I’ve been in unwilling low-content mode for the past couple of weeks (question: what’s worse than getting the flu at Christmas? Answer: getting the flu along with a sinus infection). That’s meant I’ve had some time to read, which is good for a number of reasons. As it happens, though, one of the things I picked up to read left me wondering something I’ve wondered several times before: why do certain books pull me along, and compel me to read them, even when I think they’re not particularly good?
The best example of what I mean is the Harry Potter books. I don’t dislike them, but I’ve never understood the way they absorb me when I read them. They’re tightly-plotted, yes, and the world is carefully-built — but these things together only create an odd video-game feel, where every riddle has its designated solution, and the lead characters wander around finding clues to unlock new areas or gifts or side quests, until everything’s resolved in a climactic scene. The characters are flat, the dialogue’s occasionally funny but not especially memorable, and the prose is bland at best. Yet the fact remains that when I read a Potter book I find it easier to move my gaze along the text on the page rather than turn away. It’s like being on a railway train, being carried over a fixed track, with no way to disembark except by something like an act of force, jumping to the ground while the thing’s moving at speed.
Over Christmas — just before, actually — I found another example of this phenomenon, when I read His Majesty’s Dragon, the first of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. It’s a story about the Napoleonic Wars, in a world where intelligent dragons exist and bond with human riders. I’d had it in mind to look into the series for a while, so when I found a used copy of the first book I grabbed it. And then found it had grabbed me. It’s unusual for me these days to find that I literally can’t put a book down; but that’s what happened with His Majesty’s Dragon. And I’m not sure why.
I think HMD is technically better than any of the Potter books. It’s true that the plot’s less complex, and there’s less detail in the world-building and in how history’s been changed by the presence of dragons. Enough is shown to give a sense that things are different — I noticed a reference to the Incas as a current-day power, for example — but details are left for future books. Still, the background and plot developments are strong enough to carry the book along.
The characters are more complex than the Potter books, although at the same time the details of those characters seem oddly irrelevant. The lead’s a sea captain in the British Navy, William Laurence, who captures a dragon egg from a French ship at sea, then is forced to bond with the dragon that hatches from the egg and so has to change vocations, to serve as a dragon-rider rather than a naval officer. Novik exploits this set-up capably, exploring what Laurence’s career change means for him personally and professionally, and how his marriage prospects and family relations change as a result of his bond with his dragon, Temeraire. It’s well-thought-out material, with a few nods to period voice and custom; still, I found it not particularly deep or surprising. This may be unjust, as I found I couldn’t help but compare His Majesty’s Dragon here with Susanna Clarke’s excellent Jonathan Strange & Dr Norrell, a book set in the same general era and dealing in a much more profound way with the contrast of early-nineteenth-century English society with magic and wonder.
But I think something else was happening. I found as I read that I wanted to burn through the pages dealing with Laurence’s family to get to the good bits — the parts about dragons, and about Laurence learning to be a dragon-rider. Common sense would say that the domestic scenes are the meat of the book, the part that makes us care about the character; I think, as is so often the case, common sense can go take a flying leap. There’s nothing in these scenes that stand out, nothing memorable, nothing even particularly surprising. These are subplots that unfold exactly the way you think they’re going to when you see their first seeds being planted. If the book had to stand and fall on these scenes, it wouldn’t work.
Of course what makes the book is its dragons. And the more it deals with dragons, and with Laurence learning about dragons, and with the slow emergence of the powers of the dragon Temeraire, the more gripping it is. Here’s where Novik makes the most of Laurence: because he never planned to join the Royal Aerial Corps of dragon-riders, he knows little about dragons. Meaning other characters have to explain things to him — and by extension to the readers. What could have become dry exposition becomes fascinating, in part because Novik finds a number of ways to dramatise the things she needs to communicate to her readers.
The odd thing is that with all this said, the dragons in and of themselves aren’t especially interesting. I can think of more memorable dragons in fantasy easily. So perhaps there’s really something else going on, something beyond the structure of the narrative. I suspect that what really pulled me into the book was something in the prose. That’s odd, insofar as the language is not startling, lush, or exceptional; it’s workmanlike, and at best surprisingly smooth.
Still, this is where the book felt like the Potter series: Novik, like Rowling, has something uncannily readable in her prose. I don’t think I can quote an example of what I mean, because I don’t think this is a quality amenable to quotation. I don’t think it’s something you notice at the level of the sentence or the paragraph. I think it’s something that emerges over the course of pages and chapters, as your gaze slides along the page and you find yourself helpless to look away.
What’s so magical here? What is it that caught me, what is it that kept me reading, even when some part of my brain was thinking that the writing wasn’t particularly involving or surprising?
My suspicion is that I’m looking at something in the formal character of prose. Precisely because I can’t isolate what’s so involving, I wonder if I’m not responding to something about the way the medium works.
Let me move over to another medium to explain what I mean. Comics work by having the reader mentally connect a series of images. A reader sees panel 1, sees panel 2, then makes a connection between the panels, divining how the moment of panel 1 becomes the moment of panel 2, and what the relation of the images is. The art of comics comes, in large part, through providing the right moments, the right images, for the reader to assemble into a narrative.
Comics theorist Scott McCloud calls the process of a reader filling in the gap between panels closure. As he wrote in his book Understanding Comics, “Comic panels fracture both time and space, offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments. But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality.” In other words, to create a narrative.
McCloud notes that closure occurs in other mediums, citing TV and film in particular. I observed once that one can imagine closure happening in written literature as well, on the level of the sentence or clause (or, in the case of poetry, of the line). You read a sentence; you move to the next sentence; you naturally create in your mind the sense linking the sentences. Often that’s so obvious a process it’s hardly even observable as a process. The act is intuitive, and if articulated in language would basically be a repetition of the words on the page.
To take a random example: I flip open a Conan collection at random and I see “The trunk of the horror was lifted and quested about, the topaz eyes stared unseeingly, and Conan knew the monster was blind. With the thought came a thawing of his frozen nerves, and he began to back silently toward the door. But the creature heard. The sensitive trunk stretched toward him, and Conan’s horror froze him again when the being spoke, in a strange, stammering voice that never changed its key or timbre.” (From “The Tower of the Elephant.”)
I picked Howard as an example of a highly readable writer. His clauses and sentences follow directly from one another: “the topaz eyes stared unseeingly” leads directly to the next clause, “and Conan knew the monster was blind,” both logically and chronologically. The next sentence is ostensibly simultaneous with that last clause (“With the thought came a thawing”) but in practice reads as another chronological step forward — things are happening here in far less than a second, but they’re happening clearly and consecutively. There is perhaps a minor confusion over the next couple of sentences caused by an antecedent that’s a little less clear than you might expect: “But the creature heard. The sensitive trunk stretched toward him, and Conan’s horror froze him again …” — it’s possible for a micro-second to pause over the first ‘him’ and wonder if it refers to the elephant-thing rather than Conan, but it’s clear from context and really not worth mentioning except when specifically looking at the way people read prose.
As a contrast to what I mean, here’s a quote from a book called Radon Daughters, by a novelist named Iain Sinclair, who writes odd, wonderful books with fractured sentences: “Emmanuel Swedenborg, a young man, twenty-two years old in 1710, takes passage from Göteborg to the port of London. A sorry sequence of annoyances, delays, mental trials. Traditional picaresque colouring: Danish privateers, sandbanks, fog. A bad novel. Plague warnings, quarantine: Wapping Old Stairs. He comes in on the tide like an ugly rumour. This sheep-head scientist, holy fool. A celibate enquirer. The youngest of the dead. A walking corpse with peach-fuzz on his cheeks. He hunts the soul to the innermost recess of the body. Place: an undefined riverside geography has its hooks in his chest. He is fetched. As they are all fetched, these madmen — necessary, an ingredient; humid, vegetable menstrum. Potential fossils, future deposits, we must scratch their darkness in order to see. They lay down memory-traces in the clay of our city. Strange communings, reveries, visions. Their posthumous sleep poisons our weather.”
Assembling meaning out of Sinclair’s sentence fragments takes much more work than it takes to follow Howard’s prose. And the meaning that you find will be a shifting, impressionistic thing. It will be ambiguous, in a way that Howard isn’t. Without wanting to make a value judgement, I wonder if one could say generally that the distinction between ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ fiction is often found in the use of ambiguity — not on a plot level, necessarily, and only partially in the way that character is perhaps left undefined in crucial ways; mostly the ambiguity comes in the way that the prose refuses to do the work of closure for the reader. Sinclair leaves the connections between his ideas vague, and grammatically undefined. If you’re an attentive reader, willing to follow him from sentence to sentence, this works; you get more out of the text, I think, because you put more into it.
Now, Sinclair’s an extreme example. Writers like, say, John Crowley or A.S. Byatt use prose that is, for the most part, more grammatically clear and oriented toward narrative. They tell stories. But the way they tell stories, the way they use language, is meant to imply more than is stated outright. The way their characters act, the way their images develop, the way the words sit next to each other — you’re not just building up a story out of what’s said, you’re also following the resonances of the words to work out implied meanings. These kinds of writers add ambiguous, allusive echoes to their story; I’m speaking here not necessarily of symbolism, much less of thematic depth, but of a basic approach to language and way of expressing meaning in words. Howard has, I feel, more going on in his work subtextually than he’s often credited with, but not on the order of Crowley or Byatt. On the other hand, a writer like Gene Wolfe may often appear to be telling a simple story — but on closer examination the gaps he leaves in his text, the bits that resist closure, end up pointing to a new interpretation of the whole work.
Rowling and Novik seem to me to be different from all these writers. To me, there’s not much ambiguity in their work; much of what they do is explicit in the text, or at least seems so to me. The closure, the movement from sentence to sentence, is therefore swift and relentless. If Novik’s character work is uninvolving to me, maybe this is why; people, to me, live in their ambiguities. If a character’s motives are too clear, they may therefore come off as too simple.
I don’t mean to say that these books work because the writing’s bad. What I want to say is that the writing’s direct, but arguably finds a particular kind of richness by exploring the world of the story, exploring the fantastic elements of the tale — and by making the fantastic clearly and unambiguously explicit. By elaborating the rules of the fictional world. The story defines itself. Sometimes, as I said of the Potter books, that can result in a video-game-like feel. Sometimes, as with Novik’s book, it creates a distinctive kind of satisfaction, a sense of harmony as all the parts of the story slide into place.
With all this said, I wonder if the way I read Novik and Rowling says something about me as a reader. I’ve come to look for ambiguity in a story; my instinct as I read is to try to be alive to the many possible meanings of a narrative — what it implies, what is not specifically said. I get a great deal of enjoyment out of a great many books that way. I wonder if taking this approach doesn’t mean that I’ve moved away from another kind of enjoyment, the thing that gripped me when I read His Majesty’s Dragon; the thrill of a directly-told, plainly-written story. That’s a pleasure not to be scorned. I’m made happier by the existence of other kinds of reading pleasures, yes. But every do often, there’s something to be gained by finding a simple tale well told, and allowing oneself to be gripped by it as by a dragon’s unyielding claw.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.