Between a marshmallow and a soft place…

by rsbakker

Daily Aphorism: Writing is the most cowardly form of activism. Crucial, but cowardly all the same. Of all the kinds of murderers, the one most analogous to writers would be the poisoner.

I’m always aiming for that point in the middle – the ‘magical middle,’ you might say – where the draw of popular narrative forms will carry a plurality of readers through content they might otherwise find troubling. Because The Disciple of the Dog is my second non-fantasy work, I’ve spent quite some time pondering Neuropath – what went right and what went wrong.

The caveat, of course, is that there is no ‘right or wrong,’ just the experiences of tens of thousands of readers. Reviewers, like the rest of the species, reflexively universalize their judgement: they evaluate the book rather than their idiosyncratic experience of reading it. They say this is the best/worst book ever, always dropping the all important ‘for me,’ partly because their half of the book-brain fusion is largely invisible to them. All I do is send out a string of code: the trillions of neural transactions that follow belong entirely to the reader.

So for me it’s always a numbers game, and never a question of what the book really is, because there is no fact of the matter about the book. Some people were completely blown away by their reading experience. Others were left cold or were even outright alienated. Since the latter camp seems to be more numerous, I’m inclined to think that there’s a lesson or two for me to learn. There are more than a few things about Neuropath, I think, that will prevent it from being embraced by a wide array of readers.

Spoiler alert: if you’re looking forward to reading Neuropath, you might want to skip the rest of this post.

The problems that arise, I think, primarily stem from violations of form. For instance, I now think adopting psychological realism was a mistake. I had spent a summer reading James Patterson novels, and conceived Thomas Bible as a kind of antidote to Alex Cross – a psychologist-detective who in no way resembles a psychologist. Psychological realism, I’m slowly beginning to realize (I am a stubborn Dutchman, after all!), makes it difficult for most genre readers to identify with the protagonist. See the post entitled ‘Flatterature.’

In the course of researching The Disciple of the Dog I realized that I had committed a major form violation by actually mutilating the children, as opposed to simply putting them in jeopardy.

But far and away the biggest complaint I’ve come across, is that the book is too didactic, too laden with exposition, too preachy. Even though the world is in fact rife with people who talk like Thomas Bible – academics are prone to explain – what I considered a realistic depiction of an intelligent man in the throes of the Argument, struck many as a shallow mouthpiece for me and my narrow agenda.

In my early, defensive reactions to this book, I used to think, what? Bible preaches more than Settimbrini in The Magic Mountain? Haven’t these people read any Kundera? Besides, how could his preaching be more motivated? I couldn’t help but feel that people who complained about this were actually complaining more about the very premise of a ‘philo-thriller’ than my particular execution.

But the fact is, the kind of didactic exposition you find in any ‘literature of ideas’ is more of a piece with their quotidian narrative contexts. The problem, I now find myself thinking, was that the insertion of overt philosophical dialogue in a pulp genre narrative had the effect of calling attention to both for many readers. The dialogue seemed potted, artificial, and the plot seemed implausible, as a result. Like hanging stones on a spiderweb. I’ve come to the conclusion that few things are more dangerous than jarring expectations to the point where the artiface becomes visible: as I’ve said many a time, if a reader begins to smell a rat, the intrinsic ambiguity of the text combined with the cherry-picking psychology of the reader pretty much insure that more rats will be found.

This is going to sound odd, but so much of successful writing, I think, comes down to getting the reader to like you, and so getting the selfsame interpretative ambiguity and psychology working for the text.

There’s plenty of things that I love about Neuropath, apart from its criticality: the semantic layering concealed in the apparently superficial arc of the story, the ‘middle voice’ prose, the way the explanations early in the book find themselves enacted at the end, and, of course, the perverse ending, where the family, as the genre demands, is reunited in ‘love.’ But these are literary conceits.

And I’m not ready to throw in the towel and to call the book a failure. There’s still a chance that something I write in the future will redeem it, that the numbers exposed to its critical toxicity will grow. In the meantime I find myself dreadfully curious to see what kind of experiences Disciple Manning will trigger.