Approaching Gene Wolfe with Awe and Trepidation

Two feelings predominated my first reading of Gene Wolfe: awe and trepidation. The awe was for Wolfe’s mastery of prose, tone, setting, voice, mood, and incident: I had not realized that science fiction could be so fraught with meaning, so numinous and so horrifying, or that any writer could so successfully marry apocalyptic drama, baroque landscapes, and violent action with pensive introspection and rueful reflection. The trepidation? I didn’t know that anyone could sustain this level of accomplishment for four volumes and a thousand pages. Could he really be this good? As it turns out, he really was.

After twenty pages of The Shadow of the Torturer, I wanted nothing more than to set aside my schoolwork and social life and read all four volumes of The Book of the New Sun cover to cover. But, reflecting that this would leave me without any New Sun books to read for the first time, I decided to pace myself: I would not read the books all in a row, but would force myself to read at least one other novel between each New Sun volume.

I was impressed with my self-restraint until I came across Gene Wolfe’s essay on Tolkien, and the manner of his awestruck first reading of The Lord of the Rings: lest he finish too quickly, he allowed himself just one chapter a night, though he would permit himself to re-read any chapters he’d already finished. That anecdote, I think, is a telling one: Wolfe is a re-reader, and a patient one, and he writes books that will work for readers like him. Yet, like Tolkien, he has a love for saga, adventure, and mystery, for clashing swords, daring escapes, and heroic feats. Too often, I think, appreciations of Wolfe focus on the most esoteric and difficult aspects of his writing while neglecting the abundance of plot and spectacle he provides.

I’ve already mentioned difficulty, so I must admit that Wolfe’s literary reputation is a little forbidding, and likely always will be. Wolfe trips up his readers, lets major plots resolve unrecorded between books, and leaves crucial mysteries unsolved. He is neither trustworthy nor predictable. That being so, it’s vitally important, for me at least, to distinguish between Gene Wolfe, trickster author and expert manipulator of readers, and Gene Wolfe, human being. Gene Wolfe, the author, can be strict, even cruel: he demands close reading and closer re-reading; he expects both dedication and intelligence, and does not deign to clarify or explicate. Gene Wolfe, the man, is very different.

The first time I ever went to a science fiction convention, it was because I knew Gene Wolfe would be there. In the summer of 2009, I was an underemployed recent college graduate who needed to be careful with his expenses: I was between jobs and living at home, with no real income. But when I learned that Wolfe would be attending Readercon, just fifty miles away, I knew that I had to go and meet him. I paid the eighty-dollar registration fee, asked to borrow my dad’s car, and drove the fifty miles to the con.

I arrived twenty minutes or so before the first panel of the day and took a seat in the middle of the room. I thought I’d sit and read the convention schedule and plan the remainder of my day, but when I looked up from the schedule, I saw Gene Wolfe sitting at the front of the hall with his wife, Rosemary. I’m not now and was even less then the sort of person who feels comfortable introducing himself to strangers I admire, but I screwed up my courage, walked up to the front of the hall, and introduced myself as a great fan. I braced for dismissal, but I needn’t have worried: Wolfe was the soul of graciousness. He thanked me for my support, introduced me to Rosemary, and made a point of saying hello every time our paths crossed for the rest of the weekend.

Writers have permission to be mercurial and difficult; being personally insufferable seems to track with being widely celebrated. Alas for Wolfe’s renown, my pleasant experience meeting Wolfe is hardly unusual. I’m a member of Urth, the Gene Wolfe mailing list, and so I’ve heard a few stories. One of the list’s core members has maintained a long-term and mostly long-distance friendship with Wolfe, but had the opportunity to spend time with his favorite author at WindyCon 2008. Writer and fan were supposed to meet for breakfast, but instead Wolfe and his family learned that their friend had been rushed to the hospital early that morning. Wolfe and his daughter spent much of the con’s remaining time visiting their friend, speaking with his family in England, managing insurance concerns, and generally making the best of a bad situation. There was even, I’m told, some well-intentioned fraud: only family members could visit the ER, and so at least one Wolfe got through the door as the American relative of the ailing Englishman.

One last personal anecdote. I work in publishing, but had a hard time making inroads into the book world after I graduated college: I knew no one in the industry, and no one I knew seemed to know anyone, either. After that first Readercon, I wrote to David Hartwell, by then Wolfe’s editor of thirty years and long his most devoted supporter. I introduced myself, told him I’d bought a few books from him at his Readercon booth, and asked if I might possibly just maybe have a short informational interview with him. He agreed, and scheduled a lunch near the Flatiron Building.

I hadn’t told David that I’d be taking a four-hour bus ride to New York expressly to meet him, and he was a little embarrassed when he found out, but I could never regret that trip. As we sat at lunch—he’d already shown me the Tor office and wowed me with the Hugo perched on the corner of his desk—we talked about all the authors he had known and edited. I knew he’d worked with Robert Heinlein, but hadn’t realized he’d edited Philip K. Dick, too; of course I had to ask what they had been like. He loved all these writers, and wanted others to appreciate them as he did, but the way he talked about Wolfe was different. Midway through our meal, after we’d finished discussing Neil Gaiman’s comics, David put down his fork, looked me in the eye, and asked “Now what do you think of Gene Wolfe?”

This was clearly an important question; I sense that to some extent David’s opinion of me would depend on how I responded. And so I answered honestly, saying that he was my favorite science fiction writer, that The Book of the New Sun was a masterpiece, and that I would read anything he wrote. My words may, in fact, have degenerated into incoherence as I tried to summarize all of Wolfe’s achievements. Coherent or not, I still stand by that answer today.

This is the first of a series of essays, and I admit it’s an odd start. In the coming weeks I’ll be going into Gene Wolfe’s works in greater detail, examining his style, offering suggestions on where to start with his work, examining The Book of the New Sun at greater length, and picking out a few titles I think deserve more attention. I’ll be spending the rest of this series immersed in Wolfe’s books, but for my first post, I wanted to briefly reflect for a moment on the writer away from the page, with appreciation and respect.

Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies; he is helped in the former by his day job in the publishing industry. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

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