Thursday, June 07, 2007

John Crowley on the ideal reader

To cap my recent spate of blogging about John Crowley, I'm stealing something from Crowley's own blog. I steal with the best of intentions: Crowley posted the bit I'm stealing in a comment thread, and then he warned readers who haven't read Endless Things away from the thread, because some of the comments there reveal key details of the book's plot. Yet Crowley's comment--which was presumably written off the cuff, in response to what he rightly called a screed posted by a disappointed reader--deserves more attention than it's likely to get languishing in a comments section. Not that this blog is as widely read as Crowley's (Technorati, for example, puts a distance of about 1.5 million blogs between us), but I believe comments aren't indexed by Google, so lifting it to a searchable space may prove to be at least a small favor to Crowley's readers.

The reader who prompted Crowley's comment was deeply disappointed--even offended--by Endless Things, the resolving volume of the Aegypt tetralogy. He felt that Endless Things failed to deliver on the promises of the earlier volumes; Crowley's intentional shattering of some of the myths and patterns of the earlier volumes felt to him like a cop-out, even a betrayal. The reader's heartfelt question to Crowley was: what does an author owe his readers? Does he have to deliver on expectations? Does he have to make his purpose clear? Does he have to satisfy?

Crowley responded:
As to the general question of what I or any writer owes to readers, I would say that to the entirety or generality of them I owe nothing: the idea that I could aim to, say, please or satisfy anyone or everyone who (misled or misdirected) plunks down $25 for a book of mine is unintelligible to me: how could I even begin to think about that? The reader I aim to please, satisfy, move, mystify (pleasurably), delight and otherwise give good value to is not anyreader or everyreader but a sort of nonpersonal yet quite specific entity with whom I have been conducting a relationship or agon for years. You could call him or her or it my Ideal Reader. I know certain things about this personage: he (he is ungendered but needs some sort of pronoun) shares my particular sense of humor; he understands my cultural references and is alert to my distortions or play with them; he can pick up a few Latin tags; he cares little for politics (at least in fiction, where alone I know him), is generous even if orthodox in religion, does not divide the world into good and bad, or powerful and powerless, or stupid and smart; he enjoys playing complicated literary games with smart fair authors, and always supposes that what is asserted by the author is not always the case; enjoys (like Pierce) the sudden transvaluation of values called peripeteia, whether in jokes or tragedies; and oh many other things. I do not expect him to know my personal history; I do not expect him to have knowledge of my book before he has read it (as I do) or to grant me the leeway he would a friend or a sibling or a son, or give me credit for trying when I did not succeed in achieving. I am aware he may be smarter than I am, and see my faults more clearly than I do myself, which makes me cunning. Him I set out to please; will give my all to please; his pleasure is my own. I can't know, of course, if I do: I can only know whether to some extent I have pleased actual readers, or displeased, as in your case. To some extent some readers approximate my ideal, which delights and gratifies me; none matches it. They will all have to fend for themselves. No refunds.

Nothing in Crowley's statement is particularly groundbreaking or revolutionary--in fact, a similar philosophy has probably driven writers since they shed their overt patrons a couple of centuries ago--though Crowley does seem to have taken the idea of an ideal reader seriously, investing him with the love of literature, history, and religion that Crowley himself clearly enjoys. The very act of imagining an ideal reader, then setting words free on a page despite knowing that one's actual reader will fall short of that ideal is a significant part of the drama of making art, nearly as significant as the realization that one's art itself will always be far from perfect.

Far more important than the specifics of Crowley's statement is its very existence. That Crowley fans are now able to keep these words in mind--to agree with or argue with--as we read his books in the future (and agree and argue with them), is such a happy accident of this still-new medium that it deserves to be celebrated. As has happened countless times before, a reader finished a book, frustrated, and had questions. But this time he was able to put those questions instantly in front of the author--and get a response. A reply like Crowley's, though certainly not something an author owes his readers, does seem like a wonderful repayment of the time a reader--however intemperate--has committed to his book.

Later in the thread Crowley actually posted a brief "key" of sorts to Endless Things, which is the real reason that someone who hasn't yet read the book should avoid the thread. But if you have, and you're curious about Crowley's thoughts about his own work and purposes, it's well worth checking out; I'm heartened to find that it jibes in large part with my own take (and that of Christopher R. Beha in Bookforum). Unless, that is, Borges was right in his story "August 25, 1983," and
Every writer sooner or later becomes his own least intelligent disciple.
In which case, Crowley's wrong and so are we, and you'll just have to read Endless Things and make up your own mind. Which is what you were going to do anyway, wasn't it?


  1. Steve3:29 AM

    Is it fair to call "he" an ungendered pronoun when there's a perfectly good "it" lying around? The ideal reader sounds much more like a thing than a person-- an "it." Just asking....

  2. I read Aegypt (or "The Solitudes") some 10 years ago and recall enjoying it but also remember a vague bewilderment. I've just finished Love & Sleep and felt much the same way on completing that volume. Now I've just started Daemonomania. I'm OK with a little bafflement if I feel confident that the author is in control and will eventually dispel my confusion, and I have the utmost confidence in Crowley and his beautiful prose. I'll be very interested to read that "key" once I've finally finished "Endless Things"...

  3. To be fair to the guy who posted the screed--and also to give you fair warning: I can easily imagine being disappointed in the way Crowley wraps up the series. He reverses course on some of the implications of the early books--though I think he's telegraphing his intentions by at least Daemonomania--and he doesn't answer all the questions; some loose ends definitely remain. If tidiness--or a full accounting or explanation--is what you're after, you may be disappointed.

    However, as I've said before, I wasn't disappointed; I felt like the shift Crowley's series undergoes is integral to what he's trying to do and say.

  4. Anonymous1:32 AM

    Well done; a debt of gratitude for bringing this to our attention. Coincidentally, I arrived by searching google for JC's blog...I've been absolutely delighted by the first three of Aegypt and just begun Endless Things - can't wait.

    Alas, for my money, none have yet to top Engine Summer.

    Thanks Again,