The Courtier’s Reply and The Impossibility of Objectivity

“I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk. Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.”

Currently doing a review of the MS of a fellow author. It’s your typical first draft in that there are ideas, concepts and plot aspects that aren’t presented with the full scaffolding of support. It’s not that the ideas are poor in themselves, just that they’ve been written from within an involved creative process, and the logic used to generate it from within that process isn’t easily apparent to someone coming to it from outside.

This isn’t a problem (hey, it’s a draft), but it brings up a point in relation to my own first draft. Readers have not spent the last number of years pouring their life’s essence (measured either in blood or latte) into your work. They didn’t do the research on high-atmosphere engineering or cold-weather sociology. They have not written copious backstory on minor characters (for authenticity’s sake, in the original Finnish).

What your readers have are the words on the page, and if you’re lucky, some form of cultural familiarity with your core concepts (see my Relatable Worlds post for a few further thoughts on this). What they don’t have is any sort of deep creator’s understanding of how your book came to be, of how you painstakingly redrafted your paragraphs, rewrote your plot and tinkered with your characters’ interactions. That isn’t necessarily intended as a compliment.

We are creating our world for readers, either as a commercial imperative or because there’s a story we’d like to tell. We don’t need to tell the reader how the sausage was made (the hypocrisy of this blog notwithstanding). However, what we also shouldn’t do is expect that people that they should like our writing because of how crafty we were in creating it, which literary styles we respectfully saluted or which neat symmetrical structure we did… JUST LIKE FAULKNER, DON’T YOU SEE? The story should stand (and we should design it to stand) on its own. There’s no degree of difficulty bonus because you’ve done your research well or know your subject and milieu backwards.

I’ve talked previously about having a shared pool of core concepts with your readers, which is especially important with genre fiction. But your expectations of your audience’s knowledge has to be carefully considered. If your book is riffing entirely on a pre-existing subgenre, literary tradition, technology or character you either need to:

  • make sure you sketch your key concepts enough to give a sense of the larger corpus of knowledge;
  • ensure your audience already knows your references backwards (fanfiction thrives on this); or
  • be prepared for your audience to feel like they’re missing out.

If it comes out in the writing, and is woven into the your direct or indirect exposition then it’s there for the reader to use as a resource to build their own view of your world. If you’ve done it well then the fine raiment pretty much coalesce automatically whenever the reader forms a mental image of His Imperial Majesty. 

However, if you are expecting your readers to superimpose fine robes on naked nobility not because they read about them, but because they should have done the research you did or have gone through the same creative visualisation you did, then you may be setting an expectation of your readers that they may not be able to meet.

The top page quote (expanding on a pretty standard axiomatic tale) is from the inimitable PZ Myers, tentacled overlord of Pharyngula in which he takes issue with Christian Apologists who believe that Richard Dawkins atheism is hopelessly poorly informed by his lack of knowledge of the great arguments of Theology. His point is that there is no argument persuasive enough to penetrate a lack of evidence for a core concept, and that dismissing disbelief based on sophistication of arguments unsupported by evidence (in our case, written in-work evidence) doesn’t really work.

If you can write well, your readers will follow you as high as you want to go, but if they don’t bring their own ladders, don’t blame them if you end up on your own up on that roof.

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