Thursday, 23 January 2014

Cluey enough?

Last week some fellow book-lovers were complaining about how a book kept spoon-feeding them clues.  They felt a bit disappointed that the author didn't trust them enough to figure out what was going on on their own.

Several years ago a contemporary short story came through our workshop for critique. I quite enjoyed it, but several other readers didn't.  They didn't "get it", they said.

The poor author then had to explain what she was trying to do with the story.  99% of the time when this happens, "If the audience doesn't get it, you didn't write it right."

But this time, that wasn't true.  I loved her story. It was creepy and subtle and made me shiver in delight.  How could the others not get this?

They weren't the audience.   Alas, that author didn't listen to my solo opinion, but the opinion of the masses.  She rewrote her story and pretty much ruined it.  It needed to be subtle to be creepy to be delicious.

At what point is a story too blatant, at what point is it too obscure, and where is the sweet spot in between?

As an author, I struggle with this issue.  I want my readers to get the whole enchilada. I want them to marvel in the subtleties and the nuances of the story.  But if I'm too blatant in my explanations, I'm talking down to my readers.  But if I am too subtle, they miss the clues and miss out on a lovely undercurrent.

I wanted to shake my fellow workshoppers and shout, "Don't you get it?  It's the roommate!  She's doing all this! Don't blame the text!"  But they did blame the text. And that was a shame, because their blame led to the death of the text.  Alas.

Poorly written is poorly written, but if you don't get it, it doesn't necessarily mean a story is poorly-written. You might not be its audience.

Text is written for a certain audience.  Fr'ex, remember the MG series Encyclopedia Brown?  Drank those in whilst a wee lass.  It always amazed me how Leroy always managed to figure out the mystery (especially when so many adults around him could not).  I couldn't figure out the mystery.1  I squirmed in amazement and loved those books. Many years later I gave them a read again.  This time, the clues were laid out so obvious, I wonder how on earth I could have missed them back then.

Eight-year-old me was Sobol's audience.  Forty-something me, not so much.

Ultimately, it all depends on the audience.  If something strikes you as too simplistic or too obscure, you're not its audience.
1 I don't know it was so much that I wasn't clever back then, but more that I was too painfully aware that being clever (like I wanted to be) wasn't The Done Thing.  Little girls like me weren't supposed to be smart and clever and able to solve Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, so I think I might have deliberately dumbed myself down to fit in.  Oh, how I desperately wanted to fit in to the homogenous culture of my childhood!  (I didn't, no matter how hard I tried.)  

Pretty much everyone who surrounded me was neither smart nor clever.  And that hurt.  I never realised just how much it hurt until I grew up and found the smart and clever people.  It was like coming home.

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