Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

You are all merely figments of a deranged imagination

Ask a child what they want and they'll tell you. They'll tell you exactly what they want based on what they know and have experienced. If they don't know something exists how can they ask for it? And that's a problem. A novel, by definition, should be something new and what is novel about any novel (sorry that was too easy) is not restricted to its content; the style can also be new.

When I pick up a book I'm looking for something new. If I want something safe I'll buy an Asimov. Okay, his stories are all different, they're all readable – the man was a more than competent story-teller, no question there – but when I see the name "Asimov" I know what I'm going to get and that's fine; I have at least a dozen books by him and would unreservedly recommend him; he is a it-does-what-it-says-on-the-tin kind of author. I suppose Agatha Christie must be a bit the same.

You can't please all the people all of the time. It's hard enough to please any of the people any of the time. If you're lucky you might please some of the people some of the time. If you're good it'll be most of the people most of the time but even then your loyalist of fans will only take so much. No one likes a suck-up.

It reminds me of the Aesop's fable of two men and the donkey:

A man and his son decided to take their donkey to market to sell. As they were walking along by its side a countryman passed them and said: "You fools, what is a donkey for if not to ride upon?"

So the man lifted his son up on the donkey and they went on their way. But soon they passed a group of men, one of whom said: "See that lazy youngster, he lets his father walk while he rides."

So the man ordered his boy to get off, and got on himself. But they hadn't gone far when they passed two women, one of whom said to the other: "Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor little son trudge along."

Well, the man didn't know what to do, but at last he took his boy up before him on the donkey. By this time they had come to the town, and the passers-by began to jeer and point at them. The man stopped and asked what they were scoffing at. The men said: "Aren't you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey of yours and your hulking son?"

The man and boy got off and scratched their heads. They thought and they thought, till at last they cut down a pole, tied the donkey's feet to it, and raised the pole and the donkey to their shoulders. They staggered along amid peals of laughter of all who met them till they came to Market Bridge, when the donkey, getting one of his feet loose, kicked out and caused the boy to drop his end of the pole. In the struggle the donkey fell over the bridge, and his fore-feet being tied together he was drowned.

I've always said: I'll carry a donkey for no one.

People go on about the relationship between readers and writers. I'm not sure I have one. I'm not talking about this blog – blogging is very different to my normal fiction writing, it's more akin to journalism, at least that's how I feel about it. When I write fiction I think about nothing bar the writing. This does not mean I don't care about my readers but I don't consider them when I write. If I did I might hold back. I might try and play safe, just do what worked before. I don’t write for an audience. Audiences are impersonal and distant. Hundreds of people will have read something by me but who are they? I could be standing next to one at the bus stop and wouldn’t know them from Adam. When I think of writing for an audience, I feel obliged to put on a show and be properly entertaining, to give them what they expect. When I write fiction, I initiate an intimate conversation with one reader: me.

There is a risk when you try something new as a writer and it is a simple one: those who loved what you did before might hate what you're doing now. (Think Bob Dylan and an electric guitar). I wonder how Picasso felt when he (and Braque although no one remembers Braque) presented Cubism to an unsuspecting world? Or what about Schoenberg's early twelve-tone compositions? Or when Beckett popped How It Is in the post to his agent?

Readers can feel very possessive of their writers or, if not so much the writers, the characters they create. (Stephen King's Misery anyone?) It's like when a long-running series finishes and the audience are wandering around lost like characters at the end of a Spike Milligan Q sketch going, "What are we going to do now? What are we going to do now? What are we going to do now?" What some of them end up doing is writing their own stuff – fan fiction. The Web's full of it including the mind-boggling sub-genre of slash – and subsequently femslash – fiction where the homo-erotic undertones of on-screen relationships (Kirk/Spock, Starsky/Hutch, Xena/Gabrielle) are fully and graphically explored. Even Joss Whedon, following the demise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer after seven never-less-than-watchable-and- sometimes-jaw-droppingly-good years, got caught up in it – fan fiction, not slash, do keep up – and ended up writing a whole 'Season 8' for Dark Horse Comics.

This is was what got me thinking about writing a sequel to Living with the Truth. The people who read the first drafts of it all wanted more. "You can't leave it there," they said. To be honest I could have and maybe should have. I tried adding a whole second day to the first book, which actually develops the characters quite nicely, and then they wanted to know more, predictably enough, about the character of Truth. Not that I kowtowed to their wishes but they did start me thinking and you know what happens when writers start thinking. Very quickly I had a draft to Stranger than Fiction which does tidy things up and leaves a neater ending than the first book. But what I found myself doing was adding an open ending in case there was demand for a third book. So far there hasn't been and I'm not sure if I could even go back into that universe again. I've moved on and my readers need to too.

It is interesting though just how involved one can get with a character. Arguably the genre of romantic fiction generates the best example. This is from a paper by Katie Dunneback, an aspiring romance novelist:

To quote [Mary Ellen] Ryder [a professor at Boise State University] "magicians, politicians, and romance writers share a common goal, to sell their audience dreams without substance." I can argue Ms. Ryder's assumption based upon the above information on an academic level. As a reader, I can quite honestly tell that Ms. Ryder has never taken the time to read a romance novel just to read. This is the type of prejudice that romance readers are constantly bombarded with. But they still come back for more after being called ignorant, stupid, mindless, and downright backward by other women. We read for pleasure. We read for escapism. Do I expect to have Roarke from J D Robb's In Death series to be knocking on my door in the next ten minutes? No, I do not. I am a rational human being. We all are. In our groups of fellow readers we may talk about these characters as if they were real. We get into fights. As a writer I get into fights with my characters. But that is because they are real to me. They are my neighbours, they are my friends, they are the people that I will run into at the supermarket. – A Reader/Writer's POV

I've thought hard about this and wondered which characters I feel the most possessive of. When I was young it will probably have been Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) and Billy Fisher (Billy Liar) but then there's a huge gap before we get to Beckett's characters. There are characters aplenty in between that I can relate to – and strongly – but none I felt possessive of. I'm not even sure if I feel possessive of Vladimir (Waiting for Godot) and Krapp (Krapp's Last Tape) or protective but that these characters are treated with respect when they are brought to life on a stage matters to me.

The public is fickle, twisted even. I feel sorry for performers like Catherine Tate or Matt Lucas and David Walliams from Little Britain who create characters beloved by millions and then have to keep working with them over and over again until suddenly Joe Public, who felt they could do no wrong in seasons one and two, starts getting bored come season three and begins sniffing around for the next big thing. I was so glad when, at Xmas, Tate decided to kill off Lauren Cooper. I suppose she could bring her back as an angel squabbling with St Peter at the Pearly gates but please don't.

Death of course doesn't need to be the end of a character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle bent the knee to public pressure and brought back Sherlock Holmes after plunging him over the Reichenbach Falls, the same is true of Dixon of Dock Green (killed at the end of The Blue Lamp and then brought back for TV), Spock goes without saying, the aforementioned Buffy Summers, Bobby Ewing, Ellen Ripley (okay her clone), Superman (so many times)… The list goes on and on and on.

To wind up this blog about the reader/writer relationships I thought I'd mention that a school of thought came into vogue in the sixties and seventies where a number of philosopher-rhetoricians began to conceive of readers as fictional constructs in the writer's mind. The best-known work of this time was Walter J Ong's essay, 'The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction.' Ong explains:

What do we mean by saying the audience is a fiction? Two things at least. First, that the writer must construct in his imagination, clearly or vaguely, an audience cast in some sort of role – entertainment seekers, reflective sharers of experience… and so on. Second, we mean that the audience must correspondingly fictionalize itself. A reader has to play the role in which the author has cast him, which seldom coincides with his role in the rest of life.

So, just to make things clear, all my readers are really nice people who never have a bad thing to say about me and love enthusing about me to all their friends. Spread the word.


Unknown said...


Ha… when the figments speak up to taste like something rotted between my teeth and I bat them back down I do wonder if I play with an AI game on my computer or if there is not some person(s) in some hole someplace distant that I just jounced. The give and take of interface with an online audience, as I have found over time, is one of development of a context through the play of games with words. After a while there is a sense of ‘getting to know’ each other, and for a reader with the less volatile and changing media of a novel there is a contextual mass that they learn to identify with their favored author – and I think when more time is invested to develop comfort with a context it is more difficult to let it go, to let it change. When that mass of built-up context veers off, say the author types with their left hand rather than the right, the context changes. Sometimes that change in context can be subtle, as with the slow degradation of the brakes on the car up to the day they really don’t work no matter how hard you shove down on the peddle, or the change in context can be abrupt. The car suddenly explodes in a ball of fire for no apparent reason.

I do not have any examples to express in literature as to radical change of context though David Bowie I think is a good example of an artist who has become recognized as a continual morph in context to a degree that his audience expects radical changes…. though within a context as he remains a performer and has not suddenly become famous for snowboarding, least ways not that I know of. Some artists get to a point where they cannot go any further with their contextual aggregation and eventually do themselves in; Vachel Lindsey and Kurt Cobain are two examples.

In the case of Vachel he was an early victim of having to do the same performance over and over in order to please his audience. In the case of Kurt Cobain he could not go any further in his quest for authenticity that was likewise arguably conditioned by how he saw his relationship to his audience.

Fresh arrived today. Thank you for the referral.


Anonymous said...

I remember Braque.
Thanks for a thoughtful and deranged piece. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will probably spend the rest of the week chasing up all the links.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Gabe. I had to look up Vachel Lindsay but then I have to look up most poets writing after 1960 I'm so out of touch. I have a blog coming up on performance poetry that I could have fitted him into but it's way long enough already.

I'll be interested to hear what you thought of Fresh to see just how well it communicates in another culture. I suspect the underlying theme of brotherly love no matter what will keep its head above water.

And, John, thanks also. You really have no idea how deranged mind.

Dave King said...

We are all figments of some Almighty's deranged imagination, I have no doubt; one great heap of design faults and built-in decadence. I think He was straining too hard to be avant-garde. And why no bloody user manual?

Dave King said...

P.S. being serious, a good blog with more than one throw-away remark to think about. Thanks

Unknown said...


I figured you may have to look up Vachel... and I look forward to whom you reference that I need to look up. Vachel wrote pre-1931. He killed himself by drinking a bottle of Lysol. He was best known for an exuberant performance of what was then known as his invention of a 'jazz poetry'. Possibly I will blog him?

I look forward to Fresh too though I have a few other tasks in the way of getting there.

dave: caution on the reference to Him straining too hard, some may take that as an implication we are the product of an extrusion. Heaven forbid! In which case there may be a good reason there is no user manual.

William Wren said...

ive nothing to add but i agree completely with what has been said

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes Dave. As Beckett said, through his proxy Winnie, “How can one better magnify the Almighty than by sniggering with him at his little jokes, particularly the poorer ones?”

And William, always nice to see a new name up here. Glad you were pleased. Hope to see you again.

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