Richard Morgan on ‘The Slow Death of Nuance’

Richard K. Morgan, author of Altered Carbon and The Dark Defiles, the latter of which I finished reading (and loved) recently, wrote a fantastic essay on his blog a couple of weeks ago about the dumbing down of storytelling and how it increasingly asks less and less of the reader:

Dip into the broad waters of commercial fiction and you’ll bump repeatedly into that same terror of open narrative space, of letting the reader think for themselves.  Paragraphs abound with that jerky last sentence sutured on, subtle as Frankenstein surgery, to hammer home the point the text just spent ten finely penned lines carefully implying.  One notable horror writer, a firm favourite of mine for many years, has gone so far down this treat-your-readers-as-morons-with-ADD path that I now find his books unreadable.  There is no longer any nuance anywhere in the text, no room to breathe and wonder – you’re just herded along from one big narrative signpost to the next; don’t stop, don’t think, just open wide, here comes the next big helping.  You end up gagged and bound, stifled by subtitles for the hard-of-thinking.  Never mind nuance, never mind thinking for yourself, you’re being entertained here!  Get with the programme.

And right there in your hands, reading turns from a textured, open experience full of challenge and invitation to extend yourself – like, say, rock climbing or playing a musical instrument – into a satisfaction-guaranteed sit-back-relax repeat-prescription experiential product, like being strapped into the same rollercoaster ride over and over again.

He opens by discussing the ending of Lost in Translation, and the powerful way in which Sofia Coppola uses stylistic storytelling to allow the viewer to form their own opinion as to what precisely passed between the main characters while nonetheless showing fairly clearly what actually happens.

The ending of Morgan’s most recent novel The Dark Defiles presents a deliberately inchoate conclusion to its story: the action is cut off at a point where the reader, presuming he or she has been paying attention, should have absolutely no doubt about what happens next, but the coup de grace isn’t shown.  And it’s brilliant.  Apparently not all of Morgan’s readers got it, though, which is unfortunate, because it was a hell of a lot of fun:

The Dark Defiles does not end ambiguously.  Honest.  Not at all.  There’s some space at the end, sure, but what’s going to happen in it is a pretty solidly foreshadowed and foregone conclusion.  You don’t get given blow-by-blow chapter and verse, because I figure you’re smart enough to step into that narrative space and figure it out for yourselves, sophisticated enough to enjoy that process for its own sake.

Most readers seem to have done that.

That some didn’t, and more importantly that most of those who didn’t felt somehow short-changed and even angered by the nuance and the space, continues to perplex me.

As Mr. Morgan goes on to point out, sometimes it is indeed the author’s fault, not the reader’s.  But that isn’t the case here.  If you couldn’t follow the ending of The Dark Defiles, you weren’t paying close enough attention.  It’s all in there.  Reread it.  If you still don’t get it, email me and I’ll be happy to explain it to you.

The broader point Morgan makes is well-taken: it’s unfortunate that the mainstream trend in fiction and in film is to remove all ambiguity, and thus do the audience’s thinking for them.  That’s not what art is suppose to be.  Don’t let your art talk down to you.  You deserve better.