The Fault in our Chars

I had reason to recall this morning The Strand’s interview with Rex Stout (which is itself very much worth a read) and noticed an interesting interchange I wanted to comment on:

McALEER: Did Archie hang up the picture of Sherlock Holmes that is found over his desk, or did Wolfe put it there?

STOUT: Did I say that at one point? I was a damn fool to do it. Obviously it is always an artistic fault in any fiction to mention any other character in fiction. It should never be done.

First, that’s one of the most insightful questions I’ve ever seen asked in an interview, and I’m disappointed that he ducked it. Second, Stout’s response: That is quite a strong way to put it!

As it happens, I did it three or four times in Claudius Rex, in several different ways. First and most obviously, there is the Jeeves Series of Artificial Personal Assistants, of which version 5 comes in for some unfair criticism. But there are also references to Sherlock Holmes, and a number of oblique references to Stout’s work. On reflection, I disagree with Mr. Stout, not only out of self-defense. I think he was wrong.

First, I want to take a step back. There are two ways to make mention, in a work of fiction, to other characters in fiction. First is the way I had done (and as Stout had done), which is to recognize them as literary figures. Somewhere in Nero Wolfe’s study you may imagine a leatherbound copy of A Study in Scarlet. At some point after all the hullaballoo, Andy Baldwin hopes to get back to reading Fer-de-Lance. In other words, acknowledge that your world does not deviate so far from the real world as to remove those literary works.

The other way is the cameo, where mention of a fictional character is made in such a way that implies or makes explicit that in this world that character is or was a real person. That portrait of Sherlock Holmes (which I interpret as the bibliophile Wolfe’s homage to a fine body of fiction to which he may have a particular attachment) has spawned a number of theories that Wolfe himself is descended from the Great Detective, for example. For that matter, Holmes is a prime target for this sort of cameo because of the framing device of Watson’s publishing his stories, and Doyle’s occasional in-story mention of them. 

The latter method holds more dangers, I suspect. (I’m setting aside the question of the advisability here, and just looking at the effect.) In general, I would not do it in a long piece, especially of speculative fiction. It’s hard enough work to build a world’s rules and keep them self-consistent. Importing a character from another work, however obliquely, risks importing a few rules as well. For the most part, that’s not a big deal — when Kowal’s Glamourist Histories have subtle Dr. Who cameos, for example, that just adds pleasure for the reader who noticed, it doesn’t damage the story. But if I were to, say, have a brief appearance by a character who is obviously Superman (even if not named) in a story with some kind of public disaster, I run the risk of a reader expecting that Superman character to play a role, and being disappointed or confused when that doesn’t happen. Or, if in a science fiction story I describe a passing ship with a long body, two external nacelles and a saucer mounted on the front, people might chuckle about the obvious Enterprise cameo… but they’ve also been subtly primed to expect, say, transporters. Or even just introducing genre confusion, like by having a cameo from a fantasy series in a science fiction or non-speculative story. Readers are in some ways like infants: clue-gathering machines learning at an astonishing rate how they should expect the world to work.

Oddly enough, there’s a variant on this that I’ve seen a lot, where the author him- or herself makes the appearance. I don’t see it as often anymore, even in time travel stories, with one exception: HP Lovecraft. With the case of Lovecraft, this is often a specific way to imply that his story rules apply to that universe. Which, if you think of it, makes absolutely no sense. At least, I think it makes no sense. Shouldn’t the opposite be the case, that his presence indicates that in this world his creations are fiction? If George Lucas appeared, you would expect any lightsabers to be props, right? So if you see HP Lovecraft, then you are clearly safe from Cthulhu. (There’s your safety tip for the day)

Anyway, back to the former method. I disagree with Rex Stout that it’s inherently an artistic fault to mention other fictional characters in a work of fiction. Our culture is in large part a product of our fiction, particularly if you’re writing about technical fields. If your character uses a flip phone, you’ve kind of made a Star Trek reference whether you want to or not. The worry about readers confusing what’s real in a world from what’s fictional is genuine, but it’s possible to outright swim in references to other character without once making your readers wonder whether those characters are real in your world (see Michael Underwood’s Geekomancy series). Even without that, references to fictional characters like Yoda or Sam Spade or Iago are just as much a way of grounding the world and characterizing its people as are references to sports teams or city landmarks.

At the same time, I do feel that there is a nebulous danger there, and I’m still probing a bit at why. In Claudius Rex, again, I made explicit references to Rex Stout’s books (and strongly implied that at least one character was familiar with them)… but I shied away from making references to Robert B. Parker’s books, even though they also were an influence on that story. That was a gut reaction that I haven’t entirely dissected yet, but which I think was the right decision. Partly my feeling is that they’re too recent — The Godwulf Manuscript (the first Spenser novel) came out only two years before A Family Affair (the last Wolfe novel) — and that recent fiction somehow has more of a new car smell to it? Maybe recent fiction is like recent politics in how it throws readers out of a story. The more I think of it, though, the more I think that for a novella set in Boston, any reference to a Spenser novel risks spilling over into cameo territory just because in those novels the city of Boston is a strong character. They are about Boston as much as they are about Spenser and Susan and Hawk. I therefore invoke Parker’s characterization of the city at my own risk, lest it clash with mine.

Maybe that gets back to Stout’s original point. Perhaps he was overbroad in his terminology out of embarrassment at having made a mistake, and meant only that it was a fault to refer to Sherlock Holmes in a Wolfe novel. If that was the point, then I can see it: it is an unsubtle way of telling the reader to whom they should compare Nero Wolfe. Sherlock Holmes was one idea of a genius; Nero Wolfe is another — and those ideas clash in ways that Stout didn’t seem interested in exploring. Like everything in fiction, though, there is a tradeoff. If only we knew whether Wolfe or Archie hung that portrait, that would have been a small price to pay…

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