Right now I’m reading a book by Bruce Sterling called The Caryatids. As usual it is especially interesting for the wealth of unique ideas Sterling has about the types and uses of technology that we might have in the near future, and how that might affect the way people live. For me, that’s one of Sterling’s biggest strengths as a writer; he seems to have an inexhaustible store of really ingenious ideas about where human society might be in the near future. A lot of them are quite plausible. Often, that’s alarming.

The particular idea that helped spawn today’s blog comes from the beginning of the book, where one of the main characters belongs to a sort of eco-collective, in which (among many other things) everyone is constantly having their brains scanned, and the results of this are available to everyone else in the collective. As a result, everyone who belongs to the community can see, 24/7 if they want to, the real emotional state of any (and I guess every) other member. If they’re sad, it shows up on the scan. If they’re happy, it shows on the scan. If they’re in love, it shows on the scan.

To say it’s an interesting idea underpitches it by a lot. The implications of living like that are of course immense. Right away, such a community would be a far more honest place to live than anything we currently experience; in fact it’s hard to imagine how you could be anything other than honest under those circumstances. Any time you said one thing, but were thinking or feeling another, everyone would be able to tell anyway. A society without deception and lies probably sounds pretty good.

But if you think a little more, it becomes a lot more complicated, in a hurry. There’s lots of times we don’t say exactly what we’re thinking, or hide what we’re feeling, for reasons that are often pretty legitimate. When you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. If you’re dealing with a useless bureaucrat, but you’re still hoping they might be able to help you in the end. Those times when someone is annoying you, but you know you’re being unreasonable, and it isn’t their fault. We’re not always in control of our emotions, and they can go places we don’t want them to. Most of the time we kind of get that under control and do what we need to do. But what if everyone could tell, and (inevitably, it seems to me) reacted to your ‘gut reactions’?

There would be no subtext in such a society. It would be very different, and at times, very uncomfortable. I can legitimately believe that some people would choose to use technology in such a way, and I can also understand seeing it as horrifying. Some people dislike subtext in life, and don’t handle it very well. Other people depend on it.

That was very much in my mind when I was having a writing talk with a friend over the weekend, and we got to talking about subtext in fiction, and how much of it is a good thing. Some writers are awfully good at having their characters say and do things, but making it clear that there are layers of meaning underneath that, hinting at things that aren’t actually on the page. With other writers, you just get what you get.

At the same time, some readers are better at picking up on subtexts in writing than others. Some people’s reading minds will instantly dig down into prose and try to mine it for those hidden layers of meaning. Others will stay on the surface, and these readers may get frustrated by what seems to them to be very sparse writing and content. Some readers like a puzzle to solve – figuring out what a character may really mean – and others want things laid out for them. I suspect most people want different experiences at different times, depending on their mood and expectations from a piece.

I guess this got me to thinking about my own writing; I’m not sure how good I am at it, but there is an intention that there’s a certain amount of subtext there. Hopefully not so much that the meaning is opaque, but hopefully enough to introduce a little subtlety in the work. Personally, I find writing where literally everything is laid out for you to be a bit of a blunt instrument and usually wish the author would let me figure some things out on my own. I do recognize that’s a personal taste than lots of people don’t share, though. Writers have a tough call, I think, as to which level of taste to try to appeal to. Probably lots of writers don’t even think about it – they just write what they write – but I guess it’s a consideration that will always affect how many people may like a piece of work.

This brings up another question that I continue to kick around. To what extent, when you sit down to write, should you just do what you do and let it appeal to whoever it appeals to, and to what extent should you try to set things up to appeal to as many people as possible? Is it a good idea to try to find that Ideal Subtext Level to please as many readers as you can, in (sort of, I guess) the same way a band would mess around with the sound mix to sound good to as much of the audience as possible? Should you do the same with amounts of dialogue, use of metaphor, and even something like pacing? Some people love a fast paced story. Others really enjoy a plot that gradually plays itself out. Is there some kind of Three Bears-like best solution for all these issues that we should be in search of, as artists?

There’s a reasonable amount of no doubt well meaning people out there who say yes, and it isn’t hard to find those who say no, as well. I’m far from sure that I have the right answer to this, and I continue to think about it. I do know that most of the time, when I have tried to change my voice in my writing, it has come off sounding awfully fake and generally bad and I’ve abandoned it fairly quickly. When I try to do other than what comes naturally, it always rings hollow and has a crappy stink on it, to me. So I think my readers, patient souls that they must be, just kind of get what they get. I don’t pretend that’s the Right answer; it may be that I should be trying harder to accommodate as wide an audience as possible.

But, all subtext aside, that’s not what I’m doing right now. We’ll see how it goes from here. That’s also probably more than enough of a meander out of me for today. Thanks for reading.


I had a great time at the CON craft fair last weekend at my first Renaissance Press event; I met some awesome people, talked about books and stuff, and drank arguably too much coffee. It was so fun that I’m very glad that it isn’t too long a wait until the next one – Renaissance will be at the Ottawa Geek Market and Capital Gaming Expo on October 3rd and 4th.

The Renaissance table will be there all weekend, with the full range of their titles available (including mine!). I will be hanging out there all day Sunday (the 4th) if you want to come and say hi. The whole event looks like it will be amazing so if you are into things in the SFF/gaming constellation you should definitely check it out. I’m already looking forward to it.

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2 thoughts on “Subtext

  1. elvishefer says:

    Sounds like some business vs. Art subtext at play!

    • emaymustgo says:

      You may well be right, although there are (I think) lots of very successful writers who seem to just write what they want to write. I suppose that could be confirmation bias, but I also wonder how much of this (on my part) is a confidence issue – needing to be confident that my writing will find an audience.

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