A minor coincidence today. Mark Lawson wrote in The Guardian today about trailers/articles etc giving away the contents of TV documentaries and just after I'd finished reading that, 50% of my brothers contacted me about a film he’d just seen. It so happens that I knew more than I wanted about that film because Philip French had given a lot away in his Observer crit of it.
As it happens, the self-same Mark Lawson wrote a piece earlier this year bemoaning the fact that he found it hard to discuss a work of fiction without spoiling the ending to which the most common response on-line was along the lines of ‘well if your pleasure in this piece relies on knowing that the butler did it, then it can’t be very good’ which is a slightly odd attitude when you come to think about it.
It seems to date from E M Forster who found the fact that novels have to have a story so irksome that you wonder why he didn’t write something else, poetry or just essays or even perhaps nothing at all. Part of his objection seems to have been that people of a lower social class than him liked a story which only goes to show that there is no area of life whatsoever that the English can’t drag class into. It reminded me of the artist who had a working toilet installed in the middle of the floor in an art gallery and was delighted that the plumbers who’d done the work were totally mystified. So apparently that while beauty is truth and truth beauty, the really important thing in art is to mystify skilled artisans.
There is also arrogance here, I feel. Bear with me. Let us say that I decide to write a story in which Lord Carmody is found hideously burnt to death in his locked study killed by an invisible dragon secreted in the fireplace by his love rival Sir Duncan Duggleby.* Now, as the author of this meretricious piece, it is my decision how the story should be told. In the form of a locked room mystery a la John Dickson Carr and Jonathon Creek? A Tolkienesque high fantasy about dragons? A satirical take on English social mores using the magic realist device of an invisible dragon? These are some of the options available to me.
I decide on the locked room mystery option
Now let us say that I publish the book on vellum with a calfskin cover and because you have offended me, I send you a copy. Now it’s you who has the options. You may read the story the way I wrote it. You may look at the ending first. You may start in the middle and work backwards and forwards as the mood takes you. You may leave it aside and wait for the film adaptation. These are some of the options available to you.
Finally, it being a slow day in the arts world, let us say that a Serious Critic wishes to discuss the piece on Radio 4. Said Serious Critic introduces his (and the offenders here are almost invariably men in my experience) opinion of the whole sorry affair with the words: “By using the invisible dragon as weapon motif and deciding to have Sir Duncan Duggleby as the murderer, A J Chadwin shows that he has totally failed…” and so on.
The Serious Critic has removed without so much a by-your-leave all the options that the writer had considered and the reader had to chose from. And for what? Just so he can talk about it. Just so he can make his point about it. I trust you see why I find it a touch arrogant. It seems such a small return.
*I never said it was going to be a good story