In a couple of weeks I will be presenting a paper on Gene Wolfe's "Seven American Nights" at an academic conference at the University of Warwick (UK). The conference, SF/F Now, will take place on 22-23 August 2014, soon after Loncon3, which I will also be attending. The paper is connected to my current PhD research and focuses on the novella's disruptive formal elements and resultant openness to interpretation, connecting these qualities to Emmanuel Levinas's notion of ethics and the responsibilities of interpretation. Abstract below:
Gene Wolfe’s "Seven American Nights" and the Ethics of the Open Text
Science fiction has long been concerned with ethical questions, including the effects of new technology on humans and the impact of human activity on the environment, both of which are addressed in Gene Wolfe’s “Seven American Nights” (1978). In both its form and content, however, Wolfe’s novella displays a concern for a different kind of ethics: the ethics of literary representation.
In my examination of “Seven American Nights” I seek to identify the narrative styles and techniques that create openness in the text and produce the elusiveness and ambiguity characteristic of Wolfe’s work. Written as a series of journal entries, the narrator’s account of a post-collapse America disrupts straightforward interpretation on multiple levels. Many of the elements that create uncertainty—including the unreliable narrator, fragmentary narrative and disruptive framing narratives—are metafictional devices that draw the reader into approaching the text critically as a constructed artefact. Wolfe’s innovative use of science fiction and fantasy tropes and intertexts further challenges the reader’s expectations and opens up a wide range of interpretative possibilities. This open text draws the reader into an act of self-conscious co-creation of meaning, while resisting attempts to ‘pin down’ a definitive interpretation.
The effects of this openness on the reader will be considered through Roland Barthes’s notion of the writerly text, while its ethical ramifications will be explored by way of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. I will argue that in its foregrounding of the text’s plurality, “Seven American Nights” draws the reader into an encounter with what Levinas calls the “unenglobable literary space.” Finally, I will draw upon Derek Attridge in some closing reflections on the implications of this ethical dimension of the literary encounter for the responsibilities of reading and interpretation.