Peeve of the Day
I don’t like novels or short stories where the author deliberately withholds stuff from the reader.
I’m not talking about mysteries, where part of the fun is in the puzzle and in the timing of the revelations; also, part of the thematic point of most mystery novels — even more than questions of innocence and guilt and justice — is the revelation of truth. I’m talking about stories where there is something significant about one of the characters, or about some aspect of the general milieu of the story, or about the resolution, that the author clearly knows but doesn’t choose to tell, instead toying with the reveal like a fan dancer in the burlesque.
Stories where the gender of the main character or first person narrator is kept hidden — especially if it’s revealed, gotcha!-fashion, at the end — are a particular irritant as far as I’m concerned. This, I will admit, is mostly a matter of personal taste, since I have known discriminating readers for whom such stories were like catnip to a Siamese. And it’s not even an absolute thing with me; I’m quite fond of the mystery novels of the late Sarah Caudwell, who never did reveal the gender of their first-person narrator, Professor Hilary Tamar. (I always pictured Professor Tamar as looking rather like an anthropomorphic sheep as drawn by Sir John Tenniel for a missing scene from Alice in Wonderland . . . in the absence of data, the human mind does strange things.) But Caudwell is a case of good writing plus good story trumping almost everything else; but a story that isn’t top-notch in both those areas is going to lose me before it goes very far.
Almost as irritating, where I’m concerned, are stories where the resolution is left open, in “The Lady or the Tiger” fashion, especially when the story seems to be offering the reader a deliberate ambiguity in order to establish some sort of literary street cred. Again, some people find endings like that to be right down their alley; I’m just not one of them. Instead, such endings make me cranky and resentful, because I always suspect in my heart that the author knows the true ending and is deliberately holding out on me — I think it’s because, as a writer, I can’t imagine not knowing the true ending of something I’ve written.
The moral of the story, if there is one: Don’t ever be accidentally ambiguous. If you’re going to do it, do it on purpose, in the full awareness that you’re probably going to lose some of your audience that way, and in the firm belief that whatever you’re trying to do or say with your story is worth the risk.