Admittedly it’s been about a bazillion years since my last post, long enough ago that many of you probably forgot who I am. But nonetheless here I am, hoping that through my incoherent ramblings I might accidentally say something meaningful to a small, dwindling crowd of transient tag-surfers, Facebook friends, and Twitter tweeters. Or maybe no one at all – at this point, I might have lost my readership through abject neglect! Which brings me to the question of this post:
Like the tree falling in the forest which no one can hear, is writing worthwhile if no one reads it?
There are legion after legion of amateur writers scattered about the globe, writing for their own pleasure, triumph and posterity. And their goal, almost universally, is one thing:
Dreams of fame, fortune, and multiple houses on multiple continents may dance in their heads – writers are only human after all – but most of all it’s the idea of hundreds, if not thousands or even millions, of strangers picking up their book and being affected by it somehow. We want that crystal-clear justification for our existence which comes from someone else telling you how great you are. That your stories put into words the things they wanted to say for so long, but couldn’t.
I had a moment like that last week, reading a book and thinking, I should have written this! It was exactly the sort of story I always wanted to tell, and the author told it impeccably. This was Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, and I recommend it to everyone, even non-fantasy readers. His prose is something to behold.
It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.
The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves. If there had been a crowd, even a handful of men inside the inn, they would have filled the silence with conversation and laughter, the clatter and clamour one expects from a drinking house during the dark hours of night. If there had been music … but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained.
It manages to be elegant and meaningful without being snobbish about it, in the way modern descriptive-heavy literary fiction can get. It’s inclusively eloquent, not eloquence designed purely to show off or make it clear how low and vulgar you, the audience, are. And it’s a narrative within a narrative, something more stylistically interesting than typical sword-and-sorcery novels.
And it makes fun of its own genre. Brilliantly so.
‘[…]The truth is this: I wasn’t living in a story.’
‘I don’t think I’m understanding you, Reshi,’ Bast said, puzzled.
‘Think of all the stories you’ve heard, Bast. You have a young boy, the hero. His parents are killed. He sets out for vengeance. What happens next?’
Bast hesitated, his expression puzzled. Chronicler answered the question instead. ‘He finds help. A clever talking squirrel. An old drunken swordsman. A mad hermit in the woods. That sort of thing.’
Kvothe nodded. ‘Exactly! He finds the mad hermit in the woods, proves himself worthy, and learns the names of all things, just like Taborlin the Great. Then with all these powerful magics at his beck and call, what does he do?’
Chronicler shrugged. ‘He finds the villains and kills them.’
‘Of course,’ Kvothe said grandly. ‘Clean, quick, and easy as lying. We know how it ends practically before it starts. That’s why stories appeal to us. They give us the clarity and simplicity our real lives lack.’
This fantasy story stays true to all the elements and themes I ever wanted to explore in Cobault or anything else I’ve written: names having power, unique narrative structure, and above all to treat a fantasy story with all the realism and complexity of real life. Reading it has inspired me, challenged me to take this example and become better than that which I idolise.
And so The Name of the Wind is a book that has touched me, something that would have never happened if it hadn’t been made possible by publishing and distribution. A story that no one has read is like Schrodinger’s cat – its state is unknown. Brilliance and meaning lie in the mind of the reader. The author is too biased, too close, to know what he/she has created. Objectivity is needed.
But even if your story’s distribution is limited to close friends, family and a few strangers on the internet, what pleases you more than anything is someone telling you how much they enjoyed reading your work. And I think that’s what most of us write for, above and beyond fame, fortune, and houses.
However, if your writing is well and truly terrible, maybe it’s just as well if it sucks in the forest with no one around to hear it.