focused on a writer discussing his craft, and another that examined the idea of story from the perspective of a reader. The two of them proved to be stimulating, if uneven, excursions into my little obsession.

Neither of these essays are academic (Di Filippo makes this explicit in his large “Appendix”), nor are they discussions of the processes of writing or reading. Each one is subjective, opinionated, and interested less in proving a point than trying to make the reader view the notion of narrative from a different angle. Di Filippo wants his writer/reader to expand their embrace of fiction and write dense stories that are “maximalist and recomplicated” as he puts it in his subtitle. Stafford wants his reader to, in essence, become their own author and make their own stories, to be reflective when engaging other stories but to ground how they read the world in a storyworld of their own making. Both of these essays, while having different goals, articulate with each other in a few intriguing ways.

Di Filippo’s piece is not a nuts-and-bolts “how to” primer; he wants to counter the conventional wisdom of straightforwardness in narrative, especially at the level of ideas.

“The truth is, most writers of science fiction and fantasy are naturally stingy. We tend to hoard ideas, like the dragon Smaug lying on his treasure. We parcel them out in dribs and drabs. One notion per story. Maybe two High Concepts per novel.”

He believes that this limits the richness, power, and even veracity of SF: maximalist fictions…

“…seem to me more ‘real’ and ‘natural’ than those where single ideas dominate. After all, in everyday life we seldom encounter singleton ideas or characters in a vacuum, being forced generally to deal with a multiplicity of mental demands.”

He believes that there are far more rewards to be obtained as a reader (and, I think, by a writer), by championing and producing “multiplex” narratives anchored in “thick worldbuilding.”

The centerpiece of Di Filippo’s rumination is the Appendix to his piece, a paper he delivered in 2000 that focuses on his novel Ciphers, which he has the reader read towards the end of his argument and then has them return to finish the initial discussion. I found that paper to be more interesting than the discussion surrounding it, because it is in that paper that we see how an author considers the creation of a particular narrative, esconcing it in a text. The elaborate description of that novel’s construction seems a little at odds with his bracketing discussion, however. He likes to describe this maximalist fiction as “jazzy” and “hot” while many of his specific anecdotes about Ciphers seem more punk and hip, resonant symbolism creating assaultive associations.

That tension may be part of what he wishes this fiction to evoke. He leads us through a history of this exorbitant style in SF – some of which seems quite fantastical rather than science-fictional, really – and its comrades from the “mainstream,” picking out especially the Beats and Thomas Pynchon’s work, particularly his magnum opus Gravity’s Rainbow, as paragons of inspiration. He characterizes Pynchon’s fiction in part as “[c]oncrete fantasy; hard-nosed magical realism,” yet believes it is a fellow traveler to the works of A.E. van Vogt and Rudy Rucker. This brief history lesson is fascinating (and, oddly, entirely bereft of female authors) in its efforts to create an articulation between a host of wildly innovative and distinctive works, but illuminates the subsequent discourse on how learning from these paragons can produce, he believes, superlative works of literature.

Tom Stafford is not specifically interested in literature; he wants to get the reader thinking about how they engage stories and how stories, in essence, mislead them, take them in and blur their ability to perceptively reflect on what stories tell them.

“The denial of something sets the agenda. Our instinct as audience is to assume that the information we are given is relevant, even if it is presented as untrue.”

We constantly, naturally transform what we sense into framed narratives, and do it so unthinkingly most of the time that we allow those stories to dictate our understanding of reality. Whether they are moral problems in a psychology experiment, a big dumb Hollywood film, or any old novel, we find the story, often prefigure it, and in many ways accept it.

The problem is that acceptance, combined with the assumptions that immediately spring up as part of it, gives narratives a power that is hard to shake. Even when we reflect on the veracity or coherence of a story we have to struggle with the framing impulse.

“It seems to me that we can only enjoy a story we know to be untrue, and one we’ve heard before, because we have these two parts of mind – a part which can sample or confabulate reality and a part which can reflect on that process of experience.”

Stafford believes that stories work, in large part, because we surrender to them, especially if they are familiar or we know where they are going. His purpose is to use this idea of natural (although it sounds more like habitual) framing to argue for a rethinking of how we think and act morally by refusing the easy path of acceptance and not just questioning stories, but making our own in response.

Stafford is, in the end, concerned with refiguring moral thought from being a list of choices to a process of contextual reconstruction. I think this idea has merit, but the deterministic notion of story he presents emerges from, well, very deterministic examples, that are clearly designed to channel people’s attention and conclusions very narrowly to the purpose of the narrative. This is really only one sort of story. But some of his ideas provide food for thought about how readers apprehend a text. Stafford’s critique of “vignette psychology” has some resonance with di Fillipo’s disfavoring of minimalist or mononovatic stories; Stafford is arguing, in essence, for not just resisting these stories, but for the creation of narratives that are deeper and more open-ended. His underlying theory of story, that “although stories pretend to be the world they aren’t, they can’t be, unless joined by the reflective power of mind” centers the reader not just as a receptive vessel, but an active participant in creating the story. The more polyphony and room for reflection that a story provides, the more creatively stimulating it is for the reader.

Di Filippo’s notions of creating this sort of narrative are a fascinating parallel to some of Stafford’s ideas. To an extent, what Di Filippo proposes is the sort of escapable narrative that Stafford wants for readers, although Di Filippo is also arguing for a sort of control that sometimes guides the reader, sometimes leads them astray, which is less a concern for some capacity for reader reflection than a densely-woven textual tapestry that alters a reader’s perception. These two pieces are obsessed with the process of reading, of how a story is put together, how those symbols are perceived by readers and rendered into something intelligible. Di Filippo advocates stories that are less concerned with “the story” than with creating a labyrinthine, florid overload of characters, motifs, and details that short-circuit expectations and opens up new paths of perception. Stafford aspires to wake up his reader to the cloaked power and purpose of many of the stories in their lives, to get them to identify the disguise and see through it. Both authors want to shake up readers and demolish complacency in the understanding of narrative, explicitly embracing the insanity that Le Guin talks about in that brief quotation.

I admire this goal greatly, and seeing it from these very different perspectives only complicates my conundrum. Di Filippo argues for bombarding the reader with well-designed textual barrages, while Stafford wants readers to understand that embracing what the author gives them is misdirecting. I find this latter idea compelling, but limited, since all readers to some extent both permit themselves to be misled and defy the author’s intentions as encoded in the text that lies on the page or screen inert until that reader chooses to decipher it. And that verb, to decipher, is important, because that is what the reader does: figures out what code the communication is in and decides how to assimilate it. Here I feel Di Filippo puts his finger on an important aspect of writing: how that code is set up, what clues to breaking it are put in the text, what messages the writer hopes his decrypting reader will discover.

Stories have two stages of life: their conception and encoding by the author, and their reading and reception by the reader. Each of these authors examines one of those stages, and yet, between them, we see that those stages can be complicated. Authors build their codes based on a vast yet intimate range of their past readings, their understandings of other stories, which Di Filippo’s discussion of his novel makes clear. Readers don’t just bring their own intentions and knowledge to a story, but their own mode of authorship, of comprehending the text as a particular kind of story. A story is not a thing, it is a communication, an attempt to remove thought from one mind and transfer it to another. But that gift is made of many puzzle pieces which can be assembled in many ways, and how that process of putting it together works is a conundrum that is not answered by these authors, but can be examined with better questions, such as “why is this process so distinctive in the first place?”.

Because this process of encoding and reception is how we assemble and apprehend all language. This encoding and deciphering is commonplace; we do it all the time. What is different is the conceit of story, an agreement between the producer and receiver of the text. That agreement is Le Guin’s insanity, Stafford’s “peculiar thing,” that quality of disjuncture that Di Filippo wants readers and writers to embrace orgiastically. A story is a story, in part, because we make it so with our belief and imagination, with our cultural gaze and cognitive discernment. We envision a fiction differently than a cereal box or a pre-nuptial agreement. We demand that there be more to the decrypting, as both writer and reader, and work hard to make it so with our interpretations of the code, We embrace the peculiar, insane, and potentially dangerous symbols on a page by making more out of them than the marks themselves could possibly contain. It is what we permit those words to mean that truly determines whether we submit or escape, explode the text or accept it.

4 Comments on Overload and Escape: Two Perspectives on Writing and Reading Narratives

  1. Paul Di Filippo // June 23, 2011 at 10:59 am //

    John–I am honored by this deep and thoughtful and insightful treatment of my ideas, in tandem with those of Tom Stafford.  You have given me much to ponder, and I am very grateful!

  2. John makes us all smarter about this topics, Paul.  If you haven’t already, you should read the rest of his series on Fantastika.

    Di Filippo advocates stories that are less concerned with “the story” than with creating a labyrinthine, florid overload of characters, motifs, and details that short-circuit expectations and opens up new paths of perception. Stafford aspires to wake up his reader to the cloaked power and purpose of many of the stories in their lives, to get them to identify the disguise and see through it. Both authors want to shake up readers and demolish complacency in the understanding of narrative, explicitly embracing the insanity that Le Guin talks about in that brief quotation.

    Paul’s technique is what I like to call a “Gonzo mentality” in his approach to writing SF. A Year in the Linear City, for example…

  3. Mr. Di Filippo:

    You’re very welcome. I found a lot to ponder in your essay.


    Evil Twin:

    Thanks for the kind words.  When I think of “Gonzo mentality” I think more of Hunter S. Thompson’s profane, careening style. I’m interested in the Pynchonian ideals Mr. Di Filippo discusses, and how those ideals shape the production of the text and the potential coding it establishes (or tries to render ambiguous or polysemic). I have not read A Year in the Linear City; sadly I have only read a few short stories and The Steampunk Trilogy. But I will look for more at Readercon and now I’m thinking of looking more carefully at the different types of “difficult” fiction, not to establish a typology but to look at the strategies of composition (some of which I am sure has already been written about and I need to hunt down).

  4. Hannu Blommila // June 27, 2011 at 11:44 am //

    A Year in the Linear City is a wonderful story. Highly recommended.

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