Years before I achieved any maturity as a writer whatsoever—for I continue to be a late bloomer—I can distinctly remember sitting in a high school English classroom while Mr. Maillet rambled on about Faulkner's intentions in a passage of As I Lay Dying (1). "Clearly, he is using Addie Bundren to illustrate the condition of the American family..."
No, I thought, doodling Yoknapatawpha starships in my Big Chief tablet, he wasn't doing any such thing. He was telling a damned story.
Fast forward a couple of decades. I recently had the pleasure of writing an extended analysis on Ray Vukcevich's "The Wages of Syntax," which appeared here in the March, 2004 edition of The Internet Review of Science Fiction. Ray, who was kind enough to cooperate significantly in the research and development of that piece, read it when it the issue was posted, then emailed me to say, "Yeah. I meant to do that."
About two weeks later Matthew Cheney at the Mumpsimus posted an extended analysis of a recent story of mine, "The Redundant Order of the Night," which had run in the March edition of Revolution SF by the kindness of editor Jayme Blaschke. I went and read Cheney's review, experiencing a reaction which could be summarized as, "Huh?" Would that I were half as smart and erudite as the Jay Lake that Matthew had found behind the story text.
Or to quote Ray Vukcevich: "Yeah. I mean to do that."
In very short order, I had found myself on both sides of the gap between authorial intent and reader experience—an issue which has fascinated me since I was a kid.
Why is this question science fictional?
Because in science fiction, and more broadly speculative fiction, authorial intent is critical across far more axes of story telling than in most forms of literature. When John Updike tells us "Rabbit is rich" (2), readers of naturalistic fiction don't have to wonder what species Rabbit is, whether rich applies to his suitability as a menu item or his fuel-air mixture. All the same assumptions and cultural experiences which propel us through our daily lives propel us through naturalistic fiction, literary fiction, historical fiction and most non-fiction. We read these for the differences they illustrate between our experience and what the author describes, or for the joy of learning. How many readers have attained a grasp of nineteenth century military history and combat tactics from George MacDonald Fraser's excellent Flashman (3) series, or Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books? (4)
But in speculative fiction, everything is up for grabs. Certainly there are reading protocols, conventions of (sub)genre, other signposts that provide the experienced reader with their own grab bag of assumptions. But while Updike can assume that anyone who reads his books knows what a football hero is, no writer of speculative can assume that. The writer may decide to act as if the reader were fully informed, for story-telling or stylistic reasons, but that's a conscious decision.
All of which generates a potentially vast gap between authorial intent and reader experience.
One of my own key interests as both a consumer and a producer of speculative fiction is the loose agglutination of writers, styles and trends around slipstream, a/k/a New Weird, a/k/a Style Monkeyism, a/k/a interstitialism, an alleged movement largely characterized by its near-absolute refusal to be characterized as a movement. (5) In this non-aligned space we find an intersection between speculative fiction's multiple axes of authorial intent and naturalistic fiction's sometime dedication to style. All of this driven by a near-obsession with story-telling.
I took a question to some of the rising stars and established masters of this field: "What is your experience of the gap between authorial intent and reader experience?" Here's what some of those authors were kind enough to say to me:
Jeffrey Ford, recent Nebula winner(6), World Fantasy Award winner, and numerous other honors, as well as author of what I consider to be one of the most perfect short stories ever written, "Creation,"(7) has this to say:
"I've often wondered if the reader is experiencing the story in a completely different way than I've intended. This is possible, but in too many instances, in speaking to readers, when they've enjoyed a story, I've gotten the sense that my vision had made it intact from my mind to the page to their mind. Another of the great mysteries of writing. This process seems so intricate and fraught with possible failure, I'm surprised it ever works. When you really think about it, there are so many miraculous things that happen in the reading and writing processes. These are some of the things that make writing continuously interesting to me."
Bruce Holland Rogers, winner of the Nebula Award, the Pushcart Prize and numerous other honors, master of the short-short form(8) , and one of my greatest mentors in this field:
"All writing is a collaborative operation. A good writer doesn't aspire to write the whole story, but rather tries to write enough of the story to enable the reader to successfully create the rest of the story. A writer who strives to be the absolute master of the reader's experience will have to provide too much detail. When we talk about a piece of writing that is belabored or over-written, what we usually mean is that the writer tried to do both the writer's work and the reader's."
Jeff VanderMeer, multiple winner of the World Fantasy Award and a stunning fictionalist at numerous levels(9):
"...one reason my stories work, when they work, is that I myself don't always fully realize the implications inherent in them. For example, an image I might have used on a conscious level just to advance the plot or expand on characterization may turn out to be much more charged and symbolic to a reader. So while I used to think that authorial intent was supreme, I now do see a synergy between authorial intent and reader experience. Does this mean that I, as the author, am incompetent or just stumble into things, in a sense? No. It just means that when you prime your imagination properly, and practice hard enough re technique so that writing comes naturally to you, all sorts of things tumble out that add depth to the story. And sometimes readers see this before you do.
"In much of the best fiction, there is a space left by the author for the reader to fill. "
And finally, the incomparable Ray Vukcevich:
"I think often writers don't know what they're trying to do. If you ask them hey, what the heck are you doing here, the answer you get will be way down near the bottom of the list of interesting things about the text."
What I take from this is an understanding that I was right back in high school. The author is telling a story.(10) That's where fiction starts, and that's where fiction ends. The interesting things happen where the author isn't considering what they're doing. The reader experience is a combination of their own protocols, reading experience, even mood the day they met the story.
What does this mean for us as producers or consumers of speculative fiction? In the end, perhaps nothing but a little sound and fury, without great significance. Though it might shed light on our reading protocols.
I for one have multiple protocols depending the purpose of my reading—acquisitions editing, review, critique, self-editing, sheer pleasure. Certainly everyone else has their equivalents. It is perhaps within the development or refinement of those protocols that the sense of the gap between authorial intent and reader experience becomes most important. As an anthologist, I am very interested in reader experience of a work. As a reviewer, the balance shifts heavily toward authorial intent. As a pleasure reader (unfortunately all too rare these days) my interest finds its own balance point based on the challenges and rewards of each individual text.
But as a writer, where my core interest and highest goals lie, it is comforting to know that Ford sees miracles, Rogers sees collaboration, VanderMeer trusts readers and Vukcevich wonders what any of us are trying to do. And they're all just telling stories in the end.
You know what? I'm pretty sure Mr. Maillet knew that back in 1980. He was just trying to get me to see it.
Hey, teach: I finally got the message.
- As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner, Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1930. [Back]
- Rabbit Is Rich, John Updike, Knopf, 1981. [Back]
- Flashman, from the Flashman papers, 1839-1842, George MacDonald Fraser, Jenkins, 1969, and following. The Flashman books are highly enjoyable exercises in world-building, character development and plain old fashioned swashbuckling fun. [Back]
- Master And Commander, Patrick O'Brian, Lipincott, 1969, and following. Like Harry Flashman's adventures, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin lead the reader to places more exotic than any Star Trek episode, all the stranger for their concrete historical reality. [Back]
- See Jeff VanderMeer's excellent essay, "The Romantic Underground," a study in avoidance of this topic in the upcoming Nebula Awards anthology edited by Jack Dann. [Back]
- 2004 Nebula Award for Best Novelette, "The Empire of Ice Cream," Sci Fiction, February 26th, 2003. [Back]
- "Creation," Jeffrey Ford, F&SF, May, 2002 [Back]
- See shortshortshort.com for his regular online short fiction series. [Back]
- See City of Saints and Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer, Cosmos Books, May 2002, (and the later Prime re-issue), as well as my review of that book in order to get a view of his work as a metafictionalist. [Back]
- J.R.R. Tolkien is probably the only major figure in our field that I am willing to credit with deliberately constructing his deep themes—that way lies madness, or at a minimum dreadful prose. (Both of which can be argued for in Tolkien's corpus of work, admittedly.) [Back]