Suspend Your Disbelief

Making Room for the Reader: Lessons from The Magus
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Making Room for the Reader: Lessons from The Magus

Entering a piece of writing in a collaborative way is at the heart of what Fowles called the “I-thou” theory: no matter how many times a book is read, it is fundamentally a relationship—an encounter—between just two people.

Editor’s Note: For the first several months of 2022, we’ll be celebrating some of our favorite work from the last fourteen years in a series of “From the Archives” posts.

In today’s feature, Jeremiah Chamberlin reflects on leaving out as a way of welcoming the reader in. This essay was originally published on October 5, 2008.

This spring, when my classes were over and I’d finally finished grading student papers, I vowed (once again) to spend the summer broadening my range and depth as a reader. For someone who teaches writing and literature, I’ve always felt woefully unread in the classics. This is no great confession, of course; every writer has sins of omission. Still, whenever I find myself facing a list like The Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, let alone a book like 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, my literary score sheet rates remarkably low. To borrow a few lines from Frost, there are “miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

Ironically, one of the greatest reasons for my lack of reading breadth has come from the fact that for a number of years after college I worked at, and eventually managed, an independent bookstore. Each season I eagerly pored over the catalogs from the publishers’ sales reps to see what was on the horizon, and I read an endless number of advance copies of soon-to-be-published novels and short story collections. I did so partly because it’s hard to turn down free books, partly because I enjoyed being able to talk with customers about what was coming out, and partly because I was the one introducing many of the authors when they visited the store to give readings. But mostly I immersed myself in new fiction because I simply loved it. It was so…new! And, for a young writer-to-be, seemed so relevant. Even necessary.

In particular, I loved that sense of discovery. Of hearing a voice untouched by critical praise or damnation, without the baggage of biases from previous work or other readers’ opinions. Even better was stumbling onto a wondrous new book while it was still in galley form, before the blurbs or the jacket copy or the cover art had been attached; before the ad copy was in the catalogs. It was like finding yourself in a movie theater watching one of the best films you’d ever seen but not having known a single thing about it prior to sitting down—nothing about the plot, no trailers, no recommendations from friends, not even actors you’ve ever seen before. Nothing. Just that pure unfolding.

This was how I encountered Tom Franklin’s work, say. Sitting down to lunch one afternoon, I sorted through a box of new material from William Morrow that had arrived earlier that day, looking for something to read while I ate. There, at the bottom, was a slim volume the size of a poetry chapbook. As far as I could tell, it was a poetry chapbook. The thing was bound with heavy, brown construction paper like the kind you’d use for a junior-high art project. Across the cover, written in inch-high letters with what appeared to be white out, was a single word: Poachers. What was this thing? I discovered it contained the title story of Franklin’s forthcoming collection, sent as a promotional sampler to booksellers before the book’s release. And in dramatic contrast to its plain cover, what I found on the page was one of the richest, coarsest, yet most tender voices I had read in years, one that rendered the southern landscape so fecund and frightening it seemed as though the characters had, quite literally, been birthed by the very place somehow.

It was with this same shock of newness and unawareness that I recently encountered The Magus by John Fowles.Though, of course, it should have been anything but—the book was originally published in 1965, has literally sold millions of copies, and in 1968 was made into a notoriously bad movie. As a writer Fowles has been widely reviewed, interviewed, and studied; an arm’s length of criticism fills a shelf in our university library. Fowles himself once said he felt his work was “overstudied,” and on numerous occasions expressed has distaste for much of this type of discourse, labeling the “campus industry” of academic activity “incredibly wasteful and jargon-ridden.” Rather, he believed that all criticism of art and literature should be self-learning, once saying in an interview, “I would really rather read the silliest paper about me, which at least shows self-thought and gives personal reactions, than the cleverest paper full of all the current theories and the right jargon. For me, good criticism must induce a felling of greater knowledge of himself or herself in the reader.”

This notion of entering a piece of writing in a collaborative way, one that is less a critical dissection and more an analysis of the self’s engagement with the work, is also at the heart of what Fowles called the “I-thou” theory about writing: that no matter how many times a book is read, it is fundamentally a relationship—an encounter—between just two people. And that the problem with many writers, he felt, was that they imagined themselves writing for an audience of thousands, rather than one. This is not to say that the reader should necessarily be a specific person. Instead, Fowles likened his ideal reader to Eliot’s notion of “a compound, familiar ghost.” The key is the intimacy created between reader and writer, which, again, returns to his idea of collaboration.

But I did not know any of this when I plucked The Magus from my shelf in May. All I knew of Fowles and his work at the time was that he’d written The French Lieutenant’s Woman (not that I’d read it). No one had ever recommended The Magus to me, nor had I any inkling about its plot. Rather, I chose it because of its appearance on several of those aforementioned lists of classics (which was no doubt the reason it had found its way to my bookcase in the first place). And at nearly 700 pages, this seemed a good one to settle into after having just finished Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke.

Though perhaps “settle into” is the wrong phrase. Despite its length, The Magus moves rather quickly. I soon found myself hundreds of pages into the text, more engaged by a book than I had been in a very long time. Although when I say “more engaged,” I don’t mean qualitatively. I’m not trying to say this was the “best” book I’d read in years (though it might fall into that category, as well). Instead, what I mean is that the process felt participatory.

Partly this has to do with the nature of this novel itself; any “thriller”—this one psychological and literary, rather than criminal—will naturally involve the reader in the sleuthing process. The story here centers around a young British man, Nicholas Urfe, who takes a teaching job on a small Greek island after graduating from Oxford in the mid-1950s. There, he meets an erudite, reclusive millionaire with interests in art, psychiatry, theatre, and perhaps the supernatural. As their relationship develops, Nicholas’s sense of self and reality become increasingly challenged. And perhaps one of Fowles’s greatest gifts as a writer is his ability to build (and maintain) this psychological and narrative tension over such a long book. He does so, in large part, by a process of revealing. Specifically, what is revealed is an ever-increasing range of possibility and complexity to account for what is taking place, rather than presenting the reader with “clues” that will lead to a particular, finite conclusion. So that we, like Nicholas, are constantly forced to assess and reassess our understanding of the world. Like practitioners of the scientific method we probe, hypothesize, re-probe, and re-think. Yet what is trying to be uncovered is not a “who-done-it”—there are no murders or dead bodies here—but rather larger questions of human action, existence, and desire.

Fowles’ narrative is ultimately more concerned with the pursuit of self-knowledge as a practice or ideal than with whether Nicholas and the reader will “solve” what is going on—more concerned with the how than the why. Considering the author’s deep interest in existentialism at the time, this focus makes sense both structurally and thematically. And it certainly dovetails nicely with his idea of an intimate, collaborative relationship with the reader. Fowles has often described The Magus as a type of Rorschach test, saying that it was meant to “set questions rather than give answers.” This type of remark could easily come across as either clever or evasive, the response of someone who pretends intentionality when, in fact, he has no idea at all what he was trying to achieve. But in in this instance there is meaning behind his decision: rather than pronouncing a verdict, it allows the reader to more deeply internalize the novel’s central questions. It feels humble. Searching.

Again, when I began reading The Magus I knew none of this. And because the more suspenseful, psychological, and philosophical qualities of the novel don’t truly emerge until nearly 100 pages into the text, what was pulling me through the story was something else: the voice. Sharp. Crisp. Clear. So new! For the first time since my bookstore days, I felt I’d stumbled into uncharted territory. Yes, yes, you say. A voice from the past always sounds new to the person who’s just discovered it. This is why teenagers still flock to J.D. Salinger, why Ayn Rand stays in print. Their language and ideas seem original because they ARE to the reader.

But for me, Fowles wasn’t new simply because I hadn’t read him before; he felt like a glimpse of the future more than the past—specifically, a glimpse of possibility. Not as an antidote for contemporary fiction (for it’s neither sick nor dying, let alone dead, thank you very much), but as an alternative. The openness in his language, the freedom in his style, felt so fresh and unique. On the one hand it was spare, yet didn’t feel self-aware of its sparseness; it wasn’t stripped down purely for effect. On the other hand, there were beautiful, lengthy descriptive passages of the Mediterranean landscape and of the interiors of rooms, yet never for mere ornamentation.

Well, you say. Of course. That’s just good writing—no unnecessary language in either case.

It seemed to me there was something more at work here than mere craftsmanship. However, before I go any further, please let me say that I’m not trying to draw scholarly conclusions about Fowles’s writing in general from this one text. I’ve been informed by reliable sources that the style and language in his novels vary greatly from one to the next. As such, I don’t wish to imply that the writing in The Magus is necessarily representative of its author’s aesthetic as, say, one might claim Hemingway’s prose was. Rather, the style seems particularly well chosen for this narrator. In many ways it creates the narrator. This is, after all, a first-person story, and the lack of self-awareness in the language, the lack of reflection at times, is no doubt intended to mirror Nicholas’s own lack of self-awareness.

Yet perhaps because this stylistic choice made the contrast even more pronounced, what I became increasingly struck by as I continued reading The Magus was how self-conscious most contemporary fiction has become. Even those first-person narrators who, like Fowles’s Nicholas, are intended to be out of touch with themselves still amass and internalize details, cataloguing each thought, emotion, and response to the world to such an extent that there is no intellectual or emotional—let alone imaginative—space left for the reader in the text. What I found in Fowles, what felt so “new” to me, was this: breathing room.

For example, in the very beginning of the novel, when Nicholas meets Alison for the first time, she has just returned to her flat in London (which happens to be in the same building as the flat he’s recently rented) to discover that her roommate is throwing a party. Exhausted from travel and needing a bath, she discovers that their tub is unavailable—it’s being used to chill the beer. So Nicholas offers her his to use, upstairs.

Considering that this chapter begins a few pages earlier with the line “I suppose I’d had, by the standards of that pre-permissive time, a good deal of sex for my age,” and then continues by chronicling his “technique” at picking up and subsequently dropping his “conquests,” it’s almost startling how little we are in his head, how little the scene is crafted, how few of his perceptions we have access to, when Alison comes upstairs:

“Oh Jesus,” she said. “Australians.”
“Where’ve you been?”
“All over. France. Spain.”
We went into the flat.
“I’ll just clean the spiders out of the bath. Have a drink. Over there.”
When I came back, she was standing with a glass of scotch in her hand.

It is this moment, that briefest of interludes between Nicholas going into the bathroom to get it ready for her and coming back out, that seemed absolutely revolutionary to me about Fowles’s writing: the fact that he didn’t describe it. In fact, I had so anticipated an interior monologue, an assessing of the situation and this young woman, or, at the very least, a few scenic details about what a bathroom in a small, London flat looked like, that when I encountered the subsequent line and discovered he had already returned to the room, I quite literally had to stop and reread the passage. I thought I’d glazed over and missed a scene.

This might seem an over-weighted example. For many writers, the stylistic choice here would hardly warrant a shrug, let alone a stir. And certainly most would not, I am guessing, label it “revolutionary.” But for a writer like myself who was raised on—and subsequently modeled his own work after—that particular breed of fiction being written in the 1980s and 90s, crafted by writers who mirrored the interior landscapes of their characters in the external world, and whose narratives focused less on action and more on gesture, this moment was a revelation. Because even though interiority was often absent from the narration in these types of stories (as it is here), and even though much of it was characterized stylistically as “spare” (as this passage might be described), the emotional atmosphere and undercurrents of feeling were still present. They were simply sublimated and transferred elsewhere, typically to the physical details of the story. Objects, in particular, would take on great weight and meaning, capturing, or standing in for, the interior struggles or interpretations of the characters. However, it was never a question of what those things stood for or how we were supposed to feel; as readers we were still unequivocally being guided by the writer’s careful hand. But this left us little more than passive witnesses, often observing the story from what felt like a great distance. Or silently, as if these characters lived in a natural history diorama behind glass.

Then it seemed the pendulum swung the opposite direction and this style gave way to a type of writing that luxuriated in the interior, whose characters noted, noticed, and interpreted everything. Instead of the characters’ emotional landscape being projected onto objects, objects now reflected characterization and culture back. But there was still little room for the reader to step into these worlds, ironically because they were so overpopulated and dominated by details. If before we had been watching a minimalist theater production, it was now as if the props had taken over the stage, spilling out into the aisles, displacing the audience from their seats.

Yet despite their seemingly vast differences, both types of writing exhibit the same fundamental trait: a kind of micromanaging. One that is so specific in how it wants the audience to see and take meaning that it forgets the reader’s involvement. Specifically, the imaginative role the reader plays in bringing the work to life, imagining it, again and again, into being.

Granted, these examples might apply more specifically to trends in short fiction than to novels. But with apologies for these huge generalizations about style, what I am trying to say is this: until I read The Magus, I had not realized how rich the reading experience could be between reader and writer by making it more collaborative. In short, by allowing the reader—or, perhaps more accurately, by trusting the reader—to fill in some of those gaps and spaces, whether physical details, sensory ones, or even emotional connections. I think I had always been so concerned with how my vision would come across that I left nothing to chance. And I’ve found that with regards to my own work it often leads to the type of writing that is so highly polished, so “crafted,” that it ends up sterile.

Along these lines Fowles once likened writing to plant growing, as opposed to clock making. I find this a fitting distinction. Not just in terms of allowing the creative process to be more about nurturing and less about “fitting machinery together,” but with regards to the end result as well: one can be impressed by the precision of the crafted object, but there is little in the experience beyond, say, recognizing the thing’s intricacy. It is a kind of beauty, yes. But not God-awe, as we find in nature. And what ends up being truly admired, frankly, is often not so much the thing itself, but how it reflects the skill of its creator.

Still, what probably would have been most important in this analogy to Fowles was the idea that the clock-making model leaves nothing to chance during the writing process. To mystery. He was the type of writer who wrote from one line to the next, probing his way through the narrative, never knowing what the ending of a novel would be until he had arrived there. Even then, he is famous for ambiguous endings, or double endings in his books. But, as I said earlier, I do not believe that this was out of a lack of conviction. Or lacking in purpose. Rather, it seems an exemplification of his same philosophy that advocates a more collaborative role for the reader. In a 1979 interview for the Christian Science Monitor he said, “You have to leave a space for the reader’s feelings to meet yours. Half the art of the novel is leaving out—what you don’t say, or explain, or make clear.” Then, in a 1984 interview published in Modern Fiction Studies, he was even more explicit: “Leaving out is a major part of the skill of a writer—that is, persuading readers to supply what is not said. This applies all the way down the line, from major ideas to minor descriptions of characters.”

Embracing this type of philosophy is a bit terrifying, of course. So much seems left to chance. Though it should be noted here that despite Fowles’s belief in the intuited, the inspired, the muse-driven, he was still a meticulous craftsman, putting each of his manuscripts through many drafts (so much so, in fact, that he felt compelled to revise and re-publish The Magus in 1977, which is the edition of the book I read). And even this concept of “leaving out” he describes as a skill, implying it is a technique that can be learned.

The trick, then, seems to be executing the shaping process with a light enough touch that it still leaves what was wild and mysterious and inexplicable intact. Not finding it necessary to fill every silence, every gap. But, instead, learning to foster and develop restraint in your work. Though not simply for the sake of style, for mere economy, but for a greater purpose: the reader.

As a self-admitted polisher of sentences, reading Fowles has forced me to take a closer look at the person on the other side of the page. That individual for whom I have spent years practicing my trade with the hopes of one day impressing, yet who I had never thought of as a collaborator—let alone partner—in this process of creation before.

But why not? In hindsight, what Fowles advocates seems a bit of a no-brainer. Perhaps it is not surprising that we’ve overlooked the symbiotic relationship between reader and writer when considering the more static role of the audience with regards to other artistic mediums like music, theater, or dance. Especially as film has come to dominate as the medium for storytelling, what we find reflected back to us is a purely singular vision; one that, in many ways, cannot help but exclude the audience. At best we can observe and experience through extrapolation, or by empathy. But we bring nothing directly to the vision being created by the filmmaker.

Here, then, is where Fowles is revolutionary—or was at least forward thinking. He recognized early in his career that fiction’s most unassailable quality was perhaps also its most fundamental: the imaginative participation in the creation of the story itself that takes place each time a reader encounters a text. So he nurtured the collaborative process in his work. Not only as a means to help bring the work to life for a reader, but also to make the experience more personal, individual, and unique. I can think of no clearer example of his notion of the “I-Thou” relationship than this. And perhaps no greater intimacy between artist and audience than that of writer and reader bringing a book to life.

So to facilitate this process, to make the experience richer, why not “leave out” a bit more as Fowles suggests? Yes, it takes a truly confident artist to allow—let alone encourage—the reader to participate in the creative endeavor. But fostering this type of trust and intimacy seems more than worth the risk. The goal, after all, is self-learning. What I have learned: to make room for the reader, to welcome them in.

  • Tarbox, Katherine. “Interview with John Fowles.” From The Art of John Fowles (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1988). Collected in Conversations with John Fowles. Ed. Dianne L. Vipond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. 149-167.
  • Ibid.
  • Romano, Carlin. “A Conversation with John Fowles.” From Boulevard, 2 (Spring 1987). Collected in Conversations with John Fowles. Ed. Dianne L. Vipond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. 134-148.
  • Barnum, Carol M. “An Interview with John Fowles.” From Modern Fiction Studies, 31:1 (Spring, 1985). Collected in Conversations with John Fowles. Ed. Dianne L. Vipond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. 134-148.
  • Molony, Rowland. “John Fowles: The Magus.” From Dorset: The County Magazine (November 30, 1973). Collected in Conversations with John Fowles. Ed. Dianne L. Vipond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. 26-32.
  • Singh, Raman. “An Encounter with John Fowles.” From Journal of Modern Literature, 8:21 (1980-81). Collected in Conversations with John Fowles. Ed. Dianne L. Vipond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. 82-101.
  • McNamara, Devon. “Staying Green: An Interview with John Fowles the Novelist.” From the Christian Science Monitor, (February 1, 1979). Collected in Conversations with John Fowles. Ed. Dianne L. Vipond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. 65-81.
  • Barnum, Carol M. “An Interview with John Fowles.” From Modern Fiction Studies, 31:1 (Spring, 1985). Collected in Conversations with John Fowles. Ed. Dianne L. Vipond. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999. 134-148.

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