JUST ANOTHER CRITIC?
by Rob Lopresti
Back when a certain actor was president of the United States I had a story published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. An acquaintance of mine read the story, told me he liked it, but bragged that he had seen the surprise ending coming because of the foreshadowing I had put in.
Well, this was another kind of surprise ending for me, because what he had seen as foreshadowing was nothing of the kind. My character hadn’t looked out the window for the very clever reason my reader suggested. She had done so because I needed something for her to do for a moment while she was deciding what to say next.
So what could I do? I congratulated my reader on his shrewd critical skills.
Here’s the question …
Was the reader wrong? What he saw in my story was there. Does it make any difference if I didn’t put it there intentionally?
We authors never know everything we put in a piece of fiction. Every work of (gulp) art is a collaboration between the unconscious and conscious parts of our brains (I prefer to call them the miner and the jeweler). You have probably heard a writer say, “I don’t even remember writing it. It’s like I wasn’t even there.” Well, trust me, she was there. It’s just that in that case, most of the work was done by the part of the brain that doesn’t talk to the outside world all that well. The miner dragged this gem out of the darkness almost finished and the jeweler doesn’t know how it happened (but he’s ready to take the credit).
A few months ago our Mystery Masterclass here on this site featured Edgar Allan Poe’s famous essay on how he wrote “The Raven.” If you haven’t read it, give it a shot, and remember that Poe was best known in his lifetime as a critic. His essay is a brilliant, fascinating explanation, pretty much word for word, of how he came to write his most famous poem. He describes it as a coolly logical exercise, and a writer can learn a lot from his piece.
The only problem is that I don’t believe a word of the damned thing.
I think Poe woke up one night with a nightmare about a bird and grabbed a quill and a piece of foolscap and started writing. Which makes a great poem, but would make a lousy critical essay.
Later I read Umberto Eco’s brief book on the making of his novel The Name of the Rose and found that this critic-turned-novelist, in explaining his own terrifying vision, quoted Poe’s essay with approval. He buys the whole thing.
Well, I don’t. And I don’t buy Eco’s explanation of his own novel, either. But that’s just me.
Where there’s a Hitch
There’s a story I read a long time ago, but for once this librarian is not going to do the research to track down its source, so consider it apocryphal, if you wish.
As I remember it, not long after “Torn Curtain” came out, Peter Bogdonovich interviewed the director about it. There is a scene in which the hero has to kill an East German agent, and not able to risk the noise of a gunshot, he ends up sticking the man’s head into a kitchen oven and gassing him to death.
Bogdonovich asked Hitchcock whether this was a deliberate reference to the gas ovens of the Nazis. Hitch responded to the notion with horror and hoped no one else reached the same conclusion.
Some time later Bogdonovich read another interview in which the questioner congratulated Hitch on the cleverness of the Nazi reference and Hitch replied happily that it had worked rather well.
There is an old saying — which I first read in a book about Hitchcock, by the way — that you should always believe the tale, not the teller.
Maybe I’m wrong about the reason my hero was looking out the window. After all, my characters don’t tell me everything.