Cory Doctorow is currently giving a talk at the State Library of Victoria. I only found out about it as it was happening (boo!), but one of the reported comments hit me right where I live.
This is one of the best encapsulations of the seductiveness of the novel form. Anyone can show you what someone does, but only a good writer can provide definitive, unquestionable truth about why someone does it. Even if the characters lie to themselves, are unreliable, capricious, deluded, you’re still getting an unmediated look at the why behind the what.
This feeling of insight and empathy forms the core of the privilege of a reader. That they are outside the story, looking in with an eye that is somehow more exalted than that of the characters. That the picture you form of the secret world of the characters has a truth that doesn’t exist in real life. When it works, you have a powerful sense of belief which can drive your reader’s engagement with your plot, character and world.
But speculative fiction or historical fiction, or anthropological fiction, or… well… any fiction also gives you the extension of that. The interiority of entire societies.
It irresistably reminded me of a passage from Martin Cruz Smith’s Red Square:
“Then you tell us,” Max said. “Explain to us why you are an investigator. Your father chose to kill people. That’s why men become generals. To say a general hates war is to say that a writer hates books. You’re different. You choose to arrive after the murder. You get the blood without the fun.”
“Much like the victim,” Arkady said.
“Then, what draws you? You live in one of the worst societies on earth, and then you choose the worst part of it. What is the morbid appeal? Picking over bodies? Sending one more hopeless soul to jail for the rest of his life? As my friend Tommy would say, what’s in it for you?”
They weren’t bad questions. Arkady had asked them about himself. “Permission,” he said.
“Permission?” Max repeated.
“Yes. When someone is killed, for a short time people have to answer questions. An investigator has permission to go to different levels and see how the world is built. A murder is a little like a house splitting in half; you see what floor is above what floor and what door leads to another door.”
“Murder leads to sociology?”
Writers are little different, I suspect. Like criminal investigators, we like to take the opportunity of the drama of a narrative to peel back the outward layers of the society we write about to peer at each onion layer as we go deeper and deeper. And as we go further and further from worlds that we know, the surer and surer we can be that our author’s interpretation of the interiors of our created society are correct. This of course brings a heavier and heavier responsibility to get it right and make the internal logic as watertight as possible.
As I’ve mentioned before, when we share referents with our readers, we can rely on them to do some of our work for us. They can compare our shorthand to their internal cultural dictionary, nod and move on. The further we get, the more explicit we have to be, and the less we can trust our reader to have an “instinctive” understanding of where we’re coming from, and why our characters behave as they do.
The interiority needs to be furnished with a decorator’s eye for detail as well as a director’s knack in directing the attention of anyone who enters the room – first here, then along that wall, then towards that table, that painting and then that rug. As the furniture gets weirder and the colour combinations go further an further from established fashion, more and more care has to be taken to ensure that visitors aren’t left looking awkwardly around wondering if there’s anything to sit on.
Once again, having the sense of truth of a society, of an objective truth, gives a reader a sense of control and security in how they process your narrative.
This is not to say that you don’t lie to your readers. Of course you do. You lie about your character’s motives, you lie about the fundamental truths you present about your societies and you can have your characters lie about their innermost feelings and thoughts. But they you have the reveal, which creates a new, entirely true interior which obliterates the old.
The reader’s sense of privilege is reinforced and you can go on to tell whatever story you were intending to tell, safe in the knowledge that .
This may all seem like a reductionist way of looking at novels, but to define it doesn’t in any way reduce the huge emotional power that this sense of access provides. This shattering of the barriers of disbelief is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal.