“Looking Over The Writer’s Shoulder”

By Paul Grainger


A writer who wants to tell a story involves himself, as soon as he puts those first words down on the page, in a peculiar form of ambiguity. He knows, more or less, the direction in which he is heading; every event, every character and, if he writes well, every sentence and every word, brings him one step nearer his objective. Before those first words are written, everything goes, but once he begins the writing process there is less latitude. One particular person emerges as the main character, another becomes merely a peripheral figure, and each must content themselves with their assigned role. The storyteller becomes bound by his own decisions; he must follow one chosen route from beginning to end.

For a reader, though, the situation is reversed. He takes a book in his hands that has, as yet, no significance. As he reads it there comes into being, gradually, a new world. The reader is introduced to new people, not chosen at random, but created to broaden his outlook on life. What for the writer is a progressive constraint becomes for the reader – at least for the time being – an expanding universe.

I say ‘for the time being’ for two reasons. One: it depends on the situation, or accumulation of situations, as to how long the reader remains confronted with new (and therefore mind-broadening) information. In one book, it is only right at the end that the trump card is laid on the table (writers of detective stories almost always employ this technique). Whereas in another all the relevant facts are revealed earlier on, with the result that the reader shares the writer’s perspective of how the story develops. No new characters appear, and the explanation of events becomes more important than the events themselves. ‘Novels of ideas’, for example, are more often than not characterised in this latter manner: the story becomes the analysis, and the perspective of, respectively, writer and reader becomes more focused. Where the break occurs varies; not only by writer but also by book.

The second reason is that this difference in perspective is only valid on the first reading: on re-reading one knows where the story is going. Setting aside the aforementioned detective novel (which needs to be ‘forgotten’ before it can be usefully re-read), any book in which the writer presents the relevant facts early on is in a better position to withstand re-reading. And this isn’t necessarily a tribute to the quality of the writing alone. An impressively written book can, on first reading, rely on the development of the plot as a measure of its success, but if that is its only merit, it cannot be said to have much depth. Any book that has more to offer the reader is worthy of re-reading, even if the way in which the story is constructed remains fresh in the mind. The reason being that the story hasn’t been ‘devalued’ by the first reading, it has become a different story.

The reader can never recoup the ‘innocence’ of his first reading of a story, except if either it has been badly written or he has a bad memory. The more it is re-read, the nearer the reader’s perspective approaches that of the writer. They will never become one and the same, of course, because even if the characters are portrayed as, or based on, real people re-enacting real events, the story remains the product of the writer’s imagination. Repeated readings, however, can give an insight of the writer’s thought processes. The reader becomes bound by the same decision that the writer made: to follow one chosen route from beginning to end.

Paul Grainger
Copyright 2003

 

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