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Why know-it-alls make bad authors

As I was doing research for a Contrary book review, I happened upon an interesting blog post by Norwegian author Stian M. Landgaard. Since the blog is in Norwegian, I hope the author won’t be too mad at me for producing a free translation. (Hey, I can at least do a better job than Google Translate.)

“It is important [that authors] know their characters: when they were born, where they are coming from, and not least what role they are playing in the story….As an author I am convinced that authors must know a lot more about their characters than the readers ever get to know. If the goal is to make the novel realistic (in a certain sense of the word), then it should seem like a continuous film reel, as though the reader suddenly becomes a fly on the wall in a fully outfitted reality that is just as complex and beyond grasp as the real world is, with three-dimensional characters who have been going about their lives the whole time, and who go on living beyond the last page (given, of course, they don’t die over the course of the book’s action). I don’t have to know everything about my characters, who are after all fictional quantities…but in any case I have to know more than I end up telling.”

This is a view of writing that we might call the “author-as-gatekeeper.” Landgaard’s view, we might say, presumes that the author is the “gatekeeper” of the facts about the story. If the author wants to reveal something, he or she just comes right out and tells us; if not, the information is withheld. The facts of the fictive world are a given quantity, and the revelation of this or that fact turns on a kind of contingency: in the end, there’s no necessity that dictates the author’s choice, and the skill of the author turns on more or less successful degrees of selection.

As it happens, I have always found this author-as-gatekeeper view a little suspect. In what follows I hope I can make clear what exactly I find fishy about it.

In making my case, I’d like to refer to a short story in which the author seems to be withholding a great deal of information, but upon closer examination, something quite different is actually occurring. The story is “A Painful Case” from James Joyce’s Dubliners, a plot simple enough to be summarized in barely three lines:

A middle-aged man who is not married begins a relationship (of some sort) with a woman who is married. Suddenly, the man breaks off the relationship. Some years later, he reads in the newspaper that the woman has been killed after stepping out in front of a train.

This bare-bones summary is representative of the information we receive in the story. Joyce simply does not yield much beyond than these basic facts, and we immediately start asking questions. Why did the man suddenly break off the relationship ? Was the woman’s death accidental? And—and this is the part I want to focus upon—was their relationship ever consummated?

With respect to the question of sex, one thing we do learn about the man is his habit of writing down pithy sayings in notebooks. After the relationship has ended, but before he learns of the woman’s death, the man writes: “Love between man and woman is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse, and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse.”

This is the only place in the story (so far as I can tell) where the matter of sex is directly addressed, and as it happens, it is fully ambiguous. It does tell us a lot about the character of the man in question, but as a reference to the “fictive reality” in which the story takes place, the “facts” of the situation, it tells us—literally—nothing.

Were the man and the woman “in love” or “just friends”? It is almost as though Joyce deliberately broaches the question only to leave it hanging. So does Joyce, ultimately, know the answer to his own question ? If we revived him today and asked him, would he be able to satisfy our curiosity?

The author-as-gatekeeper view, remember, told us that all the facts in a story depended solely on the author’s discretion. However, I propose that there is necessarily one “fact” which the author cannot choose to withhold from the readers, and it is expressed in just this very statement: “The author knows more about this story than we readers do.” Paradoxically enough, the readers know that there is something out there that they do not know. Who can deny that this is a very real—and significant—piece of information?

What’s more, it is precisely this information that immediately gives the lie to the notion of author-as-gatekeeper. The author-as-gatekeeper itself turns out to be a “fact” about the story which is immediately disclosed to readers, and which the author actually has no control over. What appears, on the face of it, to be a necessary gap in the reader’s knowledge, thus in fact turns out to be a way of getting knowledge in through the back door.

The strength of “A Painful Case” lies precisely in this: that Joyce has relinquished the authorial control over information which we normally take for granted in a story. Both Joyce and the reader, I’ve suggested, are equally in the dark over what went on in the bedroom in the story.  The reader’s lack of knowledge is complete, perfect, because Joyce has extended this lack of knowledge even to himself as author. We readers have not even the threadbare certainty that we can depend upon a reliable author who knows something that we don’t.

Did the man in “A Painful Case” ever really know whether he was in love with the woman? Indeed, how can any of us ever finally know whether we really are in love with anyone, or whether they love us back? Landgaard, after all, is right to point out that a story ought to be “as complex and beyond grasp as the real world is.” But if reality is truly beyond grasp, then no God is going to step in and tell us the difference between love and mere infatuation. Neither should the author.

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