I recently got a letter from a reader who, after saying he liked my books, said he was going to ask what might seem a stupid question — one I need not answer, though he really longed to know the answer to it. It concerned the wizard Ged’s use-name Sparrowhawk. He asked, is this the New World sparrowhawk, Falco sparverius; or one of the Old World kestrels, also Falco, or their sparrowhawks, which are not Falco but Accipiter?
(Warning: You can get into something of a tangle with these birds. Many people use the words “sparrowhawk” and “kestrel” interchangeably, but kestrels, Eurasian or American, are all falcons, while not all sparrowhawks are kestrels, or vice versa. You see what I mean? I am only sorry we lost the beautiful British name windhover. But we have G.M. Hopkins’s poem.)
I immediately answered the letter as best I could. I said it seems to me it can’t be any of the above, because it’s not an Earth bird but an Earthsea bird, and Linnaeus did not go there with his can of names. But the bird I saw in my imagination when I was writing the book was definitely like our splendid little American sparverius, so maybe we could call it Falco parvulus terramarinus. (I didn’t think of “parvulus” (small) when I wrote the letter, but it should be there. A sparrowhawk is a quite small falcon. Ged was a scrappy boy, but short.)
After I’d answered the letter, I thought about how promptly and with what pleasure I’d done so. And I looked at the never-decreasing stack of letters waiting to be answered, and thought how much I wanted to put off answering them, because so many of them would be so difficult, some so impossible. . . Yet I very much wanted to answer them, because they were written by people who liked or at least were responding to my work, had questions about it, and took the trouble to tell me so, and thus deserve the trouble — and sometimes the pleasure — of an answer.
What makes so many letters-to-the-author hard to answer? What have the difficult ones in common? I have been thinking about it for some days. So far, I’ve come up with this:
They ask large, general questions, sometimes stemming from some branch of learning they know way, way more about than I do, such as philosophy or metaphysics or information theory.
Or they ask large, general questions about how Taoism, or feminism, or Jungian psychology, or information theory has influenced me — questions answerable in some cases only with a long PhD thesis, in others only with “Not much.”
Or else they ask large, general questions based on large, general misconceptions about how writers work — Such as: Where do you get your ideas from? What is the message of your book? Why did you write this book? Why do you write?
This last question (which is in fact highly metaphysical) is often asked by young readers. Some writers, even ones who don’t actually write for a living, answer it: “for money,” which certainly stops all further discussion, being the deadest of dead ends. My honest answer for it is “because I like to,” but that’s seldom what the questioner wants to hear, or what the teacher wants to find in the book review or the term paper. They want something meaningful.
Meaning — this is perhaps the common note — the bane I am seeking. What is the Meaning of this book, this event in the book, this story. . . Tell me what it Means.
But that’s not my job, honey. That’s your job.
I know, at least in part, what my story means to me. It may well mean something quite different to you. And what it meant to me when I wrote it in 1970 may be not at all what it meant to me in 1990 or means to me in 2011. What it meant to anybody in 1995 may be quite different from what it will mean in 2022. What it means in Oregon may be incomprehensible in Istanbul, yet in Istanbul it may have a meaning I could never have intended…
Meaning in art isn’t the same as meaning in science. The meaning of the second law of thermodynamics, so long as the words are understood, isn’t changed by who reads it, or when, or where. The meaning of Huckleberry Finn is.
Writing is a risky bidness. No guarantees. You have to take the chance. I’m happy to take it. I love taking it. So, my stuff gets misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted — so what? If it’s the real stuff it will survive almost any abuse other than being ignored, disappeared, not read.
“What it means,” to you, is what it means to you. If you have trouble deciding what, if anything, it means to you, I can see why you might want to ask me, but please don’t. Read reviewers, critics, bloggers, and scholars. They all write about what books mean to them, trying to explain a book, to achieve a valid common understanding of it useful to other readers. That’s their job, and some of them do it wonderfully well.
It’s a job I do as a reviewer, and I enjoy it. But my job as a fiction writer is to write fiction, not to review it.
Art isn’t explanation. Art is what an artist does, not what an artist explains. (Or so it seems to me, which is why I have a problem with the kind of modern museum art that involves reading what the artist says about a work in order to find out why one should look at it or “how to experience” it.)
I see a potter’s job as making a good pot — not as talking about how and where and why she made it and what she thinks it’s for and what other pots influenced it and what the pot means or how you should experience the pot. She can do that if she wants to, of course, but should she be expected to? Why?
I don’t expect her to, I don’t even want her to. All I expect of a good potter is to go and make another good pot.
A question such as the one about sparrowhawks — not large, not general, not metaphysical, and not personal — a question of detail, of fact (in the case of fiction, imaginary fact) — a limited, specific question about a particular work — is one most artists are willing to try to answer. And questions about technique, if limited and precise, can be intriguing for the artist to consider (“Why did you use a mercury glaze?” or “Why do you/don’t you write in the present tense?” for instance.)
Large, general questions about meaning, etc., can only be answered with generalities, which make me uncomfortable, because it is so hard to be honest when you generalize. If you skip over all the details how can you tell if you’re being honest or not?
But any question, if it is limited, specific, and precise, can be answered honestly — if only with “I honestly don’t know, I never thought about it, now I have to think about it, thank you for asking!”
I am grateful for questions like that. They keep me thinking.
Now back to Hopkins and “The Windhover” —
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
…..dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
…..Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there . . .
Ah, we could explain that, and talk about what it means, and why and how it does what it does, forever. And we will, I hope. But the poet, like the falcon, leaves that to us.
17 Oct 2011
City of the Plain, by Ursula K. Le Guin
A poem from The Wild Girls, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Play the Podcast of “City of the Plain.”
PM Press Outspoken Authors #06, May 1, 2011