Thursday, January 6, 2011

A Core of Competence

I like subtle stories. They aren't the only sort I enjoy by any means, but tales that hinge on a particular turn of phrase, a carefully placed repetition and a clustering of vital details have a special place in my heart. Often, I've tried to emulate the light touch of my favorite authors -- and usually received only head-scratching as a result. "I like it," readers have generously offered after finishing the final page, "but I don't really get it." Often I've though that they simply needed to give the project another read, a second pass so that all the pertinent subtleties could sink in. But in his book Revision, David Michael Kaplan argues that's a deadly perspective:
If several friendly readers tell you that they were confused by your ending and had to "go back and reread" the story to try to understand what happened, you are, believe me, in Big Trouble. In real life, you won't find readers, agents or editors who will take the trouble to go back and reread. A story gets one reading, one chance to stand on its little legs and sing. If it's confusing on the first reading, it won't get a second one. They only true desire to reread comes from the pleasure and emotional power we've felt from the story on the first read, which makes us want to experience it again. Not puzzle over. Fiction is not a philosophic treatise, or an economics text, where you often need to go back and review the argument. It's an unfolding, impelling, compelling drama that should carry you to an ending that's both powerful and satisfying.
Now, I'll cop to having returned to books that've thoroughly perplexed me on a first reading. Often those titles end up joining the ranks of my favorite stories. But honest evaluation forces me to admit that Kaplan's right: I came back to those novels and short stories not because of the confusion they spawned, but in spite of it. Something else drew me, some nucleus around which the mystifying details orbited, a competent core, solid and unmoving.

(Picture: CC 2010 by
NASA Goddard Photo and Video; Hat Tip: F. Escobar)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

I think Gene Wolfe is an example of that. The Shadow of the Torturer trilogy hits the reader over the head with last-chapter revelations that make you want to go back and read the story with new eyes. But even if such puzzle-games are his specialty, it works because his world-building, characterization, and prose are captivating enough to lead the reader through umphteen hundred pages of confusion.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Speaking of Gene Wolfe, I think you might like his description of reading Tolkien, and of the virtues of the Inklings:

But don't be fooled--his four-book cycle The Book of the New Son (which I just mistakenly called a trilogy) is the best work I've read of his, and far better than The Wizard-Knight.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My first reader, my husband, adores subtle stories but that leads to sending out stories that no one gets. I need a second reader clearly.

Loren Eaton said...


I started "Book of the New Sun" during one lazy day at Barnes and Nobel, but didn't end up buying it. I remember Wolfe's prose being very dense and thinking I wasn't quite up to tackling it at the moment. Maybe I should try it again ...

Loren Eaton said...


I know how you feel. Except my wife is among the head scratchers when it comes to my attempts at subtlety.