Adapted from some ramblings of mine on Twitter.

I recently came across the essay “Let Me Tell You,” by author Cecilia Tan. It’s a response to the old writing dictum “show, don’t tell,” and in the process of arguing against it (specifically in the SF/Fantasy genres), the essay also takes a shot at the myth of “universality” that underlies the dictums of writing “quality” (read: literary) fiction.

I highly recommend the essay to you. But in addition to what it says to writers/readers of SF/Fantasy, it crystallized some other thoughts of my own – a reader, not a writer, and not generally an SF/Fantasy reader either – about the obligations of the reader.


Clumsy exposition (“as you know…”) is one of my pet peeves. And I’ve noticed that I sometimes prefer reading works from an X writer to those of an X-American or otherwise hyphenated writer (X-British, X-Canadian, etc.), and this is kinda why: X-Americans often feel an obligation to write to “Americans”. That is, they feel the need to explain bits of X culture or history to the mainstream “American” reader.  X writers write only to X-ians.

A Filipinx author can leave the fraught relationship/history between the Philippines and US unsaid, even when that relationship is central to their themes or to their characters, because readers in the Philippines know. But not all Americans do, so a Fil-American author might feel the need to somehow work a little history lesson into their narrative.

But is it always necessary?

From Cecilia Tan’s essay:

Look at the literary fiction techniques that are supposedly the hallmarks of good writing: nearly all of them rely not on what was said, but on what is left unsaid. Always come at things sideways; don’t be too direct, too pat, or too slick. Lead the reader in a direction but allow them to come to the conclusion. Ask the question but don’t state the answer too baldly. Leave things open to interpretation… but not too open, of course, or you have chaos. Make allusions and references to the works of the literary canon, the Bible, and familiar events of history to add a layer of evocation—but don’t make it too obvious or you’re copycatting.

In other words “good literature” makes you read between the lines, to understand things that aren’t on the page. You get that for free, when you read a work that wasn’t written for you.


Moving from books to film: one of the things I liked best about my favorite Fil-American movie, The Debut, is that it feels addressed to Filipinxs/Fil-Ams, and no one else. A joke about “chocolate meat” goes unexplained. A fairly long dramatic scene between a character and his aristocratic father is entirely in Pilipino – no subtitles, no dropping into English at key moments.

As a Filipina-American, I am part of the audience the director and writers address. But I asked my white, non-Pilipino-understanding, husband what he thought of the movie. He got the “chocolate meat” joke, of course. But the scene in Pilipino bothered him not at all: “You didn’t need language to get what was going on.” The scene was well staged, the actors emoted well, the context was enough.

Similarly, I can enjoy Kung Fu Hustle without knowing a lot about Chinese culture/history or Kung Fu cinema, or the fiction of Amos Tutuola without knowing a lot about Nigerian history/culture. Do I lose something for not knowing? Yeah, of course. But, you know, I can try to learn about what confused or puzzled me, afterwards. And then the next time I watch a Stephen Chow film, or read Tutuola, I get more out of it.

SF/Fantasy worldbuilding is different, since the culture, and possibly physics, discussed don’t exist in our mundane world. But a similar concept applies: if you don’t want the author to HIT YOU OVER THE HEAD with how their universe works (and I don’t), then you have to do some of the work. What can you get from context? What aspect of our mundane world do you suspect this author is reacting to/against, if any?

I would like writers to simply write the story that they want to tell, without constantly explaining themselves, because I think sometimes those explanations can spoil their work. It’s an extra step imposed on hyphenated or SF/Fantasy writers that mainstream writers don’t have. But for writers in these areas to break free from the need to explain everything, they need readers who don’t always insist on explicit explanation.

Basically, I’m trying to say: (1) be the reader that your favorite writers deserve, and (2) reading outside your culture helps you be that reader.


Reading in the Garden, Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky (1915). Source: WikiArt

The Debut DVD cover. Source: Wikipedia

5 thoughts on “On the Obligations of the Reader

  1. Nina, I enjoyed your thought-provoking post about writers and readers, and reblogged it. Like you, I love to be immersed in a world or culture and figure things out on my own. I’m also a fan of allusions. Love the image, too!

  2. A provocative essay, Nina. I’m on the fence here. In talking to enough people of different ages — not even different cultural background — I’ve discovered that the level of common knowledge of the world is limited. Ancient history to many is what happened two weeks ago. Much depends as a writer on who you believe is reading you. I suppose, after writing for a while in the same space, those who enjoy our stuff are self-selected. If we give background they are OK and if we don’t they are OK, at least if one or the other is what they’ve become accustomed to.

    1. I guess my attitude is that one can’t be all things to all people, and I don’t like talking down to people, nor do I want them to feel obligated to talk down to me. Yes, some people will not like literature where too much is left unexplained, or that they (the reader) don’t immediately “get,” but I want to leave room for writers who don’t overdo the exposition, because I prefer that sort of writing. So I feel like I should advocate for people with reading preferences like mine, so that writers — and publishers — know that we are still out here.

      And the same goes for international writing, or even “older” writing from the American canon (whatever that is). If publishers believe that American readers don’t read works in translation, or older works (or watch movies with subtitles, or….), then we don’t get them. I read somewhere that Anglophones (and I suspect, particularly Americans) read fewer authors in translation than the rest of the world — so they read all that we write, plus all that everyone else writes, and we read only ourselves. And then we wonder why the rest of the world makes fun of us for being so ignorant about everything.

      In the age of Google, it’s not so hard to learn at least a little bit about a reference that you didn’t understand about a text or a film. You just need to be willing to do it.

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