2  The World of the Text

Theorist Paul Ricoeur wrote about what he called “the world of the text,” the space between the text of a book or story and the reader.  The imaginative space in between isn’t quite exactly the book, and it isn’t exactly the same as the person doing the reading, either.  The reader negotiates that space as a place to experience and interpret the text.

I’ve always liked the term, but I like to use it in a different way.  The world of the text is the world that the text creates and into which the reader or viewer can step:  the deep, old, intricate world of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, the dangerous but darkly scintillating world of a Raymond Chandler detective novel, or the icy, ambi-gendered world of Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

I believe that, not just for fiction writers and movie makers, but also for poets and often for non-fiction prose writers (such as biographers and essayists), creating a textual world where a reader wants to stay for a time may be the single most important skill.  Yes, characters and style have great importance, and they may seem to many readers to be the most important components of writing, but if a reader enjoys the world of the text, he or she will return to a book again and again even knowing the plot (and maybe even having almost memorized the book).  That’s true for adults as well as for children–if you read children their favorite books, they want you to get every word just right, because every word helps make up and fill out the world of that book.

In the world of The Lord of the Rings readers can tolerate orcs because they also get to meet elves.  In The Left Hand of Darkness one can tolerate all the difficulties Ai experiences mingling with a different species of humans because of the friendship he and Estraven build.  The masterful peculiarities of the world and how the author weaves them all together into a believable place win readers’ fascination and loyalty.  And we often hope that the writers will go back to our favorite worlds to build more stories into the spaces they’ve created.

My wife says the experience can be much the same for “reading” a work of art!