Sunday, 20 June 2010

It's Your Book Now! (Scoundrel Despots vs Literary Heretics)

Isn't this the coldest summer ever? We spent yesterday afternoon listening to Philip Pullman and other writers at the free Shakespeare & Company literary festival, the kind of summery event that should have everyone wearing floral-print dresses or shorts and straw hats, sipping sun-warmed rose*.
Well, the florals were there, but they were crushed between layers of thick tights, cardigans, scarves and coats. I had refused to wear tights, deciding to dress for June rather than June 19, 2010, and as a result, I looked pretty daft: the shivering girl in row 21.

Back to Philip Pullman. He was reading from his new novel, "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ" - rather brave given that the festival tent was right across from Notre Dame, where Joan of Arc's mother Isabelle once appealed against her daughter's conviction for heresy. Pullman proceeded to thank Eve for eating the apple and thereby forever freeing us from an existence as God's "little puppy lapdogs" in the Garden of Eden. Fearless!

One of his most interesting riffs during the Q&A session was about despotism vs democracy. More specifically, authorial despotism vs. authorial democracy. Despotic authors, Pullman said, are aghast at readers who interpret their stories "wrongly", ie not in the way the author intended. Democratic authors, on the other hand, recognise their readers' right to interpret the story in their own way, spreading that interpretation in the best democratic tradition - through open debate.

I found that view extremely encouraging. When I read out chapters from my novel, I often feel that I've written two-thirds of the story, and the reader completes the missing third, filling in the blanks with their own experiences, their own hopes and fears. In fact, pauses and blank spaces - everything that it not there - are among the most powerful tools a writer has, because they allow the reader to become active, to use their own imagination instead of being a passive consumer. Horror and crime writers have mastered this technique particularly well, with their hints and clues and tantalising omissions. And readers love it.

It may also be one reason why attempts to create "interactive" novels on the Internet (the ones with alternative storylines and clickable buttons) have generally failed. Novels are already, and have always been, interactive. The author provides a strong narrative and a cast of interesting characters, and the reader contributes his or her thoughts and interpretations.

As for despots vs democrats: my feeling is that most authors subscribe to the democratic/interactive model, simply because it's quite hard to be a literary despot. After all, once the reader has bought the book, it's Power to the People. They can do whatever they like with it: glue in pages with extra scenes, rewrite the ending, scratch out the main character's first name and replace it with their own.
And there's nothing the literary despot can do about that, other than sit back, sip lukewarm rose and think of a time when rebellious readers were burnt at the stake.

*If anyone knows how to insert accents with blogspot, please let me know.

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