A reader (who defined herself as ‘a young 83’) wrote to me last week to let me she was enjoying The Great American Desert, and when I asked her what it was about it that she enjoyed she replied as follows:
Mostly I love the book because it is ‘clean’. Call me old fashioned but I prefer reading novels from the Thirties when romance was romantic and people were nice to one another.
I love the characters in your book because they are so plausibly real and their conversations are simple and natural and often funny. I love to laugh and find myself laughing out loud at some of the passages in your book
To me the novel is about people and relationships in a simplistic rural setting. These people seem genuine to me and I find myself feeling as if I am one of them.
As Gomer Pyle used to say, well gaw-aw-aw-ly.
She prefaced the remarks above with an apology that her understanding of the book was not more ‘literary,’ as if I would take offense that someone could enjoy my work without bowing down in awe before my subtle use of metaphor and unsurpassed mastery of narrative technique.
James Joyce, who truly was a master of narrative technique, once spoke of how a novel’s ‘perfect reader’ was necessarily the author himself. Who else could possibly pick up on every allusion? Who else could possibly be aware of every clever little bit of wordplay? I see his point, yet I can’t help but be reminded of the Karl Marx quotation, ‘Philosophy is to the real world as masturbation is to sex.’
The relationship of author to reader is just that: a relationship. If they don’t connect, no amount of technique is going to make things work.
I gave up long ago on the notion that the artist’s intention must (would? could? might?) be clear to the attentive viewer. As they say in Hollywood, if you got a message, use Western Union. Sadly, Western Union stopped transmitting messages last year.
That isn’t to say I don’t have my moments of frustration. Years ago a friend hauled me to one of those great books discussion groups. They were going to tackle Soren Kierkegaard’s admittedly demanding Fear and Trembling and the Sickness unto Death, which is my favorite book on the nature of Christianity. It’s jam-packed with paradoxes and challenging insights. Luckily, as a guest I was not expected to add anything to the discussion. Because had I opened my mouth, I would have had to ask why they had all bothered to read the book if none of them was willing to climb on the roller coaster Kierkegaard was offering. You would think, from what they had to say about it, that they’d just read something more like The Velveteen Rabbit.
Gosh, I hope I’m not starting to sound like some kind of elitist snob. Again. Because I think there is some difference between seeing at least some part of what is really there and seeing whatever you want. I love asking my readers what they think I’ve written about. I had one who responded that he thought my novel was about ‘coming home after having been away on a long journey.’ Well, okay; there’s something to that. Revealingly enough, he also told me that he had just completed a physical as well as psychic journey himself.
If we artists are going to hold mirrors up to the world, we ought to remember that people are going to look into those mirrors from all sorts of different angles. It’s when they throw the mirror out the window that I really start to wonder.
I’m really pleased as Punch to find that my literary efforts have met with the approval of both a ten-year-old and a ‘non-literary’ 83-year-old. (Extra credit, by the way, for anyone who can find the self-deprecatory reference to that most literary of novels, Ulysses, in the previous sentence.) The protagonist of Desert is, after all, an overly intellectual character living among people who are quite literally down-to-earth.
That doesn’t mean I won’t also be twice as pleased as Judy to hear from readers who have dug a little deeper. There’s lots there for everyone.