Our Position

In the process of writing a novel, you have to think a lot about position. The word can mean several different things, the first, and perhaps most obvious of which is the position in the text itself. Once you produce a work that’s 90,000 or so words long, it simply isn’t possible to apprehend the whole thing at once. You burrow into it in sections, or else you clip at its edges the way you might prune a hedge, trying to stand back periodically and understand the shape of the thing as a whole. You agonize over your inability to see, and you wish you had a big enough mind to read several paragraphs at once, the way the narrator in Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is able to juggle two sets of numbers by splitting his brain into halves.

But you can’t get seduced into this kind of wide-angle thinking: the shape of the thing as a whole – which brings us to another important conception of position: in this case, the idea of roles. When you’re writing something long-form, you can get seduced by the idea of a writer as some kind of master architect: the Frank Lloyd Wright sort, who doesn’t let the residents buy your own furniture. You stop considering the position or role of the reader, who experiences a work of fiction line by line, who makes every sentence the space at which an event occurs, not only in the plot but in the mind of the person reading it. You’re straining for some kind of position of mastery over the text: maybe not God-like, but at least managerial, when in fact you’re only one side of a partnership in the creation of meaning. Your position is meaningless without the reader’s position, so much so that you might want to do away with “your position” for a while, and say “our position,” instead.

Not saying I’ve entirely come to terms with this concept. Certainly it pierces the armor of authorial control, or even dignity: imagine the havoc an irresponsible reader might wreck on your carefully constructed castle of glass, sleeping in the kitchen, eating in the bedroom, peeing in the sink. But it does ease some of the pressure on yet another question of position: the position a fiction writer tries to take on important issues, whether social or political or aesthetic. For those of us who think of our work as, at the very least, tangentially political, our failure to write rightly in the face of these complex questions is something which can rob us of sleep. Forget the question of whether our work will even be read – oh Lord, the horror – and focus, instead, on whether it will be interpreted in such a way that it goes against all we believe in. The characters we thought of us as heroes will be read as villains, we will be seen as reactionaries (at best) and conservatives (at worst), and the people who we’ve stayed up with, late into the night, discussing the world’s troubles will be disappointed to discover that we’ve been hiding our worst selves, all along.

It seems to me that once we accept the fact that our position as fiction writers, or more specifically novelists – whether spatial within the manuscript, relational to our readers, or linked to our ideas about the “real world” – is much more tenuous than we actually think it is, it’s easier to come to peace with the necessary limitations of our work. As Maggie Nelson wrote in an interview with Full Stop last year:

But I also like to grant readers their privacy. Often what you’re so moved by when you read is an alchemical combination of what you need to hear and what you hear, which is a bit distinct from what the person wrote. The former is a bit magical, and deserves a certain privacy.

I feel a profound sense of relief when I look over these words. I feel as if I’ve been granted the right to stop manically re-positioning the furniture inside of the vast and crooked house I’ve been working on for the last year and finally vacate, so that people can go live there in peace, without me wandering around as they go about their routines, re-positioning them, demanding they look in the direction I demand, or else wandering behind them with a megaphone, shouting my position on the current state of human existence.

No – best to consider the whole thing from a slightly detached state, in a position of rest, sipping tea and jotting down notes for future buildings.

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