Creative Writing: Mystery vs. Mystification
Many poets today seem to think that suppressing the narrative is a sophisticated move, making for an effect of mystery.
In American Lit nowadays, if you can create an air of transcendence, of awareness of another realm, it brings in extra critical points. The problem is, many writers do it through mere technical sleight of hand, by withholding information from the reader. This creates a sense of puzzlement as we’re reading, and when the story is cleared up, we shrug contentedly enough and say, “Okay, so that’s what it was all about.” But the facts the author withheld could just as easily have been given to us at the beginning. If so, where would the story have gone? The author wouldn’t have known where to take it because he didn’t actually have what his evasiveness implied he had: a vision going beyond the literal.
The word mystery has many meanings and I’m concerned with two of them here: 1) a profound truth beyond the reach of human reason; and 2) facts that are concealed from some people for a time.
When a writer or poet makes me feel that I am on the brink of contact with an inexpressible truth, that is what I call mystery in literature. When a writer makes me feel that he is withholding basic narrative facts as a substitute for unveiling truths, I call that fake mystery, or mystification.
Genuine mystery can only be achieved when the facts are laid bare. Only when the reader comprehends what is happening on the literal level can the possibility be raised for exploration of a higher level.
This, by the way, is why the mystery novel genre can rarely reach the height of art, even though it’s a lot of fun and often better–written than the “literary” novel. In a mystery novel the whole point is to prolong the reader’s mystification until the end, at which time the literal facts are revealed but nothing else is left.
Something that can also be done, on the technical level, is to leave out most of the detail but provide just enough grounding for the reader to feel the sensation—perhaps illusory, perhaps not—of a wide landscape opening up, waiting to be explored. I can write a 500–word story telling you just enough for you to imagine the areas of the picture I have not filled in. I can make you feel that even though I have only given you a glimpse, it is a glimpse of complex people who have full lives somewhere else.
On a higher level, though, a great writer can show all the facts in a blinding light and because of this, make you feel that you and the characters are stepping together onto a raised platform above the level of ordinary human living. In OEDIPUS AT COLONUS there are no literal facts left to be revealed. The whole mystery—in the mystery novel sense—was solved in OEDIPUS REX. In the sequel, there is just the immense, awe–inspiring mystery of how Oedipus in old age achieves blessedness and peace—and of how the ninety–year–old Sophocles knows how to write it.