THE FO­RUM

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints - KATHARINE ENG­LAND on trust in lit­er­a­ture

WHEN Li­nus in the Peanuts comic strip got his first li­brary card his de­lighted re­sponse was: ‘‘ They trust me!’’ So over­whelmed was he by the re­spon­si­bil­ity of that trust it was days be­fore he could en­ter the li­brary and bor­row a book, but what the episode re­minded me of was not the trust­ing­ness of li­braries — which is in­deed ad­mirable — but some­thing I’ve long been in­ter­ested in: the trust re­la­tion­ship be­tween writer and reader.

I’m not just talk­ing about whether you as a reader are go­ing to find your $32.95 well spent (Can you re­ally trust that reviewer who raved that this was the best thing since War and Peace ?), al­though that is ob­vi­ously a mat­ter of trust, too. It’s more about how you and the au­thor are go­ing to travel to­gether: whether you’re go­ing to put the fin­ished book down, re­luc­tantly, with a sigh of sat­is­fac­tion, or, in­deed, spend sev­eral days with the puz­zles of the novel lap­ping en­tic­ingly at the edges of your mind. Whether its land­scapes are go­ing to form part of your per­sonal ge­og­ra­phy, its char­ac­ters bur­row in and join the cast of thou­sands in your head, many of them name­less by now, but still in­ti­mately known and seen at will in the mind’s eye, such as the lit­tle boy in Andrew McGa­han’s The White Earth or the sis­ter who dies in A. S. By­att’s Still Life . Or whether you’re go­ing to feel dis­ap­pointed, slightly cheated by some­thing that never quite came up with the riches it ini­tially promised.

The days when au­thors fol­lowed the King of Hearts’ ad­vice to the White Rab­bit are by and large long gone: ‘‘ Be­gin at the be­gin­ning and go on un­til you come to the end and then stop.’’ Fiction, and even much non­fic­tion, is more com­pli­cated. It starts in the mid­dle, at the end, flashes for­ward and back, jux­ta­poses the past with the present, takes a pre­dic­tive peek into the fu­ture and tells its story through com­pet­ing an­dor cor­rob­o­rat­ing voices. Its nar­ra­tors may be par­tial, bi­ased, in­no­cent, ig­no­rant or just plain un­re­li­able. Some­times it sig­nals its changes of di­rec­tion with dates, names, chap­ter head­ings; ever more fre­quently it doesn’t.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween writer and reader thus be­comes piv­otal. Writ­ers must trust their read­ers to stay with them as they dart from one time, one voice, to an­other; as they lay down an edge here, a cor­ner there, a bit of sky, part of a promis­ing fig­ure. Read­ers, mean­while, must trust that the writer is tak­ing them some­where: that there is a worth­while whole pic­ture to be re­vealed, mean­ing to be ac­cu­mu­lated and clar­ity even­tu­ally, re­ward­ingly achieved.

This is the sort of trust that teeters on a knifeedge. Just how far can the writer trust the reader? Will s/he pick up the clues that lead so clev­erly to the un­ex­pected de­noue­ment, the jokes and al­lu­sions that so en­rich the book?

The reader who is not trusted enough is likely to feel con­de­scended to, im­pa­tient with the un­nec­es­sary ex­pla­na­tion of ref­er­ences s/he had quickly grasped, be­lit­tled by the writer’s as­sump­tion that they had to be ex­plained at all. The reader who is trusted too much may miss some of the lay­ers the writer has in­cor­po­rated, may, in a worst case sce­nario, end up thor­oughly con­fused or feel­ing put upon by el­e­ments that seem to re­quire in­de­pen­dent re­search to achieve their full im­pact.

To my mind, too much trust in the reader is al­ways prefer­able to too lit­tle. The reader who has to do a cer­tain amount of work to ap­pre­ci­ate a novel to the full en­ters a pro­duc­tive part­ner­ship with the writer that is more sat­is­fy­ing in the long run than hav­ing the au­thor hand you ev­ery­thing on a plate. Ev­ery reader, they say, reads a slightly dif­fer­ent novel de­pend­ing on the ex­pe­ri­ence and knowl­edge they bring to it. Ev­ery good novel read thus be­comes some­thing more than the sim­ple sum of its parts, and the more the writer is able to trust the reader the more that reader is called on to in­vest in the writer’s work and the more own­er­ship s/he feels for it.

Pluck­ing a cou­ple of ex­am­ples at ran­dom: Peter Goldswor­thy al­ways seems to me a writer who doesn’t trust his read­ers enough in his nov­els, al­though his short sto­ries and po­etry are a dif­fer­ent mat­ter. Ev­ery al­lu­sion will even­tu­ally be care­fully ex­plained, ev­ery scrap of Latin neatly trans­lated in the course of his char­ac­ters’ con­ver­sa­tion. The reader is ei­ther not ex­pected to do any work or not con­sid­ered ca­pa­ble of pen­e­trat­ing the au­thor’s lay­ers of mean­ing on their own. Steven Car­roll, on the other hand, seems to be in­dif­fer­ent as to whether his read­ers pick up on ev­ery­thing he has in­cor­po­rated in his writ­ing. Read­ing his TheGiftofSpeed I was OK with his sly quo­ta­tions from Yeats but had to go to the in­ter­net to fill out his crick­et­ing ref­er­ences: I imag­ine there would have been read­ers for whom the re­search was the other way round.

The reader of­ten be­comes aware of the level of their trust only when that trust is tested: when, for ex­am­ple, the end of the book seems to be ap­proach­ing far too rapidly for the writer to ar­rive at any re­ally sat­is­fy­ing con­clu­sion. I re­mem­ber wor­ry­ing ter­ri­bly about Sal­ley Vick­ers and Mr Go­lightly’s Hol­i­day . It was a slightly cheesy al­le­gory to start with (the life of God, for heaven’s sake!); how on earth was she go­ing to bring it around to an end­ing that didn’t cover us all with em­bar­rass­ment? She did, and my ap­pre­ci­a­tion was the greater be­cause of the anx­i­ety safely as­suaged.

Murray Bail’s Eu­ca­lyp­tus is an­other high­anx­i­ety read. Bail achieves a thor­oughly sat­is­fy­ing and re­ward­ing end­ing in the last 11/ pages of

2 the novel, leav­ing his reader weak not only with ad­mi­ra­tion at his in­ge­nu­ity but also with re­lief. Trust has been tested to the limit, but the mas­ter has af­ter all proved to be in con­trol. Whew!

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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