In keeping with our theme this year, Why the Novel Matters, I'm curious where we as individuals fit into the grand scheme of the world of fiction. Speaking first as a reader, I always have a novel on my night stand. If I read non-fiction I read it during the day. But fiction, well, that is my favorite nightcap. I savor it, usually reading two hours before turning out the light. I love a variety of fiction, though there are a few genres that just don't appeal to me, historical fiction being one of them. However, I recently surprised myself by reading and loving a 1,200 page historical novel titled And Ladies of the Club. (I'll post a review of it in March.) But when I read fiction, I read first and foremost for the purpose of entertainment. I don't read to be indoctrinated, enlightened, or wowed by an author's style -- though I love it when I am. I don't read for the sake of dogma or propoganda, or even as research for my own style of writing. I want to be entertained, even if in a macabre way. I want to be drawn into the story world and engaged by the characters. I want to put myself in someone else's shoes and hang out where they hang out for just a little while. In the past couple of months, I've been aboard the Pequod and smelled the blood of whales. I've rubbed shoulders for the first time ever with Hercule Poirot, just for the fun of it. I've lived in post-Civil War Ohio for more than half a century under the stringent rules imposed on women of that era. I've lived a very dysfunctional fifteen years at St. Elizabeth's Home for Unwed Mothers in Habit, Kentucky. I don't object to finding a moral to the stories I read; I mean, there has to be a point, right? But I want that moral to emerge from the story, and not the story to emerge from the moral. I don't want The Point to be what drives the author. It nearly always comes across as contrived when The Point is the point.
Oddly, I find that very thing is my main challenge as a writer. Because our novels almost always begin with a premise, it's easy to let the premise lead the way. But it works so much better when the characters or the plot are the driving force, and the premise is only a gossamer thread that gingerly holds the story world together.
I recently took my children to an art gallery in our city. The gallery is set up as a series of large rooms, each one dedicated to a single artist. One room was dedicated to the art of a young man who primarily focused on photography. His work was fragmented, often pictures of piles of garbage he had found on his travels. There were never any people in the pictures. There were thousands of images, some tiny, others huge, some were negative images on a spool of film. It was difficult to make sense of it all. I spent a great deal of time studying one portion (one wall) of the bombardment of art until I could finally see the pattern in his work, and, having discovered the pattern, I was able to "hear" what he was saying. In many ways he was talking about what everyone is talking about these days, having eyes to notice the poor, of caring for the environment. Except that wasn't his real message. Under the veneer of social issues was a cry for a specific kind of social justice for a specific people group. What made me walk away from the display was that his message wasn't come and see us, but rather: this is your fault. You are bad and you should shoulder the blame for the mess we are in. The artist was angry, perhaps justifiably so, but his sneaky anger rankled me. I felt like it jumped me, and I walked away quickly into the next room. I don't begrudge this young man his art and his vision, but I learned a valuable lesson as a writer. Bait and switch, even with a worthy, justifiable message, isn't honest. And it offends. Being honest is always best, and for me, being honest means admitting that my best ideas are always tinged with uncertainty.
I love authors who are honest above all else. When I read a passage that makes me think, yes, yes yes, that's exactly how it is, but I've always been afraid to see it - then that author is my friend for life. Truth is wondrous, even hard truth.
When I write, I tend to focus on questions I have no answers for. That helps assure that the writing will mean something to me at least, and it's the best way I know to avoid giving easy answers in my story.
I once read a novel for an ABA book club that pulled me along with interesting characters and a fly-on-the-wall look at an American culture totally foreign to me. In the last chapter, the hero happens to go to a Christian Science meeting and proceeds to include a three-point sermon on the supremacy of that group and their uniquely correct view of the Word. Huh? Where did that come from? No one in the story had gone to church before this. No questing after truth, just survival. I got the feeling that the author wanted this material in the book but didn't make the effort to do so organically. I hated it. On the other hand, I've read lots of books embedded in belief systems and cultures that would seemingly counter mine, and I enjoyed the experience. Books like that are journeys. To answer your question: No, I don't want to read books that sermonize about religion, global warming, or politics. I do want to be entertained, first and foremost. But keep in mind, every story is based on how the author believes the world should work.
That's the end of the story. Let me tell you the beginning. If you had told me the book I'd selected was the author's "impassioned plea" for a cause, I would
Or if you'd said it would take a stand that's opposite one I've held for many years, with biblically-based convictions, I wouldn't have selected the book. (Believe me, someone is always trying to change my mind about something.)
The book was John Grisham's The Confession, and it made me think about capital punishment in a way I've never before considered it. Maybe it's changing my mind.
But here's the point: Only when I read some reader reviews after I'd finished the book did I find that other people thought it was contrived and manipulative. I was very surprised to hear that. I figured that if he could make me think, he could make anyone think. I salute his skill and thank him from the bottom of my heart for such a moving story.
This discussion got me thinking about books that get the point across without being preachy or manipulative, creating fiction that matters. I think the last book I read that did this successfully was The Help. It certainly has a message, but relationships are the force that pull the story along and convince you that the cause is right. The author put faces on the problem. When we can 'see' their faces we care about the problem without being told that we should. I haven't read many stories that accomplish this so well.
Reading for pure pleasure is therapy. Sharon, I only wish I could stay up and read for 2 hours before bed. It's more like 10 minutes before the book hits the floor, and it's not for lack of interest.
What about you? As a reader do you mind if the author has a heavy hand? If you're also a writer, what approach do you take in order to get your point across, assuming you have a point?