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From: "Dan'l Danehy-Oakes" 
Subject: Extended Meditation on Rorschach Novels (was RE: (urth)
Date: Tue, 27 Aug 2002 12:02:08 -0700

> > Jack stays in the barn haunted by the banshee three nights.  
> > ...as does the coldhouse prank victim (Friday, Saturday, 
> > Sunday nights).
> That's wonderful.  It's either a remarkable coincidence, or 
> something very clever on the part of Wolfe.

Or (given the partial content of the interview you pointed out 
-- thank you!) something very clever on the part of Wolfe's 
unconscious or subconscious or whatever it is that does stuff 
that he doesn't "see consciously." 

Q: To what extent is a Gene Wolfe text a Rorschach blot?

That is, how much of what we get out of the text is put there 
by Gene Wolfe; how much is what we put into it?


I'm inclined more than a little to the theory of reading as not 
just decoding, but creating -- so that writing is a game of 
giving just the right details so that the reader fills in the 
lacunae between them, and so creates a vivid picture in her 
cortical theatre. SF, famously, uses a rhetoric that suggests 
far more than it says, from Heinlein's "The door dilated" to 
Delany's "The red sun was high, the blue low" -- sentences that 
the experienced SF reader not only "decodes" but uses as raw 
material from which to extrapolate huge amounts of information 
about the fictive world.

Heinlein's sentence implies a social and economic and 
technologial landscape where people want and have doors that
dilate; Delany's a physical vista that includes not only the 
two suns but a planet's surface, strangely mingled shadows of 
different colors, the hints of the alien life that might 
inhabit it ... But the writer does not _put_ those things 
there. Heinlein, explicitly, did _not_ write a treatise about 
the socio-economic-technology behind dilating doors; Delany 
does _not_ describe the shadows, or even mention the planet on 
whose surface the narrator is (we presume) standing. The reader 
creates these things for herself.


Reading, and especially reading SF, is to a very large extent a 
process of filling in these lacunae, these gaps between the 
words. The writer can choose his details to suggest content for 
these lacunae -- to, as it were, select data points that 
suggest a most obvious or most efficient way of extrapolating 
between the data points -- but the writer _can't_ control the 
reader's process of extrapolation. 

If my imagination tends that way, I can imagine Heinlein's 
dilating door as he _probably_ intended, it, like a hugely 
blown-up iris from an old-fashioned box camera. But I might 
have been reading a bunch of anatomy right before I pick up 
BEYOND THIS HORIZON, and when I come to that sentence, my 
cortex might throw up an image more like a heart valve -- and 
then the social, economic, technological texts hiding behind 
that door will be radically different. In a more conservative 
mode: when you imagine that door, do you imagine it as 
metallic, wood, plastic? Is its mechanism electromechanical, 

Do you even bother to imagine those details at all? (I don't 
always -- but then I am, in some ways, an intolerably lazy 
reader). The point is, though, that _whether_ you imagine them, 
and _what_ you imagine -- and all of us do fill in at least 
some of the gaps, or we couldn't read SF at all -- greatly 
affects the experience of reading.

I think that we can agree that Wolfe, in a lot of ways, leaves 
larger lacunae, and leaves lacunae of a different _kind_, than 
most SF writers. The question that I asked above then 
breaks down, in this terminology, into three separate but
deeply interrelated questions, as follows: (1) For a given 
lacuna, or a given _type_ of lacuna, can we reasonably assume 
that Wolfe himself had some specific content in mind? (2) If 
so, can we reasonably assume that he expected his readers to 
extrapolate something similar to what he imagined? And if not,
was he even aware of the lacuna when he wrote?


These questions are nontrivial, and probably ultimately not
answerable with any real certainty. I think we can agree that 
Wolfe, like (almost) any competent writer, imagines (most of) 
what he describes in far more detail than appears on the page. 

The writer's process is one of selection and omission; the 
reader's process of extraplation is not a simple converse. A 
very precise writer and a very precise reader, with very 
similar cultural and educational backgrounds, _might_ wind up 
with very similar "movies" in their heads ... but I wouldn't 
bet on it. Ditto two very precise readers with similar etc. My 
Silk is not your Silk and neither of these is Wolfe's Silk.

Yet, somehow, we wind up with Silks, Latros, Severians, and
Narrahornsilkpasthingies similar enough that we can at least 
talk meaningfully about them ... which is (in my opinion) 
something of a miracle; we look at black marks on paper, each 
of us creates a movie in our heads, and, somehow, the movies 
are alike enough that we can talk meaningfully about them, 
argue, agree on what we're arguing about, and even, sometimes, 
reach a conclusion. 

(Suddenly, DNA doesn't seem all that amazing; suddenly, the 
possibility of encoding a human personality into a computer 
doesn't seem all that improbable. Is LONG SUN -- in part, to be 
sure -- about the thermodynamic miracle of writing and 


I looked a post about the coldhouse prank and the Banshee 
story, and saw a correspondence I'd never seen before -- that,
to the best of my knowledge, nobody had ever seen before. Did
Wolfe put it there? Consciously or unconsciously? How could we
even know? Wolfe wrote the book thirty years ago; chances are
he doesn't know at this point.

And if he did, if he intended this correspondence as a great 
big sign pointing the way to understanding these anecdotes -- 
does this noticing "invalidate" (partially or completely) all 
previous readings of these anecdotes? Of the whole novel?

Obviously not. Ultimately, reading is a collaborative effort.
Any competent reading is valid ... which begs the question of 
what constitutes a "competent" reading, but that is, I think,
a question that must be begged; or, rather, treated as open.
A reading of PEACE as "the story of how Ahab chased a whale"
is clearly not a competent reading; but cases can and have
been made for wildly different readings of PEACE, and of (quite 
a few) other Lupine texts.

Nor is it to say that all "competent" (and therefore "valid")
readings are "correct"; indeed, I think it calls into question
whether there can be a "correct" reading of a text with the
number and kind of lacunae Wolfe typically offers. 

There are different kinds of puzzles. Some, like jigsaw 
puzzles and crossword puzzles, have unique, "correct" 
solutions; if you put all the pieces in the right places, you
solve the puzzle correctly. If you don't, then not.

But there are other kinds of puzzles -- those maddening 
puzzles from the '70s, for example, that had three dozen 
weirdly-shaped plastic pieces and big letters on the box 
telling you that there were thousands of solutions, different
ways to make all the plastic pieces fit back into the frame
once you'd gotten them out. Any one of them would be "right."
(Though somehow, I was never able to find even one...)


In the end, then, I suppose that this meditation turns out to 
be an argument for wide interpretive tolerance. 

For example: maybe most of us don't see the trees-are-the-
inhumi "solution" to Short Sun; but that doesn't mean that the 
people who do are wrong. They are reading the text in good 
faith, their solutions -- even if they seem torturous to some 
of us -- seem to fit the facts. But if their solution isn't
"wrong," there's no good cause for them to propound it as
"the right answer," either. 

Because I think texts _do_ bear a certain resemblance to 
Rorschach blots. There isn't a "right" interpretation, but 
there are right interpretations, and there are clearly "wrong"
ones -- interpretations that ignore the ink that's actually
there to interpret.



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