Thursday, January 9, 2014

Ambiguity: Collusion between Writer and Reader

In earlier times, a major function built into each story was an outcome that fulfilled a philosophical promise.  Thus, the meek did in fact inherit the earth, good did triumph over evil, early birds caught worms, what went around in fact came around, and they, whoever they were, all lived happily ever after.

Many of the stories written in those earlier times led many of their readers to believe happiness, if not stunning prosperity, was the inevitable outcome of hard work, unselfish goals, and thrifty habits.  While it was a fact that many individuals who read such stories were hopeful of such outcomes and conducted themselves in what they considered appropriate lifestyles, a growing number of readers became open in their scorn for outcomes of such extravagant outcome.  They focused their scorn and cynicism on story in general and happy endings in great specificity.

Some of the many favored stories of your own childhood had such resolutions as a part of their wrapping.  Revisiting some of them now, you begin to see how and why you drifted away from the formulas that led to such conclusions.  

You drifted instead to stories where the crooks got away with it, whatever the it was.  The bad guys did not of necessity get their comeuppance, nor did an overwhelming sense of guilt settle upon miscreants to the point where their conscience drove them to pay their karmic debts.

There is in your mind a distinct possibility that Thomas Hardy was the writer who pushed you over the edge of accepting the comedic ending, where love wins out, and whoever they were, they all lived happily et cetera.  The Mayor of Casterbridge, beginning as it does with Michael Henchard, against the patient and considered warnings of his wife, gets a snootful of county fair booze,is a case in point.  

The besotted Henchard contrives to sell wife and daughter to a sailor for thirty shillings, plus the hangover with which he awakens the next day.  This novel emerges as a stunning reminder that things do not of necessity have to end well.  The novel has dramatic closure, but it is a departure from the novels, say, of Jane Austen or, for that matter, even Charles Dickens, where the good guys married for love, lived frugal lives, remained happy, and stayed out of debtor's prison.

You'd have reached more or less the same conclusion, had you the patience with George Eliot's Middlemarch that was beyond your scope in your early twenties, requiring another few decades before you could take it on with anything approaching a close, appreciative reading.  How fortunate for you, then, that you were caught up enough with Hardy to follow him through much of his dyspeptic narratives, where little of any good settles on the principals.

The responses to contrived, formulaic endings produced numerous forms of complaint, so-called noir fictions notable among these anti-happy endings.  At the same time writers were beginning to question the propagandistic versions of life contemporary conventions called for, writers such as Anton Chekhov were introducing yet another important aspect into their stories.

Much of reality is a personification of ambiguity.  Writers who were emboldened and excited by their readings of Chekhov began to work toward endings reflective of the ways in which ambiguity can be an effective substitute for formula.  Enter James Joyce with Dubliners, and an ending device he coopted from his Catholic schooling and cultural associations, the epiphany.

In one series of lovely swoops embedded in the closures of his Dubliners stories, Joyce allowed us to share a realization with the lead characters, yet not tell us in great specificity, leaving that to each of us, including those of us who read him long after his own departure from our midst.

What is ambiguity, you ask?  And, being you, you answer yourself as you would answer that question if it were directed at yoiu by someone else.  Yes.

Ambiguity is you, taking a close reading of a situation, looking for the author's clues and your version of the author's intent, then supplying the spaces deliberately left blank by the author.  If the author is someone with the wit, intent, and mischievousness of James Joyce, you might even throw in a few puns or play on word effects you imagine Joyce would have relished.

This past week, you've been having more difficulties than you'd anticipated with a short story written some years ago, published within a month or so of submission to one of your regular sources.  The work is one of the twelve that will appear in your own forthcoming collection.

Your difficulties come from the editorial notes from the new publisher, where the editorial questions come right to the point of giving an interpretation to the story that came as a complete surprise to you because it was not what you'd considered them nor do you now.
This is a clear call for a form of ambiguity.  The editor would not have made the comments or interpretations he did if your intentions were more clear.  The fact of the editor having notes of any sort in the indicated places mean you need to look at those places and the entire effect of the story.

The ball is in your court.  You will get nowhere trying to argue the editor to see your position.  You'll have lost an opportunity to learn something from his notes by trying to dramatize a resolution acceptable to you and to him.

The answer is somewhere embedded in ambiguity.  You have to find it.

There is always the potential for a reader getting a read on one of your stories you did not intend.  In equal measure, there is a potential for you finding a meaning in the work of another that its author did not intend.

Parallel lines meet in infinity.  Ambiguity meets in the gap between the writer's vision of the story and what the reader takes from it.  Thus the acts of reading and writing are forms of controlled anarchy, where, in delicious irony, reader and writer are in a form of collusion each is too busy working to notice.

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