Authorial reserve

I’m not the biggest Cormac McCarthy fan, but I saw a reference that he would turn down requests to discuss his works on college campuses, saying that he had said all he wanted to in the books themselves. “Everything he had to say was there on the page.”

This authorial reserve is rare these days. I’ve met a few authors, W. P. Kinsella, who was pleasant, Lois McMaster Bujold, who simply read from her novels, and Roger Zelazny. I also met Alasdair McIntyre, but I’m only counting fiction writers. Zelazny was the most interesting. I was a young man at the time working my way through the Amber novels, and I mentioned how it would be good for him to have a synopsis of what had gone before in front of each novel, since I was thoroughly confused. He smiled, said “Good!” and signed my book.

If you are a writer of fiction, your art is in the book. Let it speak for itself. As a counter-example, see J. K. Rowling, who can’t stop retconning her own work. Leave it alone! Writing is an elliptical art, leaving as much unsaid as said. The reader, at least the good reader, makes most of the experience of the book by him or herself. The gaps that the author leaves are where you come in. If the author tells you too much what the books mean, the experience is ruined.

In addition, as Socrates complained in the Apology, often the poets don’t really know what they mean anyway. The greatness of the book exists in spite of them, not because of them. “Rage, sing Muse the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles!” The Muses are real, and they don’t like it when you try to peek behind the curtain.

By the way, Kinsella’s works are nice, Bujold is worth reading, and Zelazny reached a peak in Lord of Light.

5 thoughts on “Authorial reserve”

  1. “Writing is a elliptical art.”

    “poets don’t really know what they mean anyway.”

    As one who is a considerer of the meaning of ancient texts by profession, the first statement is certainly true. The Orthodox refer to “apophatic” theology — an approach that consider what we cannot say about God, a way of defining the negative space around our understanding and perception.

    The second is the ground of much energetic conversation, as many seek to dig out the “original intent of the author” and ground the only one true meaning therein. Yet the sedimental strata of a hundred generations who have laid down their renegotiations of the text tells us that this original intent (assuming that it can be discerned to some degree) is really only an invaluable starting point.

    Good thoughts. thank you.

  2. While I devoured Science Fiction in my teen years and have continued to read authors like LeGuin and Atwood, Zelazny was the only author you mentioned that I encountered in my SF reading. That was a long time ago and, other than Lord of Light, I do not remember much of his work. In spite of that, the best of Science Fiction, including the work of Ursula LeGuin and a few others ranks with the best modern literature I’ve read. These authors certainly resonate with my reading, and rereading of Homer, Rabelais, and Cervantes.

  3. Well stated. I’m reminded of a favorite line from Charles Williams’ Descent into Hell.

    “Stanhope shook his head. There was a story, invented by himself, that The Times had once sent a representative to ask for explanations about a new play, and that Stanhope, in his efforts to explain it, had found after four hours that he had only succeeded in reading it completely through aloud: ‘Which,’ he maintained, ‘was the only way of explaining it.”

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