Posts Tagged ‘Reading’

1984 and all that

When you re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four does it spoil your enjoyment that Orwell’s view of the ‘dystopian future’ is set twenty-seven years in your past?

I ask this because I have been thinking about the work we read for our Severn Valley Authors ( meeting last night. The extract from Tony Gillam’s Softness of Heads started with the lines: Uncle Ron had been visiting with Mike and Lisa and the other girl whose name I could never remember.  I didn’t much like Mike and Lisa and the other girl although, it seems, they were my cousins.

My immediate reaction was that a reader would be jolted out of the narrative by Tony’s technique. I’m peeling away three skins of the onion here so, please, bear with me:

1.      The reader starts out ‘believing’ that there is a narrator recounting a ‘true’ story. But we know that time has elapsed between Tony first setting the pen to paper and story appearing in its finished form. The narrator has had time to look up his cousin’s name and insert it into the story.

2.      The reader’s ‘suspension of disbelief’ breaks at this point and now it’s a made-up story with made-up characters. But, this being the case, Tony could have given the made-up cousin the first made-up name that came into his head.

3.      The reader now recognises that the narrator’s ‘not remembering’ is a device to make it seem that the story is being set down naively without artifice when, in reality, this is, in itself, an artifice.

Thus we ruin our enjoyment – by reading as writers.

When writing works, the collusion between the writer on one side and the reader on the other is so well-wrought that the reader is inside the story. As writers, we worry about the rules we have learned in creative writing classes and we forget that most readers have never heard of them. I contend that few readers are jolted by the appearance of an adverb that may be stray and offensive in the eyes of a serious writer; especially if the adverb has helped create the rhythm that hypnotises the reader into belief.

So, back to Orwell. It matters not a jot that Orwell’s future is, in fact, my past because, as I read, I believe that Orwell is creating a future for both of us. Forgetting my analytical writer side, the reader in me accepts that Tony Gillam’s narrator can’t remember who is cousin is. After all, Tony, like Orwell and any writer, is setting down his narrative only a few words ahead of where my eye rests on the page. I am reading it as the ink is drying.

There is no past and no future in this complicity between the writer and the reader. When it works, there is only a shared present.


03 2011