Readers and writers

Reading isn’t the same as watching a film. It’s kind of strange: you enter a world that is fundamentally of your own creation, a compact between you and the writer. What’s in their head as they write is likely to be different to the one appears in yours. It’s kinda creepy, if you stop to think about it.

When you watch a film all the decisions have been made for you. You know what the characters look like because they’re there in front of you. You know the environment because you can see it; can see all the props, the explosions, and with good acting and direction and dialogue can even get a sense of smell, weight, mass… It’s all there for you. Watching a film, therefore, is a passive experience. I think this is why the films that stay with you longest aren’t the flashy effect-a-thons, but the ones closest to a literary experience: those that suck you in with the intangibles: plot, character, the things for which words can’t quite grasp.

Books are different. Books have always been different. If you and I were to read the same book then we’d be experiencing different things. That’s kind of magical, if you stop to think about it. The author writes something. You read it in your own way and get something else out of it. You lend it to a friend and they get something else again. Magic.

This is, I suppose, down to the nature of description overlaid against your own experiences. I’m currently reading a book set in India. I’ve never been there. I trust the author has, or has at least has done extensive research. So they have a more complete mental image of the landscape, the smells etc than I have. Is that a problem? No, because the author (should) provide enough hints, enough description, enough evocation for a world to be built in my head. I suppose this suggests that the author’s world is more ‘right’ than mine. But that’s not true. Books are democratic. I said at the beginning that books are a compact between author and reader. I rely on the writer to give me enough hints to mould my mind’s eye without dictating strictly to me. It’s an intensely personal thing without right or wrong.

This is an area where it’s much more preferable to be under- rather than over-done. My personal hate (and this is found more on the internet than in print) is of stories that begin with a great list of a description – sometimes of background but more often of people. We want to have description drip-fed to us so we get the essence of what a character is without having them summed-up to the precise bra-size, to the last stray hair. Description should some up a character’s personality rather than appearance. Why is this? Buggered if I know. I suppose partly because a novel needs to involve the reader and nothing involves you more than having to work on it yourself. It’s collaborative. And the best stories leave you with a vivid impression of a character (or landscape) without you ever having any memory of being told anything about them.

Which is why readers can get upset when the character they held in their mind is changed for film or television adaptation. Remember the controversy when a black actor was cast in Hunger Games – even though the book actually specifically said he was black? It’s because it’s so easy to miss the small details. And then the character becomes solid in the reader’s mind – more real, sometimes, then your neighbours. You fall in love with these people. They matter. The illusion is precious, and fragile.

I suppose this article is more about description than the actual meaning behind the novels, but the same applies to text and subtext. One man’s novel is not the same as the other, and authors can be as surprised as anyone when critics see themes in their writing to which they were oblivious. I’m still mildly amused by the tale of JRR Tolkien: as a passionate Catholic he was regularly infuriated by fan-letters from neo-pagans and hippies. To his mind, they had subverted his stories. But he had inspired them. Who was right? Neither, I’d say, or both.

It’s also a (somewhat trite) fact that you can’t read the same book twice. Each time you read you do so with different eyes. You’ve learnt new things. You see things you missed before, make connections that resonate in different ways. The words speak to you with a different voice.

Because books are magical. Stories are special, and precious, in a way that nothing else is. Because the author only creates the outline. The real work is done by the reader. You are magical. Possibly also insane, but mostly wonderful and amazing. And probably very clever. Especially if you read my work.

Ciao for now, folkses.

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