Losing the Reader

by | Feb 5, 2007 | Approaches to Writing, Literature

Changing the rules is not by any means the only way to lose a reader.  Aldous Huxley, who is a masterly writer, does a textbook job of losing his reader twice in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, a laugh-out-loud vivisection of California excess in the late 1930’s.

The first hundred pages is a delight, an ice cream sundae of wit and erudition.  The characters and the situation have been introduced, and they are delicious.  We’ve had a few set pieces, little comic masterpieces.  Then we walk down the hill to Mr. Propter’s house, and Mr. Propter talks, or preaches rather, with only a very few very brief interruptions, for ninety pages.  We’ve been mugged.  This was supposed to be a novel, and it turns out to be a tract.  And once the soapbox has been trotted out it stays in view most of the time.  The story, once it gets moving again, is no longer interesting to us in the immediate way that it was before.  It’s still funny enough, but we don’t laugh out loud anymore, our reactions are no longer visceral, now that we’ve seen that the story is just a beard for a mystico-philosophical manifesto.  A novel is a dialogue, not a lecture.

When I read the book now I skip those ninety pages and some other parts as well.  There’s a clunky scene towards the end during which Propter is preaching a sermon to his disciple while they build some furniture in Propter’s woodshop.  Aldous Huxley knows nothing about woodworking.  Woodworking, a precise craft with a richness of specialized vocabulary and jargon, is described in the vaguest of all possible terms.  Huxley is an encyclopedia on architecture, painting, ancient sculpture, and literature, and when he gets to talk about them all kinds of scholarly stuff trips lightly off his tongue, but then he goes and tries to write about something he doesn’t know.

Looking over what I’ve written above, I feel like an ingrate and a heel.  Aldous Huxley has given me hours of reading pleasure and here I go chipping away at his pedestal.  Actually, the reason I’ve just re-read After Many a Summer is because Huxley touches on some of the same material I’m looking at for my next novel, and does it brilliantly.  He is best, strangely enough, on topics and people and places he knows well.  Antic Hay and Crome Yellow, both set in London, are gems.  Brave New World is a most clever and amusing dystopia that does get preachy sometimes, but that’s more forgiveable in a dystopia, a genre in which it’s understood that the author has a drum to pound.