Monday, February 20, 2012

What's the Point? -- A Roundtable Discussion

CONTEST REMINDER: Write a compelling essay on Why the Novel Matters, and you just might win a Kindle Touch. Read the rules and submission guidelines here.

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 Bonnie's last point, that honesty necessitates a level of humility. Might the angry photographer have been a man too inexperienced to know how many of his cherished convictions will change, that he will one day find himself at odds with his younger self? You'd think a Christian might be exempt from such, but I'm a Christian, and I'm not exempt.

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.

The last time I sat on the floor and cried over a book was about six months ago. (I was cleaning the pantry and listening to a book on tape: about the only way I read fiction lately.) The author portrayed a mother's last look at her son's body in such a way that I sobbed and sobbed.

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

never have chosen it. Those kinds of descriptions on the back of a book cover make me slide it back onto the shelf. Touching it only with my fingertips. Saying, "ick, ick, ick" under my breath.

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?


Nicole said...

I always have "a point", but I try to get to the point by portraying contrasts, conflicts, and choices in organic stories.

And, no, agendas with heavy-handed articulation is like reading non-fiction and/or propaganda, something I'm not prone to read. Some non-fiction is self-serving and I'm very selective when I read it.

Megan Sayer said...

Oh this got me thinking! One of those posts that left me incredibly aware of how little I really know.

I guess it was scary to begin with, because I've always seen my WIP as having a purpose, a point. However the closer I get to completing the writing the more I realise that it's much more open-ended than I ever thought. Hopefully it will ask more questions than it answers...hopefully. In the mean time I'll stick to just telling the story. This post will be a good yardstick to measure it by in edits.

I wonder very much if the artist Bonnie talked about was aware of his underlying agenda, or whether it was an unconscious thing for him in the creating process?

Bonnie Grove said...

Megan: About your question regarding the artist who sent me fleeing, there is no doubt he meant to do what he did. There was more than enough evidence that his agenda was intended.

Having a purpose for your fiction isn't a negative, in my opinion. Patti was right when she said every story has a moral premise. Without one the story would meander off the path of story and become like one of those endless slideshows your great-great uncle shows you of his trip to Paraguay.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I need to say, I've been honored to read parts of Megan's WIP...oh mercy. Powerful. But not pushy. She's doing great work.

I usually have some kind of point. But, I've found, the characters drive it. And very often my ideas change with the writing. One of my goals in writing is the NEVER be preachy. Nobody wants me to get in that pulpit. Especially not me.

BK said...

Hmmm...tough topic. Non-fiction absorbs most of my reading time, so while I want my fiction to be entertaining, I'm looking for meaningful fiction that does have a larger point.

I don't think I overly dwell on a moral point when I write but I do always have one in mind--for example the first two novels I've worked on surround the issue of family loyalty. But to be perfectly honest, while that may be the driving force inside MY head, I think when people read them they may not necessarily view that as the key point of the books.

Heavy-handedness is very subjective. What seems like overkill to one is just right for another. I do struggle with this in Christian fiction--as writer and reader. Sometimes I do read stuff that feels like overkill. Yet in my own writing, I probably lean more toward the secular viewpoint, because submitting ourselves to God daily is a hard thing to do and often times our lives don't reflect Him (speaking for myself.) And my personal struggle often comes out on the page. Whether it reads genuine or forced...well I'll let you know when readers read it. 8-)

Megan Sayer said...

Katy I think you've just wrapped up one of the big things at the back of my mind at the moment - where to find my next story.

The very first writing craft book I read was James N Frey's "How To Write A Damn Good Novel". I must have read it about 40 times (no joke), and he talks about the importance of having a premise, usually a XX leads to YY type. There's a lot of validity in his thoughts, but now I'm seeing where it's tripped me up - if I start with a question and explore it then the premise will come. Not only that, the act of creation gives me a place to explore things that are bigger than me, and find my own answers.

That's probably really obvious to you guys. But it really, really helps me, so thanks!!!

Megan Sayer said...

oh, I almost forgot:

Susie...THANK YOU!!! Your encouragement is what keeps me going : )

Cherry Odelberg said...

Kathleen, articulated it for me,
"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."
Oh, that I would write truth as fiction, courageously, attractively, articulately; and not bury truth ineptly, or self-righteously.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your comments today. I think we all agree that a story begins with a premise, or, as Bonnie said, they'll meander all over the place. But I get the most satisfaction when the premise evolves organically from the story being told, rather than a story being told to validate a premise. Does that make sense? But as BK said, heavy-handedness is subjective. In fact, everything about fiction -- or the arts in any form -- is subjective. Good discussion. Thank you for your contributions.

Bonnie Grove said...

I agree, Sharon, the premise reveals itself organically as the writer reveals it throughout the evolution of the novel and through all the characters.

I also agree with BK's observation that heavy handedness is subjective (Latayne's contribution also agrees with this). It seems to me that people will cry "heavy-handedness!" when they disagree with the moral premise of a story, or aren't open to thinking about and trying to understand a point of view different from their own. Sometimes we get too protective of our way of thinking and act as if new ideas will in some way damage us.

RyanO said...

Bonnie, I think you hit it well.
'I disagree with you so much I cry out against your attempt to disagree with me.'
I include quotations of scripture in my work. The characters wrestle with it and try to change each other with it. It is like a weapon to some of them. It is the balm of Gilead to others, just like real life. I can already hear the voices condemning me for being 'preachy' because I use a 'text'. (as in sermon).

Camille Eide said...

I've kept the link to this post in my email so I could read this over when time allowed and let all this sink in.

As a writing-to-publish novelist with 2 finished books out "shopping" and a 3rd in the oven, I've lately struggled---in all honesty---with narrowing down "the point" of the novel (for me), for a variety of reasons. One being that I'm suspicious about how much of the story's point belongs to the story, and how much belongs to me. Another is that I tend to want to give answers, as Kathleen put it, and I don't want to do that either. My biggest struggle, as I contemplate beginning a 3rd, is trying to assess the value of the novel, period. But I wonder if value is in the eye of the appraiser. Sharon said she reads to be entertained. I am not convinced I'm an entertainer. It's work for me to be a good storyteller, it's not natural. I think I write because I'm compelled to get people thinking. The subtle questions in novels that make me think are often quietly threaded throughout an intriguing, captivating story. But it's always the story, not the "thinking" that keeps me up regrettably beyond bedtime.

As a writer, I feel guilty. Am I writing a book simply to captivate readers for an eight-hour, powerfully emotional experience (as if)? Or should I have some higher purpose for creating a story? Does entertainment matter? I believe it does simply because it touches a real human need---relax, recreate, recoup. But is eight hours of entertainment the reason I spend 12 months writing a novel? Can the story have a point, a thought provoking question that lingers beyond entertainment, even if for no one else but me?