Keith Snyder
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This isn't the thing

I've been reading THREE SCIENTISTS AND THEIR GODS by Robert Wright, and it reminded me of something I realized about description. I'm certainly not the first person to realize it, but all the web pages I've found that might address it are written in such painful academic constipation that I can't tell what they're talking about. If you know whose idea this is, let me know so I can read up.

One difference between movies and prose is that in a movie, when a black cat shows up in the story, it's a specific black cat--the one somebody thought was the right one and cast in the role of "the black cat." It's that one, and no other.

When a black cat shows up on a page in a novel, what black cat is it? I realize this isn't a new question, but it seems to me that the reason it's so fruitful as a starting point for useless philosophical debate is that the question supposes an untruth to start with. In fact, it's not that any black cat at all shows up on the page; it's that no white cat or brown dog shows up in the reader's mind.

The images on a movie screen specify. The descriptions in a novel negate. Watching a movie, we travel down a narrow groove of experience etched carefully by a team of experts. The set decorator decides that these knickknacks are on the windowsill, even if they're not important to the story. The DP decides that these visual elements are most important, and situates the camera accordingly. The cat wrangler chooses this cat. There's not much wiggle room in what shows up in the audience's brains after it's transmitted through their optic nerves; if it's a pure midnight-black cat on the screen, anyone in the audience who perceives a black cat with a white tail is hallucinating.

In a novel, there's no such narrow groove. If the page says "black cat," the fact that each reader will imagine a slightly different one probably does not hinder the success of the novel. Where a movie channels us down a narrow groove, a novel sets out the edges of a canyon and pushes us in the right direction. Our eventual path is, in retrospect, as narrow as what a movie lays out for us, but it's only one of the possible paths within the wider confines of the canyon. As long as the reader limits his wanderings to stay between the cliff faces, any path works. Any of a thousand paths could legimitately be "what the writer meant," because what the writer meant was "Anything that isn't outside these boundaries."

(This is why I get annoyed when writers of "interactive fiction" talk about this new art form they've invented. All fiction is collaborative, and only a writer who doesn't understand his basic materials would claim otherwise. Until interactive fiction allows coherent, relevant, effective, entertaining, unexpected-but-organic new material to be created off the cuff in response to a completely unexpected action by the reader, it's just conventional fiction cut up in pieces. Forking is not impressive. A reasonable Turing test for interactive fiction would be whether it's distinguishable from a brilliant pathological liar with a flair for story structure.)

(It's also why I get annoyed with the academic conceit "We can't know what the author meant." The statement is true only if you use a specialized definition of "meaning," since any idiot can often be damn sure of a multitude of things the author *didn't* mean--which results in the reader getting what the writer wanted her to get. That's meaning. Debating the meaning of specifics when specifics aren't the point is only useful to someone attempting tenure or publication. Clearly, readers understand what writers write. There's some variation, but if they're not stoned, schizophrenic, or stupid, they get it within a certain reasonable tolerance. If it weren't possible to understand what an author meant, the publishing industry could be equally profitable selling books filled with random typesetting. Instead of constructing this essay as I have, I could just write "wallaby wallaby wallaby wallaby wallaby wallaby," and you wouldn't know the difference. The inability to precisely define meaning isn't proof that it doesn't exist, and writers and readers been conversing fruitfully for centuries. Goddammit.)

A black cat ran across the yard.

I know what I imagine. I imagine a certain black cat of my acquaintance, charging across the lawn of a house I used to live in, in a particular exuberant way, on a particular overcast day. This cat has a white shirtfront, the house was a California bungalow, and my vantage point was from the second story. He was probably chasing something. I don't expect you to have the same image--but I do expect you to imagine some black cat or other, running across some yard or other, from some point of view or other, in some sort of weather.

I don't know--or care--what you imagine, as long as you don't imagine dogs, clocks, armored personnel carriers, or Mexican klezmer bands--and that you don't imagine them walking, skipping, exploding, or whirring--and that they're not doing it in a living room, bank vault, vast undersea city, or Shaun Cassidy's nostril. As long as you pick a black cat from your memory and shoot it across some yard, I'm done. My job is to first decide what element needs to exist at a story level, and then to keep you from assuming anything that contradicts it. My job is not to paint an explicit picture, even if that were possible. Painting an explicit picture takes so many words that it's just not possible in a novel. Each blade of grass? Each muscle the cat uses? How the temperature varies as I move to the window? The weight of my body on the soles of my feet, and how the carpet fibers felt, compressing under them? The previous moment and the context it provides for this one? It's just too overwhelming. You could easily write 70,000 words of description of any single moment, and you'd still have left something out. 70,000 words is the approximate length of each of my novels.

A movie frame can't totally describe a scene, either, because it was shot by a camera that occupies a fixed point in space, which excludes from the picture anything a differently situated camera might see. (And there are no odors, the soundscape is severely simplified and stylized so dialogue and plot-critical aural clues can be heard clearly, and there's no tactility or sense of heat or balance.) But it gets a lot closer to a complete cataloguing than prose does.

Which is great, except that cataloguing isn't what anybody's trying to do in fiction. We're evoking. Cataloguing is a specifying action: This, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this. Evoking is trickier, because it boils down to "whatever works." If it works to specify, then specify. If it works better to find just the right single detail that makes the whole thing bloom in the reader's imagination, that's the right approach. Evocation can happen in words that don't even seem to be description: If Alice yanks a door open, that doesn't just describe Alice's state of mind and the fact that she's opened the door. It also evokes the door, which probably isn't a ten-ton marble slab, since those aren't yankable.

One of the best evocations I ever read was in a Harlan Ellison story, in which he described the monster of loneliness lurking in the narrator's bedroom, then said, "No, that's not what it was like at all." It wasn't until then that I clicked on the monster; it was the kind of monster that if you're foolish enough to try to describe it, it comes out this particular flavor of wrong. I know exactly what monster that is, and I can't describe it either.

Anything that isn't a not-cat is what the word "cat" means in description.

Yeah, I know. Bear with me.

Remember Venn diagrams? Imagine a circle labeled "everything that isn't a cat." When you're reading, and you come across the word "cat," you're allowed to pick anything you want that isn't in that circle. If the writer thinks it's important that you think of a black cat, then the label says "everything that isn't a black cat."

This explains why, no matter how explicit a writer may be in describing a black cat, a dozen readers will imagine a dozen different cats, and they'll all be right. There is no contradiction in these different rightnesses; no reader who imagines any black cat can possibly be wrong. Each has imagined exactly what the author intended, if the author's any good.

This is the basic principle of what words mean in description. They don't specify the right thing; they negate all the wrong things. The sensitivity and ability of the writer determine how deftly that wrong area is defined. (Dialogue is a different story, because what's being specified is words themselves. Since there are many fewer words than cats, it's possible to specify them and expect the reader to get it. I suppose you could specify a cat such as my Aunt Lucy's Ernest, but while that might evoke Ernest in the minds of your family, the rest of the world wants the $25 back that they spent on your book. The only negation in dialogue occurs in the description, either overtly stated or subtly implied, of a character's tone or delivery. Or, of course, if one of the characters starts talking about a black cat.)

So that's why "When a black cat shows up on a page in a novel, what black cat is it?" is the wrong question. Once you look at it backward, the paradoxes disappear. The reader's choices are infinite--and could even expand as new cats are invented--but she is guided down the canyon as surely as a movie viewer jammed into his groove. She just gets to collaborate more along the way. The result of the collaboration is not the book--obviously, since there it is on the shelf already--but a unique piece of art in her imagination. And if the writer is sensitive and able, she never missteps.

I doubt that this will help anyone write anything, but since it allowed me to feel I understood something more clearly, I wanted to write it down. What do you think?

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