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I actually slept about eight hours last night. On the downside, I woke to find that the world is still filled with idiots and douchebags, and that the high today – on the fucking second day of May – will only reach 52˚F.

Yesterday, we read through chapters Seven and Eight of Blood Oranges, found THE END, and so finished with that stage of the editing process. About a thousand errors were marked. No, I'm not exaggerating. Plus my editor's corrections, of course. Today, I'm going to try to write a strange, short epilogue sort of thing for it, and begin something new for Sirenia Digest #77. Which I'm doing my damnedest to have out to subscribers by the 10th.

If only this cold spring would end. If only we'd have a day in the eighties Fahrenheit. Four or five of them in a row.

---

So, this is interesting. Yesterday morning, trying to wake up, I was reading a fairly intelligent and articulate discussion of The Red Tree online. I won't say where. But, for the most part, I was pleasantly surprised that I found myself actually looking at the novel in new ways (novel ways, hahahahah), finding perspectives I'd not previously considered. That's always cool. But then – okay, I'm going to have to quote this, and if the author of the following comment is offended, so be it; if you comment on my work online, please assume I will read it and may publicly respond:

Secondly, the book [The Red Tree] for me illustrates one potential pitfall of narrators this unreliable; the reader must trust that the writer has absolute control of the narrative and that any mistakes and inconsistencies in the narrative are deliberate. I trust Gene Wolfe to have that absolute control; if Severian or the narrator of Peace contradict themselves, I know damn well that they're really contradicting themselves and Wolfe didn't simply make an unintentional error. But I'm not sure whether I can assume the same of Kiernan which makes piecing things together more difficult. Is this error intentional? Is it a clue? Did Kiernan just screw up? I'm not as sure as with Wolfe.

1) Why does the this reader trust Gene Wolfe, in particular, with unreliable narrators more than he or she is willing to trust me? (I love Gene Wolfe, by the way, and I mean no slight to him.) Why the differential?

2) Are there actually readers who do not understand that certain information is unknowable, that it is ultimately inaccessible to them? That is to say, if I (or Gene Wolfe) "make an unintentional error" or drop "a clue" or "screw up," how can they possibly ever know? They could ask me (or Gene), obviously. But I might lie, right? And how would she or he ever know I wasn't lying? They couldn't. Period.

3) The Red Tree is not a mystery novel. Not in the genre mystery, Agatha Christie sense that there's a solution to be uncovered. There is at least one central mystery. But there is no solution, and the sharp reader knows that going in. To do otherwise is to adopt an a priori assumption. In this novel, as in most of my writing, the inexplicable is meant to remain forever inexplicable. Hence, there can be no "clues," excepting those that might sway a reader to one or another interpretation (and any number of interpretations of the text are equally valid).

That said, coming back to the matter at hand, at no point – in any of my work – am I intentionally withholding information from the reader. I don't do that. In the case of The Red Tree, the reader has access to pretty much the same information that I do. There are secrets I keep by never telling myself the answers. At least not consciously. Sounds fucking bizarre, I know, but it's true. You can trust me on this or not. I don't really care.

But later, the author of the above comment adds, "It does seem like Kiernan may be palming her cards a little here. Having CH [Constance Hopkins] refuse to comment in any way on what did or did not happen is cheating a bit." No. If I'm not trying to hide something from you, if there's not even an ultimate answer I know and so could hide, then I can't very well cheat. You're not watching a stage magician, and "palming her cards" is a pretty inaccurate metaphor.

4) I would say that there are multiple reasons that I employ "unreliable" narrators. For example, I might say that I want to examine the nature of insanity, and how could so unbalanced a mind as Sarah Crowe's or Imp's ever be "trusted" to relay the facts (not to be confused with "truth"), assuming either of them even know them? Except, on reflection, I see that's not what I'm doing at all. Because. There is, in the end, no such creature as the truly reliable narrator. Reliability – the conveyance of a factual narrative – may be assumed to occur to varying degrees. The narrators of Moby Dick or Heart of Darkness (two of my favorite novels, as it happens) may well be believed by the reader to be doing their best to tell the events of their stories as they actually occurred. But even the best intentioned, most mentally stable narrators forget shit. Or misremember.

Don't believe me? Here's an experiment. No test tubes required. Just try to write down an accurate narrative of any given day, a few hours of any given day, and it can even be one on which something momentous (good or bad) occurred. An important day. You'll likely recall the broad strokes. But specifics of conversations? No. And you may, depending on circumstance and your temporal distance from the day, have to cope with the fact that we all experience false memories. Psychology has shot the myth of the reliable narrator all to hell and back.

I could go on and on about this. I could, if my jangling mind would permit, write a monograph on this very problem in literature. Suffice to say, unless you gravely misapprehend my intent and the nature of narratives, I trust you will not make the same mistakes as the author of the above commentary. I have nothing to hide from my readers. I make no attempt to hide that nothing. If I did, I sure as hell wouldn't admit that both the novels discussed here are, to greater and lesser degrees, autobiographical. And yes, the bit about me keeping secrets from myself still stands, even when issues of autobiography arise. There are vast stretches of my psyche that are hidden from my view (as is the case with us all).

---

Platypus says, "Shut up already. You slept late. You haven't brushed your teeth. Or done your exercises, and there are miles to go before you sleep, beast." So, yeah. Time to make the doughnuts.

Nothing Up My Sleeves,
Aunt Beast

Comments

( 23 comments — Have your say! )
captaincurt81
May. 2nd, 2012 06:27 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing this post. The purpose for fiction reading is to be entertained or to encounter thought provoking ideas. Even if you WERE 'hiding' things from the reader it's for a purpose. Keep doing what you're doing the way you're doing it. Change it up when you feel the need to change. The stories work for me.
greygirlbeast
May. 2nd, 2012 06:39 pm (UTC)

Thank you for sharing this post.

You're welcome.
michellefeltham
May. 2nd, 2012 06:27 pm (UTC)
Strange. Apparently, this reviewer distrusts stories with unreliable narrators unless she/he already and independently trusts the author. I get it; but why be so worried about the possibility of incompetence that it stops you appreciating what is in front of you? I distrust you completely, as I do everyone, but it won't affect my response to what I'm reading.
greygirlbeast
May. 2nd, 2012 06:41 pm (UTC)

Strange. Apparently, this reviewer distrusts stories with unreliable narrators unless she/he already and independently trusts the author. I get it; but why be so worried about the possibility of incompetence that it stops you appreciating what is in front of you?

I believe some readers are more interested in analysis of what they're reading than in the experience of the story itself. Ergo, this silly crap. But all writers are liars. That's a given.
elsewhereangel
May. 2nd, 2012 06:41 pm (UTC)
One thing I liked about The Drowning Girl was Imp's awareness of the slipperiness of telling any sort of tale, regardless of one's sanity.
greygirlbeast
May. 2nd, 2012 06:42 pm (UTC)

Exactly. Thank you.
michellefeltham
May. 2nd, 2012 06:54 pm (UTC)
Spot on.
ladyblue56
May. 3rd, 2012 06:22 am (UTC)
Yes.
martianmooncrab
May. 2nd, 2012 06:55 pm (UTC)
I woke to find that the world is still filled with idiots and douchebags

that I fear will never change... *sigh* but one can dream...
greygirlbeast
May. 2nd, 2012 06:56 pm (UTC)

that I fear will never change... *sigh* but one can dream...

Sadly, they also populate my dreams.
aarongp
May. 2nd, 2012 08:37 pm (UTC)
But I'm not sure whether I can assume the same of Kiernan ...
I think the odious implication in this statement is the thing that stuck out for me.
It's basically suggesting that you, a professional author of around 16 years or so publishing history at that stage, have no real idea what you're doing.
I doubt this person could be any more condescending or insulting.

I used to see this kind of thing all the time in movie reviews. This snivelling, looking down-their-nose undercurrent running through a review where the reviewer feels the need is point out "mistakes" the filmmaker has made, and present their own solutions.
Because the filmmaker got it wrong. Obviously.

And I'm not talking about hack movie makers here either. I've seen this sort of thing dished out in reviews to people like David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Jane Campion, Charlie Kaufman, Michael Winterbottom. Etc etc ...

This is why I stopped reading movie reviews.


Edited at 2012-05-02 08:38 pm (UTC)
greygirlbeast
May. 2nd, 2012 08:45 pm (UTC)

It's basically suggesting that you, a professional author of around 16 years or so publishing history at that stage, have no real idea what you're doing. I doubt this person could be any more condescending or insulting.

Yeah. I think that falls into the first category, if only implicitly.

I've seen this sort of thing dished out in reviews to people like David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Jane Campion, Charlie Kaufman, Michael Winterbottom. Etc etc ...

Yep.

This is why I stopped reading movie reviews.

That, and the tendency of reviewers (this is also true with book reviewers) who fail to grasp the difference between a review and a report.
pilamin
May. 2nd, 2012 08:41 pm (UTC)
Objective Truth?
Whenever I read fiction---good fiction---objective truth is not welcome. An intruder in a dream, or a good nightmare. It spoils the landscape and wakes us up.

Mr. Gaiman indirectly summed up my feelings of good fiction in Sandman, A Midsummer Night's Dream, where Puck exclaims, "This is magnificent---and it is true! It never happened; yet it is still true. What magic art is this?"

Everything I read in good fiction is true, even if it's only true that they're unreliable.
greygirlbeast
May. 2nd, 2012 08:46 pm (UTC)
Re: Objective Truth?

Whenever I read fiction---good fiction---objective truth is not welcome. An intruder in a dream, or a good nightmare. It spoils the landscape and wakes us up.

I didn't even broach the question of our ultimate inability to ever determine any sort of objective reality. Though I was tempted.

"This is magnificent---and it is true! It never happened; yet it is still true. What magic art is this?"

Indeed.
Steven Barritz
May. 3rd, 2012 01:49 am (UTC)
Reminds me of the people obsessed with knowing the secret behind every mystery on Lost. Isn't it better, more evocative, for mysteries to remain mysteries, better that the final chapter of Picnic at Hanging Rock wasn't published? I want JJ Abrams's mystery box to remain unopened. I would have preferred not knowing who killed Laura Palmer. Remember how cool it was when we didn't know who Deep Throat was?
corucia
May. 3rd, 2012 02:29 am (UTC)

Psychology has shot the myth of the reliable narrator all to hell and back.

Humans are hard-wired to see patterns in everything around them, and have consummate skill in making up patterns if we aren't seeing one. So why is it surprising that we also see (and make up!) patterns within our heads, too? I suspect Imp understood this aspect of herself.

Edited at 2012-05-03 02:48 am (UTC)
sovay
May. 3rd, 2012 03:41 am (UTC)
If only this cold spring would end. If only we'd have a day in the eighties Fahrenheit. Four or five of them in a row.

It is Fimbulwinter. But after the world has ended, no one will be able to recall precisely quite how it went down.
spank_an_elf
May. 3rd, 2012 07:11 am (UTC)
Authors only know what our characters reveal. I might think I know more than my character but ultimately he/she/it determines the thought process.

I'll trade you these weird 80 degrees plus days. 86 one day, 55 the next. I blame Gov Chris Christie's hot air output.
ashlyme
May. 3rd, 2012 04:53 pm (UTC)
It's the damn stupid "writer-reader contract" again. I like enigma and unreliability in a story. It allows me to have theories (but *never* explanations - I refuse to think I know better than the writer) about things, and I've never liked stories that hand everything to me on a plate.

I'd not mind a cold spring, if only we had more sun. We're in the farcical state of a drought situation, yet it's constant rain over here.
dipsomaniac
May. 4th, 2012 03:28 pm (UTC)
I woke to find that the world is still filled with idiots and douchebags

If we were to wake and find that it wasn't, what then?
faffinz
May. 4th, 2012 04:02 pm (UTC)
1) Why does the this reader trust Gene Wolfe, in particular, with unreliable narrators more than he or she is willing to trust me? (I love Gene Wolfe, by the way, and I mean no slight to him.) Why the differential?

Gene Wolfe is renowned for impeccable craftsmanship and unreliable narrators. Given how unusual an unreliable narrator is, it's not surprising that someone would look for you using one the way Wolfe does. Something like taking someone home and discovering you are both Tops.
David Bilek
May. 4th, 2012 06:25 pm (UTC)
CRK: Having been a veteran of GEnie's SFRT and rec.arts.sf.written I'm used to the possibility of an author reading the words one writes, though actually replying to them has been less common since a lot of authors (Stross, etc) deliberately avoid engaging with specific comments about their work. I'm glad not everyone agrees that is the way to go.

But I think you have misconstrued at least some of my comment.

You've asked why I drew a differential between my reading of your novel and Gene Wolfe in terms of trust in the author. It's quite simple; I had read many thousands of pages of Gene Wolfe over the span of decades beginning when I was in my early teens. So I've been reading Wolfe most of my life. Much of that work plays with narrative in some way. That lengthy relationship tends to built trust. On the other hand, at the time THE RED TREE was being discussed I had read, perhaps, a few hundred pages of your work over the span of months. My experience with your work was limited to THRESHOLD, LOW RED MOON, and now THE RED TREE. And as much as I enjoyed THRESHOLD (it did get me to purchase most of your other books!) it is clearly a less polished work than your later novels. That's not necessarily a bad thing but it is a thing.

I actually don't see why this could be considered condescending. Thought experiment; someone has read every word Gene Wolfe has ever written and never read a word of CRK. Surely it would not be surprising if such a person claimed to have a better feel for Wolfe's narrative history, style, and ability? I didn't include the above context in my already long comment but I had thought it should be implied.

As to the second bit referred to in your post, It seems to me that authorial intent matters relatively little here. The question is whether, say, Constance Hopkins' refusal to comment on the events depicted in the novel feels real. That you didn't include that refusal deliberately as a way to mislead the reader doesn't matter much, the fact remains that almost any statement at all made by CH would shed significant light on the events in THE RED TREE. One can say that CH has a reason for not commenting and we simply don't know what that reason is, but that is not to me a satisfying answer. In *effect* CH's lack of comment briefly threw me out of the otherwise absorbing narrative.

I do see upon rereading that there was more of an implication that you were deliberately withholding information than was warranted, though, so I understand your response here. Palming cards" definitely has the feeling of *intent*. I definitely should have written that in a different way since I couldn't know what is in the mind of the author and absolutely believe that you don't hide things from the reader deliberately. So I accept the criticism that I ascribed intent when I shouldn't have. But the effect stands independent of lack of intent.

All that said this was a really minor part of my reading of the novel which has gained more prominence and importance than is probably warranted by being featured on your blog. It very, very briefly jarred me out of the engrossing narrative. And I do think that's a valid reaction if one whose importance is magnified beyond what I intended.

Oh, for what it is worth ALABASTER and TWO WORLDS AND IN BETWEEN are sitting over on the desk and I'm awaiting CONFESSIONS OF A FIVE CHAMBERED HEART any month now.

*edited out one paragraph of dumbness*

Edited at 2012-05-04 07:53 pm (UTC)
David Bilek
May. 4th, 2012 07:51 pm (UTC)
Huh, it occurs to me that I misread martianmooncrab's post and it was simply a reply to the first two lines of CRK's post. I'm sorry for jumping to conclusions. Perhaps something can be read into the fact that I initially took it as a reply to me! Too much time on Usenet where such a reaction would be more appropriate.

In any case, I wanted to add one more thing since it is a little creepy and wouldn't be out of place in the novel itself. I was not doing anything in particular last night when I was struck by the sudden urge to google for discussions of THE RED TREE, despite it having been (obviously) two years since the comments in question originally appeared. And, lo, only a day prior to my sudden urge (after two full years!) this post appeared. That's a very strange coincidence and one which I cannot explain. Yeah, coincidences happen, but it's still very strange.
( 23 comments — Have your say! )