When is it Okay to Leave Your Reader Behind?

I’ve read science fiction novels for most of my reading years. It started with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. This book is both deep and accessible for a younger reader. The same cannot be said about all science fiction.

When I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968), the novel by Arthur C Clarke came next. Hopefully some clarity would come, as the film and its enigmatic ending can defy explanation or understanding. What comes through on the page, though, is that Mr. Clarke knew his science, and I (both today and as a youth) don’t know it as well as he did. Arthur C. Clarke held degrees in math and physics, and has written on both subjects. This means that when he touches on orbital mechanics and thrust maneuvers, I have to take his word that he is correct in his details. The end portion of the book is both different and clearer than the film.


Yet both 2001 the film and the book are classics and are not diminished by their advanced storytelling that leave some wondering what, exactly, they are watching or reading. There are many examples of novels where the writer knows more than the reader and is flexing her mental muscles. It’s up to us as readers to decide if we mind going along for the ride. The caution for a writer seeking an audience is that sometimes the reader might give up. The counterpoint is that a dumbing down of an idea for the sake of simplicity can rob a work of its character.

A more recent example of a novel with portions that confound is Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which has sections on Sumerian mythology and linguistics that can be a challenge to read. Yet it’s because the author has such big ideas and is trying to explain his unique universe that these sections are endurable and worth struggling through to understand the entire story.


So as either writers or readers, we seek a level of clarity that doesn’t come at the cost of a story’s substance. Literature needs texture much as certain foods do. A term used by chefs is “toothsome,” which is when something has a chew but can’t be critiqued for being chewy. Language and information that make it to the page can’t be so sanded down that it becomes beige prose, yet it needs to not present an obstacle that cannot be cleared.

Yet no two readers are exactly alike. Some will persevere in the face of a challenge while others will give up. One point I keep in mind when reading is that some writers don’t care if their plot suffers for the sake of the rest of the narrative.

Consider the novelist Raymond Chandler. When the film adaptation of The Big Sleep was being filmed by Howard Hawks, it was discovered that one of the murders in the book was never explained and perhaps didn’t even make sense. Chandler’s response is classic. He didn’t know who the murderer was, and it didn’t matter to him. The characters and the overall situation came first in his story, and he felt confident that the screen version could survive with this unanswered element.

big sleep.jpg

It would never be a good idea for a writer to set out writing with this attitude. But patient readers will make it through a vague or missing plot point or a section that goes above their heads because they value the rest of the work. Sometimes the understanding comes later upon reflection or research. Sometimes it means we go online to find out what, exactly, we just read and if we’re the only one who had a hard time puzzling through a book.

(This post was originally published on Snarkology. Link: http://www.thesnarkology.com/2016/01/04/when-is-it-okay-to-leave-your-reader-behind-by-gerhard-gehrke-scifi-goddessfish/ )

2 thoughts on “When is it Okay to Leave Your Reader Behind?

  1. As a sci-fi author myself, I try to explain the science in the context of the story and make its discovery and understanding relevant to the plot. Sci-fi inspired me to pursue a science career and I hope to do the same by making it interesting, relevant and exciting. I’ve lost a couple readers who got lost (at least one because he didn’t have enough commas) but I know that every book is not for everyone and mine is certainly no exception.C’est la vie.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. While there are many approaches, I like yours the best. I do confess I learn quite a bit when an author flexes his or her science muscles and, while perhaps oversharing, manages to entertain while edifying.


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