Friday, August 08, 2008

Did You Get It?

A couple people have commented that "Common and Precious" is "not subtle." I guess that's true (and honestly, if that's the biggest complaint people have about it, I'm thrilled), though it's not something I'd really thought about when writing the book(*).


So I have been thinking about it a bit recently, trying to toe the line between the perfectionism that demands that I correct every flaw perceived by every reader and the self-contained arrogance that sits in its cushy armchair and smugly says that the writing is what it is and that any flaws in the book are flaws in the reader reflected in the mirror-perfect surface of my work(**). I think what I've arrived at is the conclusion that there are some subtleties to the book--while Meli is never shy about shouting her preconceptions of lower class, her father's views are a bit more nuanced, his motives in chasing his daughter not as crystal-clear as they might be. But the book itself, no, is not subtle, and there's a good reason for that: I'm writing for an audience that does not easily pick up subtleties.

(**) The "Anne Rice" side of a writer.

Now, by that I don't mean to cast any aspersions on the perceptiveness of my readers, who are all wonderful people and obviously have excellent taste. No, I mean to cast aspersions on myself.

I grew up reading (a) science fiction, and (b) quickly. Neither of these things really lends itself to ponderous examination of a work for subtle nuances. So when I come to write the kind of book that I want to read, I don't put lots of layers in it. That would take time and effort. I want to make sure everything's more or less explained on the surface, because I hate going through books and coming to the end while still wondering why on earth the main character was so dead-set on catching that darn roadrunner, having to look up on some internet blog that oh, if you notice, his father was killed right around the time of some famous battle mentioned in another chapter in which the roadrunners had routed the coyotes, and didn't I notice that every time the main character's father is mentioned he starts getting hungry for poultry? Also, it should be noted, I am not Kazuo Ishiguro, who has the magical ability to plant an idea in your mind in chapter one and then poke you in chapter five to turn around and see that it's apparently been there all the time.

That said, it is something I'm working on. I think I can add layers without detracting from the surface plot, things like imagery and theme (and there is imagery and theme in C&P, albeit handled with all the grace and skill of an elephant on ice skates), things like word choice in certain situations. The thing is, what I don't know is whether someone complaining about a lack of subtlety is complaining about:

* Everything being laid out too much on the surface so there is nothing to figure out, or

* Nothing being underneath what's on the surface.

Because it is possible to write a book in which the story and plot and character motivations are all quite clear on the surface, but which also has layers underneath for those who care to look for them. I think that's what I will shoot for, because I don't really want to write a puzzle book and, as has been noted before, I am not all that skilled, really(***). I have also had readers fail to pick up things that I thought were obvious, and in the long run, I would rather have a couple readers complaining about lack of subtlety than a couple complaining about lack of understanding.

(***) This is only a little bit of false modesty. I am aware that I write like I read: too quickly and impatiently. I'm trying to teach myself patience and skill, and to get better at the minutiae that more demanding readers look for.


Rikoshi said...

This kind of reminds me of the one problem I sometimes have (which I know I've talked to you about before) where I'm afraid to put in too much in the way of explicit details for fear of insulting the reader's intelligence. I'm not sure if that's really the same thing as subtlety vs. non-subtlety, but the overall idea is at least tangentially related.

I am a fan of when writers are able to include little things that you catch on rewrites that you might not find (and indeed, might not be expected to find) the first time reading a piece, but that's not the same thing as deliberate obfuscation, which I just think is plain annoying. The line between subtlety and enigma shouldn't be easy crossable.

Tim Susman said...

I agree. And the problem is that the line is in different places for different people. "Unsubtle" to one person is "perfectly enjoyable" to another; "Beautifully textured" to one reader is "confusing as hell" to another. Neither is right or wrong; they are different readers. You cannot write one book for all readers everywhere unless it is instructions on how to put together an IKEA sofa, and even then you need more pictures than words and some people will complain that you didn't tell them NOT to drive the nails into their own fingers during assembly.