The other day, I was reading Raymond Chandler’s classic mystery The Little Sister, when it occurred to me the degree of freedom writers of realistic genres enjoy over writers of fantasy, horror, and science fiction.
“How so?” you might ask. Speculative fiction requires the writer to adhere to strict literalism, because the reader might misinterpret any clever, poetic, or metaphorical description as something that is really going on.
My example, from the aforementioned novel, involves private detective Philip Marlowe watching from across the street as a funeral procession organizes itself for the journey to the cemetery.
The amateur pallbearers carried the coffin out the side door and professionals eased the weight from them and slid it into the back of the hearse as smoothly as if it had no more weight than a pan of butter rolls. Flowers began to grow into a mound over it. The glass doors were closed and motors started all over the block.
The key sentence is: “Flowers began to grow into a mound over it.” In realistic fiction, like a detective novel, the reader knows that this is simply a way of describing how the flowers were placed atop the coffin without explicitly mentioning the people doing it. It gives the writer liberty to focus on the dead, and not distract from that focus with character action. The writer is free to use clever language to create a poetic or symbolic effect.
In fantasy fiction, however, the reader might assume that the flowers are growing magically from the lid of the coffin, perhaps as a sign of the deceased’s great sorcery, or to express the sorrow of the world, or as a spell used by the undertaker to please his customers. In horror, the flowers might grow spontaneously to foreshadow the return of the deceased from the grave—particularly if the flowers are black and crimson, and covered in wicked thorns. In science fiction, the reader might wonder whether the flowers are some sort of biotech trickery, or a hologram, or an robotic decoration organizing itself at the nano-level.
It is a bit ironic, really, since we often consider speculative fiction writers to be more free in how they construct their world, its rules, and deviations from our own reality. But, this freedom comes with a responsibility to the reader to depict that world in an understandable and accessible way, and this responsibility places very strict constraints on the poetry of the language, constraints which only the most talented of writers should press and violate.