Follow the Story!

We have all heard of the Unreliable Narrator, in such books as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie or Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.  Indeed, Nabokov seems to specialise in unreliable narrators.  

Humbert Humbert in Lolita is so obviously unreliable that we complicitly become unreliable readers.  We twist our credulity into such Klein bottles of nigh impossible dimensions that our final question to ourselves is, "Did I just really believe all this?"

In Bend Sinister, the very darkest of novels, Nabokov, a few pages from the end, actually intrudes as the author to apologise for narrating the terrible events which befall his main character, before sending him into the blessed relief of madness.  Whither the reader?

Charles Kinbote in Nabokov's Pale Fire is so unbelievable as 'narrator' as to defy description.  Pale Fire, as a novel, itself utterly and absolutely defies description.  Is it even a novel?  Susan Sontag thought so, and that's good enough for me.  If you have not read it, please put it on your list of Things Which Must Be Done.  Forget the ironing and the dusting.  This is infinitely more important.

Another category of unreliability is the Unreliable Author.  That means YOU when you don't do your research or know your facts.  The only exception is if you engage the services of an Unreliable Narrator.  This can occur in dialogue.  Nothing on Earth prevents a character in your novel or story from uttering the most ludicrous of false information.  Even reported dialogue is fair territory.  "John told me that his father's ashes are buried in that Gaudì church in Barcelona."  In your plot, John's father is not even dead (yet), but if Caroline wants to tell her friend that John said that, or that France left the EU, or any other nonsense, that's no problem.  That's the character speaking.  And anything in dialogue must be accepted as internally true.  It IS true that the character said it.

A few years ago, I read a novel in which the narrator mentioned the stone lions in Trafalgar Square in London.  But the lions are not stone.  They are cast bronze, made from cannons captured at the Battle of Trafalgar.  The narrator was not meant to be unreliable.  Yes, it is a small error in detail, but it should have been spotted by a good sub-editor and at least queried.  Likewise, any suspected error should be researched before getting to the reader, unless the error is intentional.  In a final version, all errors become part of the authorised message or text, which must be accepted as is.  Writing is a contract between author and reader, with the publisher acting as negotiating agent.  Check the details like you would a divorce settlement.  

In this same book, mention was made of a house address, the street coordinates appearing on page xx of the London A-Z street atlas.  I knew the area well and wanted to look it up in the context of my own experience.  Hmm.  It wasn't on page xx, but on page yx of my A-Z.  The answer was simple, but I was lucky to be able to solve the problem.  I checked the publication dates of the novel and of my A-Z.  The novel was written earlier.  Aha!  So, I checked an earlier edition in my A-Z collection, and there it was, on page xx, just as the author had found it at the time he wrote the book.

[If you're wondering when I start name-dropping (or carpet-bombing), here's your answer.]


"Let me just pop back to the kitchen for a chat with the chef."

That was what led to a thirty-minute conversation I had with Christine Jorgensen, the 'notorious' transsexual of my generation.  She was writing a Scandinavian cookbook (perpetually, it turned out) and enjoyed talking with restaurant and hotel cooks.  

She was on a lecture tour of American university campuses, and she had an hour or two before she needed to get ready.  If she wasn't eating her meals early, she said, she was eating them late.  "But cook it a good half hour ahead of time.  I love hot food cooled down and cold food warmed up.  Room temperature is the objective," I recall her saying.

We spoke of her tour.  I told her I'd not be able to hear her deliver her talk, so she covered what she thought I'd like to hear.  I don't know how she knew, but she was spot-on in her comments to me.  This was in the early-mid 1970s, and students those days were glad to be challenged by the new and the exciting.  Edward Teller was another speaker I cooked for, but our orbits did not intersect.  

Christine Jorgensen would have been de-platformed these days, to ensure she didn't spread her own experiences, which would contradict today's orthodoxy.  We spoke of George, her persona before the operations.  "We were never different people.  I'm still the same person George was.  You cannot change a person on the inside by changing the outside."

She mentioned her sister.  "We get along better now as sisters than we did as brother and sister.  My parents and I get along better now, as well."

Back to food – well, we never got back to food, except for preparing her early dinner.  As I recall, she wanted a sirloin beef steak grilled medium rare, then cooled, of course.  She probably had a salad with that and some rice.  She did say she liked the way rice cools down so fast.  Pasta was still relatively niche in those days in Mid-Western America.

Miss Jorgensen has the final word.  "Give everything time to develop its natural flavour," she told me.  Yes, indeed, with food and with life.

Le Mot Faux

It's happened to all of us, so don't pretend it didn't.  We used a word in the wrong way, or the wrong word.  The most notorious occurrence of this was the apparently unchallenged use of 'condone' instead of 'condemn' in court testimony.  Yes, he meant 'condemn', but he is forever on record as saying 'condone'.  There is a HUGE difference.  Like promising to 'defy' the constitution, instead of 'defend'.  Why on Earth was this not challenged? 

We have a rich vocabulary in English, full of nuance and subtle, often life-threatening distinctions.  There are people who have died because they thought 'inflammable' was the opposite of 'flammable'.  People have lost court cases involving gigantic sums of money because of a confusion over such words as 'insure' and 'ensure', 'affect' and 'effect', 'imply' and 'infer'.  

Publishers look for improper use of words to help decide which books get accepted (not excepted) for possible publication.  Triage is easier when the writer shows no apparent understanding of the difference between 'further' and 'farther'.  Likewise, writers who think that 'noisome' refers to sound level, or 'enormity' to size, need a refresher course in basic vocabulary.

These examples are not quite 'literally' endless, and some examples have changed over time.  I recall learning the difference between 'shall' and 'will'.  That is a dying distinction, to be sure.  The confusion over the meanings of 'lie' and 'lay', and 'less' and 'fewer', is still giving editors blue-pencil-tapping moments of utter frustration.

One final word about such errors.  If they occur in dialogue, that's fine.  It signals to the reader that the speaker is poorly educated and sloppy in speech.  This may be relevant to the plot and thus needs to be considered.  If these errors occur in narrative, then it is the author who is revealed to be poorly educated and careless in the use of words.  And that's not the definition of an author.  

Why do people think writing is easy?

Many believe that studying the rules of writing is enough to get them going on that novel.  I compare writing to musical composition.  One needn't understand the intricacies of sound before one starts singing.  I spent more years studying music – theory, harmony, composition, performance, acoustics, etc. – than I did studying writing (as opposed to 'mere' grammar).  I was a church organist, a composer of keyboard pieces, and I have perfect pitch.

My scattered attempts at writing left me in no doubt that I was always going to be an amateur.  But I was not tone-deaf in regard to words.  Therein lies the difference between writers and people who write.  We all know those who cannot carry a tune.  Do we encourage them to sing?  No, except perhaps at birthdays and other fun times.

Yet, we all KNOW that "there is a book inside each person".  Nonsense.  That is no more true than expecting every person to give birth to a painting or a bridge.  Why are some houses described as 'architect-designed'?  Because some are not.  But buildings must meet safety standards.  Imagine a novel described as 'author-written' or a fresco as 'artist-painted'.  Hitler's works sell, but not because of his skill as an artist.  Of course, half of 'art' is not sold because of the artists' skill.  Likewise, many books are sold for some inherent, intrinsic, vague value bestowed upon them by the authors' fame.  'Culture' has a lot to answer for.  My favourite line from the Second World War belongs to dear old Hermann Göring.  "When I hear the word 'culture', I reach for my pistol."

Speaking of Göring, I can brag that I used to live in the house where Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin".  I also slept in Agatha Christie's room at the Baron Hotel in Aleppo.  And Göring?  I spent a week B-O-quartered in his old Luftwaffe office at Tempelhof Airport in (West) Berlin.  


I wrote a story for someone as a gift of friendship recently.  He asked if I was going to publish it.  I told him that it was up to him, as the story belonged to him.

I do need to check intellectual property rights laws, but to my mind, I no longer own any rights to the story other than those of author.  A gift is a gift, and I am willing to draw up an agreement concerning publication rights of the story's new 'owner'.  My earnest intention is not to profit one sou from my writing.  I have used illustrators and designers who earn their share either from the publisher or from me. If anyone can point me to the pertinent copyright laws or legal implications, I would appreciate it.   

This idea of 'giving' a story to someone is new to me.  Normally I might dedicate a story to a friend or write someone in as a character.  My father used to paint landscapes and put in little figures along the beach or wherever, and say to me, "That's you and your sister."  I do that with my friends.  "That murderess with the crooked teeth?  That's you!"