Obscure books—for some—are a kind of crossword puzzle

I loathe the day a manuscript is sent to the publisher, because on that day the people one has loved die; they become what they are—petrified, fossil organisms for others to study and collect. I get asked what I mean by this and that. But what I wrote is what I meant. If I wasn’t clear in the book, it shouldn’t be clear now.

I find that Americans, especially the kind of people who write and ask questions, have a strangely pragmatic view of what books are. Perhaps because of the miserable heresy that creative writing can be taught (‘creative’ is here a euphemism for ‘initiative’), they seem to believe that a writer always knows exactly what he’s doing. Obscure books, for them, are a kind of crossword puzzle. Somewhere, they feel, in some number of a paper they missed, all the answers have been given to all the clues.

They believe, in short, that a book is like a machine; that if you have the knack, you can take it to bits.

John Fowles, writing in 1966, an essay from Wormholes, written just before releasing The French Lieutenant’s Woman for fossilisation publication.

9 thoughts on “Obscure books—for some—are a kind of crossword puzzle

  1. Sadly this probably an even more relevant comment now looking at so many of the popular literary novels released these days, especially here in North America, likely in the UK as well. And they not only have “meaning” but a moral message.

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  2. This idea, albeit, by no means restricted to “Americans”, that a book is a message to be decrypted, implies a particular view of authorship, where the author is the ultimate omnipotent authority, producer of all meanings, of which a reader is but a passive, if careful, consumer. Some XVII. century philosophers similarly thought (and Chomsky seems to think so still) that words have “the true” meaning that can be recovered. The whole thing is deeply religious in origin.

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  3. as an ex-mechanic i can testify that books can’t be disassembled very easily; the multifunctional components(words) have too many interpretations, or purposes. meaning i suppose would be the functionality of the object(book), but in many cases the activity seems to fly off in all directions at once. rarely do the individuals stay between the white lines, and seemingly less so since the appearance of “Finnegan’s Wake” and “Ulysses”. good or bad, usually not a shared judgement…

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  4. I. A. Richards famously described a book as “a machine for thinking,” but I don’t quite think he had in mind something with a finite number of parts one could disassemble and put back together again. Maybe, hopefully, he had in mind something more like Paul Klee’s “Twittering Machine” – a bit of mechanics, a bit of magic.

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    • Barthes, when talking about the “pleasure of the text”, uses the word “jouer”, which means both sensual pleasure and free motion of parts of a mechanism (French is a wonderful language).

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    • Perhaps Fowles would have been drawn to Klee’s fusion of the natural with the industrial world. He writes eloquently about nature but as a one-time farmer he was no romantic.

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