I didn’t really get tone until college. What is the author’s attitude, they’d ask us on tests. How the fuck should I know? Why can’t we just read it and have our own attitudes?
But I get it now. It’s not much of a conversation if our reading experience is limited to our own response without any consideration of the writer’s perspective. In a similar way, as an adolescent I had a limited understanding of theme. What they — the nefarious posers of literary questions — really meant for us to discover was: What is the story about — what are its themes? But I found this a ridiculous proposition. It took an entire book to tell the story and now you want me to reduce it to battle cries in four sentences? Harry Potter is about the humanist assertion that brutality and fear tactics have a shelf life and ultimately the hope of civilization is the united belief in kindness, bravery and curiosity. There should always be the opportunity for redemption. We are bound, one to another, in unexpected ways. Also, wizards.
My problem, obviously, as an earnest student, was a belief that there could be one correct answer. When in fact what I was being asked was how does the story work? How does it work? In these 700 pages, what did you absorb, what does it mean, and is it what the author intended you to experience? Jack Gilbert calls this the engine. What is the engine? How does the story run?
We like to say that what the writer intended has little to do with it. All that matters is the way the reader experiences the work. I suppose that’s true if the work fails. But tone is pivotal if the work succeeds. If we are moved, how are we moved and why? Did the writer get us where she meant to get us or was it something else entirely? If it works, does it work the way it was meant to work or does it work because we, the readers, stepped in and wrote back story and intentions that aren’t on the page? Did we help it work? Was it all there on the page but we resisted because we found the characters unappealing, the story stunted?
We matter, yes. The story doesn’t exist without the reader. But the story doesn’t exist without the writer either. It’s communal. It’s a conversation in one of those houses filled with Pinter-styled pregnant pauses. There’s a lag in your ability to speak back to the writer, the way there’s a lag in the writer’s ability to bring the story into the world. First, all things exist in our heads. Then they are made real. Paper and type. A story from a rib.