November 13, 2007
Though it is five o’clock somewhere in the world, it has not yet reached Martini time at the Gonquin. Yet, here I sit, alone, sipping a latte, waiting for the others to arrive, despondent over a disquieting thought that has forced itself upon me of late. Al sensing my melancholy keeps his distance. He is wise.
Edgar and Bram are the first to arrive, arms linked, chattering to each other, as if the world had not changed. They take up seats across from me, their usual places. We have all atrophied into a convention where our positions around the table have calcified. Bram says, “Why so glum, chum?”
“Cute,” I could have said, that or some other smarmy retort. But I don’t. Instead I push air with my hand, dismissing his concern. How would he know, established as he is,an iconographic figure? Papa saunters in taking a seat next to me, and Mary, close behind, heads the table. My teeth clack at the slap Papa lays on my back. “Pouting?” he asks.
Again, I shake my head. “It’s nothing.”
“Aghh,” Papa says, “Now there’s a lie. Out with it. Otherwise you’ll sour the evening for us all.”
Al, sliding drinks in, says, “It’s that last story of his, the allegorical tale. The detective story. Wrote it with such subtlety that most people saw only the surface story.”
Mary says, “Is that it? Is that why you wear that long face?”
It is. Yet the last thing I want is them parsing my angst. When it comes to writing, they have razors where others have tongues and rocks where hearts should nest. I know that if they dissect the object of my self-pity they will leave its carcass rotting on the floor. But, like wolves on a doe, they will not be denied. As Al reported, the story in question is, in fact, a detective story, but it is also an allegorical tale where Satan has been killed by a letter bomb and the Angel Gabriel, acting as detective seeks to answer the question what kind of love does it take to dispatch evil. Weird combination, I know, but hey, you write what you write.
“Allegories are hard for readers to fathom,” Edgar says. “They were in my day, and given the evolution of a graphical world, my guess is that now readers only skim the surface of the story not looking for the underbelly of the tale.”
“The point,” I say with more arch in my voice that is wise, “is that I have been preaching that literature requires multi level stories with a truth, an allegorical truth, at their core. What sense does that make if readers are blind to the subterranean strata?”
Bram says, “Most preachers are shrill.”
“And a bore,” says Mary. “But to your point, I think you expect too much from the casual reader. They pick up a story to be entertained not converted. If there are layered depths, they will be discovered in time by more serious students of literature who will revel in the cleverness of their perceptions. “
“Mary is right,” Papa says. “How many casual readers saw beneath the surface of her great book? Not many until the academics dissected it.” There is a twinkle in his eye. “Pun intended.”
Edgar says, “I think we overlook the core of this melancholy. It is not the reader’s cleverness that is at issue. It is the writer’s. If the reader does not perceive the depth of the story, if he does not perceive that hidden truth planted in the furrows of the written words, how then can he marvel at the sagacity of the writer?” A slant eyed look slides in my direction. “Is that not it?”
I wince. There is truth in the words, but to acknowledge it is to admit to a pettiness that would tarnish my esteem. “Of course not,” I say, knowing there is not much force to the words.
“Oh, don’t be so sensitive,” Bram says. “We are all egoists; else we would not be writers.”
Papa thumps a fist on the table. “Here, here. We write because we believe what we have to say has enough merit to foist it on unsuspecting others. To write something others will believe, we must first believe in ourselves—or if not in ourselves, then in the ideas, feelings, passions, or notions we hold dear.”
“I’m not getting this,” says a lurking Al, “The writer is trying to send a message. The reader doesn’t get the message. So, whose fault is that?”
“Fault?” Bram says. “What an irksome word. Would you fault Melville when readers failed to grasp his symbolism in the whale book? It took fifty years for astute readers to puzzle through the labyrinth Melville laid, and then only because critics waived their lamps. No, you would not fault Melville for he crafted a deep but lucid tale for those who had the Rosetta. And the readers? Would you fault them for not investing as much in the reading as Melville had in the writing? I think not. It is the nature of algorithmic work to cast shadows within shadows.”
Mary cocks an eye at me. “You do yourself disservice by worrying on whether the depth of your story has been probed. If you had written it so plainly that it was evident to all, then it would be a shallow piece, not worthy of further study.”
Edgar seems to agree, “A more dangerous sin is underestimating your reader and eliminating nuance by over-telling the story.”
“It seems to me,” Mary says, “that your problem is more imagined than real. If you have written an entertaining piece, one that will draw readers in, trust them to discover the plums you have poked into the pudding. If they do, they will be delighted. If they do not, the confection will still leave a sweet taste.”
Papa says, “The thing is, nobody expects a literary theme in a detective story, which is why I like the idea about putting one there. For God’s sake, who would have thought a monster story was an allegory on the dangers of rampant technology, of man supplanting God? Yet that is what our little missy there crafted. If we have ideas we must place them in the vehicles that have currency. Today the detective story is popular. What better place to hide a truth?”
Edgar who has been strangely quiet throughout now leans forward, steepling his fingers at my nose, saying, “Write your words then move on. If you have something to say, you do not have time to brood. You do not have time to worry whether anyone will read what you write, let alone whether they understand its true meaning. Your job is to move what is in your mind to the page. Others have the task of deciphering and interpreting. If you write well, if you offer something of value, they will find it, if not now, later.”
“Yes,” Bram says, emphatically. “Edgar, that little piece you wrote about the stolen letter is a case in point. It, too, was a detective story with an underlying allegorical point, to wit, that which is in plain sight is often the most difficult to discern. How fitting.”
It is not often that Edgar preens, but he seems to do so now. This and the banter just passed makes me think that perhaps I have taken myself too seriously. I signal to Al. It is time for more than latte.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007