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!