Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Of whooshes and whams (and allusive language and children)

If you listen to or read any kidlit coverage from mainstream reviewers, author interviewers, and general professional booktalkers for long enough, you will invariably come upon a specimen of the following statement:

“You put all these allusions in your book that will certainly fly over the head of your child reader, but I, the adult, noticed them and will now catalog them….”

I have written on this phenomenon and why I find it to be a kind of reviewer malpractice in the past. (Kudos to Terri Gross for noticing what she had just done after she got through the characteristic “but” clause in her recent interview with Lemony Snicket. [Anti-kudos for her “Oh my god! Laudanum!” moment a minute or two later.])

For this post, I’d like to look at why authors should make allusions in their writing and what are the effects of same. I’d also like to look at the times when it all goes wrong. It is helpful to these ends to think about guns and their bullets. I have seen a great many movies where people are under fire, and I have noticed that, almost invariably, people who are being fired upon duck when a bullet sails over their heads. Upon successfully ducking,  I notice  a wave of relief and the flush of adrenalin in their faces—the more proximous the bullet, the more substantial the ducking, the waves, and the flush.  I have also seen movies where people have not sensed the headbound bullets and failed to duck. In these nonduckers, I find no evidence of waves or flushes—just scattered, useless brain matter (which is also dramatic). So much for the effects.

(Incidentally, I find no correlation between age and ducker/nonducker status. The peculiarities of projectile flight seem not to discriminate between adults and children.)

All this is to say there is a significant difference between the whoosh of a thing over one’s head and the wham of a thing between one’s eyes. Do I need to say also that good authors know when to whoosh and when to wham and what the various effects will be on their readers? So much, then, for the why.

I have not mentioned in the above list—because I have never seen in any film or TV show—the species of person who, when sensing bullets overhead, rises onto tip toe or, if possible, climbs a ladder, wide-eyed, to confirm the caliber of the ammunition bearing down on him, all in hopes of reporting the information to any who will listen. Though I find no convenient cinematic equivalent, into this category I confidently place the reviewers, interviewers, and booktalkers I mentioned at the outset. This is, of course, where it all goes wrong.

Look, I believe it’s in a reader’s interest to be intensely sensitive to allusions flying about in books. You’ll live longer and be happier as a reader that way. But “intensely sensitive” doesn’t always have to  equal “acutely and instantly aware.” And I’ll argue to the ends of the earth that a young reader’s high sensitivity to an obscure allusion is just as valuable as the hoary adult reader’s grizzled awareness of that same allusion’s every minute implication. And the beautiful thing is that in a lifetime of reading, you get to be both, often with the same book.  

(Incidentally, I can sympathize with the bullet eaters. I have been in their number. Sometimes it is necessary to be one for certain books. But it is always less than ideal. Specifically, I have an annotated copy of one of my favorite novels, Lolita. The annotations are tempting ladders that will allow you to turn Nabokov’s carefully crafted whooshes--some of which are designed to displace hair near your scalp while others of which you only detect as disturbances in the breeze--into brain-splattering, Tarantinoesque  whams. This is not the best way to read that novel or any other novel. At any age.)

(Lemon photo by rob_moody, used under CC license. I trust FirearmsId.com will not mind my appropriation of their photo for purely literary illustrative purposes. )