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The Invisible Hand Dilemma

Two years ago I had a chance to sit under the instruction of one of my favorite fictional authors, Orson Scott Card. Well, he isn’t fictional, his books are. Except the non-fiction ones –which is pretty self-explanatory. (Now exiting the vehicle is My Brevity -wave to the camera.) OSC is the author of Ender’s Game, an outstanding book in the speculative fiction genre. While his religious views are far from orthodox (he is a Mormon) his angle on the art of writing is compelling. Among the myriad of helpful impartations about the craft of writing he shared, I’d like to share one which challenged my thinking about the author and his work. OK, here I go…sharing.

Card made the case that the writer should be invisible. He explained that when we are reading a story the last thing we want is to be distracted by superfluous prose, or convoluted description. If you have read Ender’s Game you’ll notice that very few scenes are described in detail, but a significant depth of penetration in the mind of the point-of-view character, along with dialogue and action, carries the story. He wants the plot, the story itself, to be the focus of the reader -without the reader stopping every few sentences to utter breathless praise for the style and prowess of the writer. The story is the thing.

He spoke about how many authors write scenes cinematically. That is, they see the scene like a movie, and then describe the scene from the outside, trying to help the reader see what the author sees. In contrast, Card’s view is that the novelist has a few advantages over the filmmaker and one of them is the chance to go into a character’s mind, in deep penetration, and let us see the story from the inside. Movies don’t often do that very well. Consequently many modern authors, raised on cinema, try to duplicate that cinematic feel, nullifying one of the few advantages of a novelist. I, for one, tire quickly of extravagant language in a novel. I want to be given enough to stir my imagination, but not overrun it. Let me participate as a reader, I want my mind to fill in the images based on clues, not be busy trying to get the details of the author’s endless description just right.

I balance this thinking (of the invisible author) against my experience of books where the writer is very much apparent, and almost a character in the story. One example is the great P.G. Wodehouse, creator of guffaw-inducing yarns about the declining British aristocracy (with his Bertie Wooster and Jeeves characters) and the golden age of Hollywood. Brilliant stuff. In those stories, Wodehouse’s voice and descriptive genius are probably the principle draw of the books. The plot is interesting, but mostly as an avenue for comedy. The stories become a way for Wodehouse to express his irrepressible humor. But they are not great stories -at least not as stories alone.

So, I’m not sure what the conclusion of the matter is. I have a working hypothesis that when the story is the thing, the writer’s gifts are used best when he is more or less invisible and the story isn’t interrupted by frequent, insistent demonstrations of his great use of language that ultimately is distracting. However, in comedic stories, the writer has more opportunity to “show himself,” especially since it’s not just about the plot, but about a comedic flow. After all, we mostly notice authors when something is written poorly, it stands out when standing out is not desired. It distracts.

So I call this the Invisible Hand Dilemma. How much do we want to be aware of the author’s presence – and I mean actively? The author is always there, of course, but how visible is his hand?

Some authors in some books seem to straddle the line amazingly well. One is a book none of you have ever heard of called On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, by the popular, European, petty-coat and scarf tycoon Andrew Peterson. When I began the book, I thought it was very funny, but was pretty convinced that it would have no room for gravity, or a compelling story. I was wrong. Andrew’s voice was there all along, with his signature humor aplenty, but somehow I still managed to get lost in the story.


To me, great stories are like a dream –you awaken afterwards and only then realize it wasn’t real. It was that captivating.

As for the Invisible Hand Dilemma, I don’t know the answer. I am a very inexperienced writer and my own first novel is certain to fail most tests of excellence, even my own. So I write this partly to steal advice from wiser writers -and readers. Help me out. It seems like the tastes for books from the Rabbit Room crowd is more toward literary fiction than my own tastes are inclined. Maybe that signals a lack of refinement on my part (I actually did grow up in a “holler” in West Virginia). More likely it’s just that these people are a bunch of snobs. They wouldn’t know a good book if’n a polecat come up and bit ’em on their high horses.

Snobs or not, any thoughts are welcome. Help me out here.

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