Don’t you just hate those Postmodernist writers? You know the ones… the ones who can’t just get on with telling a story. The ones who pop up all the time and say, “Hey, folks, look — this is a story!” The ones who just can’t do anything straightforwardly. The ones who like mucking around. The ones who are too clever by half…
I’m busy at the moment putting the finishing touches to my long-term project, A Book of Changes, a strange kind of novel-of-sorts based on the I Ching. And now I’m getting to the end of it, I’m realising that the book will, when it is eventually published, almost certainly annoy readers who have a distaste for this so-called “cleverness”. It fools around with mixing fiction and non-fiction, it comments on the stories that are unfolding as they unfold, it addresses the reader directly. It occasionally stops mid-story to say, “Oh, look at this…”, before moving on again. If John Gardner is right that the job of the reader is to create a continuous dream — as he says in his book, The Art of Fiction — then all of this tomfoolery is entirely reprehensible. Here’s what Gardner says:
Fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader’s mind. We may observe, first, that if the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must probably be vivid and continuous–vivid because if we are not quite clear about what it is that we’re dreaming, who and where the characters are, what it is that they’re doing or trying to do and why, our emotions and judgments must be confused, dissipated, or blocked; and continuous because a repeatedly interrupted flow of action must necessarily have less force than an action directly carried through from its beginning to its conclusion.
If you assume that this is the base-line against which all fiction should be judged, then it can seem as if anything that breaks the readers’ continuous dreaming is an aberration. Sometimes the diagnosis for this disease is that the writer has simply indulged in a diet of far too many self-referential literary theorists. But if I had to trace the sources of this enthusiasm of mine for stories that show their working (as my maths teachers used to say), it would trace it not to literary theorists drunk on Derrida, but instead to… well, to The Beano. Have a look at this page (which comes from 1984).
I loved this kind of thing when I was growing up. I loved the sly interjections as if from the point of view of the artist, editor, characters or even the reader. I loved the playing with point of view, and I loved the sheer fun of it. Growing up on publications such as The Beano and The Dandy, I have always seen stories as things that are made; and it has always seemed to me that part of the fun of telling stories is playing with this fact.
None of this is about clever Postmodern theory. Instead, it is about fun. It is about the way that storytellers down the ages have told stories — interjecting, making jokes, talking about the storytelling as the story unfolds. It is about poking holes in the continuous dreaming of the reader, because through these holes you can smuggle all kinds of things: jokes, anecdotes, puzzles, conundrums, nuggets of information. And in doing this, readers can find themselves to be not just readers, but also accomplices, allies, or co-conspirators.
Of course, I’m not averse to a spot of Postmodernist theorising myself; but in the final analysis, it is not to the temple of Literary Theory that I must return to make offerings to the spirit of my ancestors, but instead to the altar of The Beano…