The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions by Maud Casey

In Chekhov’s famous letter to a friend, he wrote, “You are right to demand that an author take conscious stock of what he is doing, but you are confusing two concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author.”

I have been looking forward to Maud Casey’s The Art of Mystery, because it sounds like it addresses something I like in the writing I admire, and something I hope to do myself. I have thought of it more as ambiguity, or subtlety, than mystery; but I think we’re talking about the same thing. As in that perfect Chekhov quotation above, it’s about posing interesting questions and exploring them, not about having all the answers. If we provide too many details, we take away the reader’s chance to use her own imagination or her own experiences to fill out the story, to make it her own. It is questions, not answers, that are a part of the universal experience, and that’s what makes really good literature so rewarding.

Casey’s focus is on fiction writing, but I didn’t find that it mattered much. She studies a number of novels and short stories (relatively few of which I’d read, but it was fine) for their mystery. She praises Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters, for example, for its offstage gestures: the protagonist makes reference to a castle, forests, high canopies, a river, none of which are explained. “The gesture toward everything that we don’t know about [that protagonist] doesn’t frustrate; rather, it intrigues.” And I found myself asking the question, why does this work when he does it? The rest of us would be scolded for the same: references to details nowhere in our own stories. But then comes the answer: “In every case… it’s useful to ask, What is the effect of the withholding? Does it yield something generative in relation to character? Or is it an effort to drum up surface-level suspense, whose effect may be experienced as exactly that, effortful, and cosmetic, rather than as true dramatic tension?” Twenty-six pages later, again: “It’s a question of effect. Is a bizarre character, and the mystery surrounding that character, being generated for look-at-me-Ma show, or is it doing something that leads to generative mystery?” (I confess I enjoyed “look-at-me-Ma show.”) See the repeated words: we are looking for effect; our goal is generative mystery. (That last is the phrase Jessie used in recommending this book.) The bulk of The Art of Mystery is devoted to explicating these concepts with lots of good examples (that make me want to read lots of books). For this review, I’m content to have named them.

Like so many significant lightbulb moments in studying the craft of writing, this one seems obvious in hindsight. The writer must know what she’s trying to do; she must work with intention; and she must consider the effect of the choices she makes. Mystery for its own sake is at best a cute trick, liable to frustrate the reader. Generative mystery has a job to do. Know which is which.


Rating: 7 cataracts.

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