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the real story

How many chances do you give an author before you decide not to read any more of their work? The range of responses here runs from no chance (as in, “I heard their a bad writer”) to a few sentences (“I didn’t like the first couple of sentences so I’m not reading any more”) to part of a book (“I got halfway through and couldn’t take it anymore”), all the way to never saying you’ll not read anything else by that author, no matter how irritated they make you. I shade more toward the latter, mostly because “never” is a difficult word for me to say in most circumstances. Rarely does anything that absolute emerge for me.

Nevertheless, I’m pretty close to being able to say that I’ll never read anything written by Stephen Donaldson again.

I’ll start at the end of The Real Story, the first book in Donaldson’s “Gap” series—the end of the book where he explains the genesis of his novel as the collision of two ideas, drawing on the Wagnerian Ring operas, and goes so far as to summarize those four operas (some 14-16 hours of opera) to show how his book and its sequels work. I can appreciate that Donaldson gets inspiration from many sources, including Wagner, but to explicitly compare this misogynistic, unoriginal novel to an enduring work of art borders on the ludicrous (not to say that Wagner’s work is necessarily kind to women or particularly original). If the two really are comparable, he wouldn’t need to tell us about it; we’d figure it out for ourselves. Moreover, artists who “explain” their work are essentially admitting that their work doesn’t stand on its own, that it needs explanation.

A work of art—be it painting, book, song, play, sculpture, whatever—tells its own story, communicates its own message. And every perceiver of every object in the world constructs a message from what he or she perceives, whether or not that message is related to what the object’s creator or creators had in mind when creating the object. For me, the issue of whether the creator’s intention was transmitted is ultimately not that important or interesting.

This is not to say that it is not interesting to know what an author was thinking when he or she wrote the book or what his or her process was for writing. Sometimes such knowledge can help us understand the book in a new way or ways that deepen or expand the approaches to the writing we had already taken. Books (and other works of art) are not created in the proverbial vacuum; they are products of their time and place and, as such, the author’s frame of mind while working can be important information. However, two issues arise when an author tries to give us this information: the author can’t reliably reproduce their frame of mind, since it was in the past and, by the very act of writing, they changed their frame of mind; if the author must explain it, what good is the book? As a result of these issues, I tend to discount such explanation, except as it helps me think about the book anew.

All this applies to The Real Story in that—since I found the book essentially boring, poorly written, disturbingly misogynistic, and vacant of new ideas—when Donaldson ends the book with an extended explanation of how to read the book, it not only didn’t help me have a deeper understanding of the book, it also cemented an impression of Donaldson as pretentious and arrogant and, well, not someone on whom I need to spend any more time. Okay, okay—that’s pretty harsh. Probably, Donaldson is a fine person; I just don’t need to read his work anymore.

Oh, and a little plot summary: the main conceit in the novel is some kind of faster than light travel—Donaldson calls it jumping the gap—and the physiological effects this type of travel has on some people (in some small percentage of people, jumping the gap makes them dangerously psychotic). Some variation of these ideas is a part of many science fiction novels; something is needed if there is to be any talk of visiting other planets or other parts of the universe outside our solar system and faster than light travel is one answer to the problem. Unfortunately, the rest of the story is based on the relationship between a selfish, sadistic man, the beautiful young woman he captures and abuses (in any way you can imagine), and the man’s rival. That one of the men wins and that the woman ends up with the winner is the foregone, sexist conclusion. Actually, sexist doesn’t really begin to touch the depth of how messed up this story is. Unless you like mind control and non-consensual relationships in general, I’d avoid the book.

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