Why we get lost

Many well written novels are going to have impassable pages.

We’ve all experienced it: we are reading along, and all-of-a-sudden we hit a paragraph that is washed out in poetry. Or we reach a total dead-end thought. Or the road we’re on detours, and we have no idea how we arrived at this strange place, because the author has neglected to help us.

We wonder whether we are going to recognize anything when we get back on the road the author started us on.

What do we do? How should we understand something that doesn’t make sense? Should our approach be to curse ourselves for not being able to follow a writer who is suddenly more concerned about art-making than story-telling?

We need to approach a confusing passage in a serious novel the way we would handle a person who loses us during a conversation.

We need to remember that even though the author may be a master of his language, he is in control of his language only to a certain extent.

  • The author may not want readers to understand completely. An author knows that the more a reader puts her mind into interpreting a novel, the more investment the reader has in the outcome. And the more investment the reader has in the outcome, the deeper the connection becomes between the reader and the author.

  • Along the same lines, the author may keep certain language cloudy because the author prefers multiple interpretations to fixed meaning.

  • The author may be so educated or so experienced that he simply writes over the reader’s head. Perhaps there is a cultural barrier that prevents the reader from understanding. In any case, it is the author’s obligation to bridge whatever gap exists. If the author does not, it is the author’s loss, not the reader’s.

  • Finally, the author may not be able to make everything understandable, either because he does not have the clarity, or because he does not have the skill.

If we are confused by a passage, we need to honor our confusion and allow for the possibility that it is intentional or unavoidable. This approach allows us to accept language that the author is unwilling or unable to make clear.

If we come to a serious novel with this confidence in ourselves and with this appreciation for the difficulty of writing well, we no longer need to say ‘we didn’t get it’ but rather ‘the author didn’t give it.’



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