Friday, January 24, 2014

Mea Culpa?


Recently I received an angry email from one "jac," reading:

What do you think an introduction is for? I just started reading an interesting-looking collection of short stories by James tiptree Jr. As usual, I began at the very beginning, with the introduction, where Mr Swanwick proceeded to list the plot twists of the stories I was about to read. Why would anyone do that? A deliberate attempt to screw with me, the reader? A regrettable ignorance of the concept of a postscript, where you could safely discuss the book under the assumption the reader had finished it? Mistaken confidence that nobody would ever read his introduction anyway?

thanks, buddy. Way to go.
My first, unworthy reaction was to think "You were reading Tiptree for the plot twists?  Go back to O. Henry."

But that was, as I said, unworthy.  People read as they read and it's not my part to police them.

Did I really give away the plots?  I took a look at the intro (to Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, incidentally) and I don't think so.  I was certainly trying not to.  As an example, here's what I said about the first story, "The Last Flight of Dr. Ain":

What a knockout!  It’s told backwards, in a flat documentary voice, like the forensic recreation of a crime.  But who’s compiled this information?  To whom is it being reported?  Formally, this story is like Goya’s Los Caprichos etchings, whose figures exist in an uneasy grey zone that bears no identifiable relationship to background and horizon as we know them.  And it has a stinger in its tail, in the revelation that it is not Dr. C. Ain but his companion who is the true criminal, and that this is not her first offense.
Now, it's true that I put that letter C. in front of Dr. Ain's last name, which arguably gives away something of the plot.  But only because Tiptree once wrote that the hidden reference was essential to the story, that it seemed obvious to her, and that she was baffled that readers could have missed it (as pretty much all of us did).  But I was careful to phrase the rest of it in a way that gives away nothing that should come as a surprise.  It's obvious from early on that the story is being told backward, and obvious from the git-go that Dr. Ain is up to something horrific.  You can go into the story knowing that Dr. Ain's companion is the true criminal, but that tells you nothing until you learn who she is.

So, no.  My conscience is clean.

But let's say I'm wrong and that my introduction gives away everything about the stories.  Then the worst I can be accused of is spoiling one story. 

The rest were spoiled by the reader when he continued reading after the first set of spoilers.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  But I'll be back here Monday.



TheOFloinn said...

There are two kinds of stories: those that can be read once, to get the "twist", and those that can be read again and again with often increasing pleasure, despite having long before learned the "twist."

William Preston said...

O'Connor said she wanted people to know how the stories ended before they read they--as with Greek drama--so that the suspense is transferred from the surface to the interior.