By Kevin Guilfoile
I was on my book tour and had an interview scheduled with Janet Taylor, an extremely intelligent and thoughtful host for Oregon Public Radio. When it started, the discussion was delightful. And then Janet said this (more or less):
“In your novel, the character of Justin Finn, the child Davis Moore clones from his daughter’s unknown killer so that Moore may one day see what the fiend looks like, is an obvious Christ figure. And as such I find it interesting that you chose to give Justin’s mother the name Martha. Of course it would have been very obvious and over-the-top if you named her Mary. But in the Bible—as you are obviously aware, Kevin, but I’ll explain for our audience—Martha of Bethany was a frequent host to Jesus and his disciples. And while Martha rushed around cleaning the house and preparing food and washing feet and so forth, her sister Mary of Bethany sat at Jesus’s feet and listened to him teach. Finally Jesus had to call out, Martha, stop what you are doing and come sit next to your sister. These other things you are doing are not important. The only important thing is what I have to say. And in Cast of Shadows, Martha Finn, like Martha of Bethany, is so worried about being a good mother to Justin, about caring for him and watching out for him, that she never sees who he really is or understands what he is trying to tell her.”
It was brilliant. It was sophisticated. It was meaningful. And I wish I had thought of it myself.
But here’s the important thing: Janet was right! Her analysis was terrific. And if we had never met she would always believe that the name Martha Finn was an intentional and clever allusion to the biblical Martha of Bethany. I’m not really a relativist when it comes to critical theory but that observation made the book better for Janet, and a writer has to recognize that each person who reads his novel reads a different book. Readers bring their intellect to the page just as the author does and each reader brings different knowledge and experience and history and bias. Each reader understands the book a bit differently. Each reader asks the novel different questions, and as a result each reader gets different answers. Some readers get better answers than others.
I was thinking about that a couple weeks ago as I read a newspaper review of a much anticipated novel. The critic raved about the book, calling it a "major work of art," a creation of "surpassing greatness" and compared the author favorably to Dickens, Nabokov, and Joyce. His review also included the following passage:
To read this book with anything like comprehension, a person has to be, like its polymath author, both intellectual and hip, a person mature and profoundly well read and yet something of a true marginal, a word-nerd with the patience of Job. In my charitable estimate that would describe about five out of 500 people that I know.
I'm not a nitpicker so I'll ignore the fact that people who actually want to be understood usually say "one in 100" instead of "five out of 500." This particular critic's inability to reduce fractions isn't my main concern.
I haven't read the book in question and I don't mean to imply that it's unintelligible. It might very well be a delicious literary burrito made from equal parts Lolita and Great Expectations and Ulysses. In fact, while his books don't fit the traditional definition of beach read, I think the difficulty of this particular novelist's writing is overstated by many critics. Certainly, I think the author himself believes he's writing for more than just 257 out of every 25,700 people. But even the most carefully constructed novels are relatively messy affairs. Much of what a writer puts in his novel is intuitive--he includes it because it feels right or it sounds good or even because it's a bit of a joke. A novelist doesn't always know how every element of his novel fits into some integral whole and as a reader, you shouldn't be made to feel stupid because you can't figure every bit of it out either. Novels aren't crosswords and the answer isn't printed on the inside back cover. Interesting novels have many mysteries, just the way interesting lives do.
The fact that you don't completely understand the latest celebrated literary novel doesn't make you an idiot. On the other hand if you really believe that a particular novel can only be understood by one percent of all readers, and you nevertheless call the book a creation of "unsurpassing genius," that does make you an idiot.
I know people who really believe that, though. I think they've been conditioned to believe that good books are ones they can't understand so they've stopped trying to read any of them. It's sad. In the future so few people might bother with "elitist novel-reading" that this super-intelligent reviewer and his five friends will be the only ones who get around to reading certain novels at all.
The ones written for .00000005 out of .000005 people.
(Note: A portion of the above appeared previously in an essay I wrote for the website of Penguin UK, most likely to make an entirely contradictory point.)