Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Must-Have List for Novels

It's time for what we call the Novel Matters Roundtable. Each of us weighs in on a question asked by the designated inquiring mind. This month it's Patti Hill. But you can't just sit there and read--no, no, no. Your ideas matter just as much as ours. We love chatting up the craft of story and the question-of-the-year, Why does the novel matter. 

By the way, next Monday the 28th, Claudia Mair Burney, gifted storyteller and novelist, will be here to answer that question for us. Today, the question is this, and we have so much to learn from you:

WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A NOVEL?

Author Yiyun Li answers this question in The Secret Miracle: The Novelist's Handbook like this: "I look for a world--sometimes it is one as familiar as this one world we have, and sometimes it is a strange world that perhaps would only happen in a dream--but in either case when I read a novel I look to live in that world along with the characters."

Genre isn't the first thing I look for when choosing the next read. For me the potential novel must ask a question that makes my heart itch for an answer, or provide a glimpse of an answer, or a voyeur's opportunity to see the question through another person's eyes, even--or especially--if it's a question I've never thought to ask. It's the what-if question. What if four women of very different backgrounds with a common urgency to survive found themselves in the dovecote of Masada? (The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman) What if an English village committed to containing the plague within its boundaries by isolating itself from the world? (Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks) What if a 14-year-old Lithuanian girl is deported to a Siberian work camp by Stalin's goons? (Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys) Like Li, I lived the characters of these novels, and they left me changed forever. Hmm. Interesting. All of these books are historical fiction. Perhaps I should rethink the genre thing.

Like Patti, I don't run to genre novels--though I've read a few I enjoyed--and tend toward non-genre, literary (think Doris Lessing), and more recently, that in-between novel that fits everywhere and nowhere (Time Traveler's Wife, The Book Thief, The Kingdom of Ohio, The Cat's Table to name a few recent/favourite reads). Among the six of us here at Novel Matters we're forever recommending books to each other. This, I think, is our second fastest glue one that holds us so close. Sometimes when we ask each other how the other person is, we phrase it as, "What are you reading right now?"

But, when I go hunting for a read,what am I looking for? I think I'm just looking. For a hole in the wall, a stargate, a portal, a beckoning voice. I bought Let the Great World Spin because the first paragraph had me holding my breath, tilting my head to see the tightrope walk that materialized above my head. I didn't need to know why he was there, it was enough for me that McCann conjured him. I'm looking for someone to tell me a story in a world where people only tell me their opinions.

If, however, you were to pin me to a wall and force me to choose (please don't), I would say what I'm looking for are complex stories told from varying points of view, with an eye for undercurrent details, and written with the light hand of respect--for the characters and the reader.


While I too have my favorite genre, it's seldom the thing that compels me to read a book. It's just that mostly my favorites fall into a specific category. But not always. Some of my favorite books over the past 2 or 3 years haven't fallen into that category at all. For example, The Circle Trilogy: Black, Red & White, by Ted Dekker; The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, as Bonnie mentioned; The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. All very different novels, and I loved them all. So genre matters, but not entirely.

I always read the first page or two of a novel I'm considering, and if something doesn't grab me by the end of the 2nd or 3rd page -- forget it. Or if something turns me off within those couple of pages, again, forget it.

First and foremost I need a character to pull me in to his or her story. If I can hear the voice of the narrator or POV character from page one, and it's a voice that entices, I'll stay to the very end no matter where we're headed. If the story seems superficial or the POV character shallow, I'll put it down, because I don't want to waste my precious reading time. It's nice if there's a burning question that I hope the author finds the answer to. But even that isn't necessary for me to deeply engage in a story. Just give me a character to relate to. That, for me, matters most.
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Good characters are important. I must have someone worth taking the trip with.

I did love Let the Great World Spin, but not for the high-wire - I get light-headed even reading about such things. I loved the book for the wondrous character of John Corrigan - it turned out he was the only reason I loved the book, but he was enough. To illustrate:

"He slept on his stomach with a view out the window to the dark, reciting his prayers—he called them his slumber verses—in quick, sharp rhythms. They were his own incantations, mostly indecipherable to me, with odd little cackles of laughter and long sighs. The closer he got to sleep the more rhythmic the prayers got, a sort of jazz, though sometimes in the middle of it all I could hear him curse, and they’d be lifted away from the sacred. I knew the Catholic hit parade—the Our Father, the Hail Mary—but that was all. I was a raw, quiet child, and God was already a bore to me. I kicked the bottom of Corrigan’s bed and he fell silent awhile, but then started up again. Sometimes I woke in the morning and he was alongside me, arm draped over my shoulder, his chest rising and falling as he whispered his prayers."

Acrophobia notwithstanding, I love a sort of high-wire act in a story - a daring, spectacular risk in style or subject matter. The Book Thief is such a book, a story narrated by the angel of death in a style that knocks you off center. Gilead is another - a slow reading, meditative tale that no one but a genious could have written. It still moves me, years after the first reading.

 Oh - and a book must contain wonder if I'm to truly love it. I believe there is beauty tucked in like Easter eggs in every life, and its the novelists job to find them, by golly. If art doesn't give me eyes to see, then what is its purpose? Is it even art?

I look for characters that I respect.  Their lives may be a mess and they may be searching for truth or to find God in their situation, but they respond honestly and look inward as well as upward.  The are multi-dimensional - never flat and predictable.  The correct course of action may be simple, but it's not a simple matter for them to choose it.  They struggle with their human condition but in the end, choose rightly.  We need to see the process and see them overcome.  I guess you could say I'm looking for everyday heroes.


A novel has to promise a kind of richness of experience for me to spend time inside its covers. One of the very best examples of this is Katy's book, The Feast of Saint Bertie. Even before I knew our precious Katy, I was drawn in by the book's cover. It has a cool medallion with scallops anchoring the letters of the title. It has warm, almost-clashing but satisfying colors. The pomegranate has a deep shadowed floret end. There are plums and leaves and juicy pomegranate seeds. The woman looks off into the distance with a slight smile. A feast of a saint implies history and tradition, but the name Bertie is almost flippant and modern.  I couldn't wait to get into the book, and its opening scenario -- a woman's house burns to the ground the day of her husband's funeral, and she can't find their son to tell him his father died.

Wow. A wow cover, a wow opening, a wow book. That's what I look for in a good book.


10 comments:

Megan Sayer said...

Interesting how in all these answers character comes up again and again. We read to meet people, to find ourselves, to find people we don't know yet and learn about them. I agree wholeheartedly too. I love characters who are honest - not necessarily right or even good, but honest.
The other thing I read for is to explore things and places that I'm unfamiliar with, especially places I've never been (which is most of them). I read John Grisham to find out what it's like to live in the American South. I read Agatha Christie to understand my British heritage. I read Truman Capote to feel my way through New York. So, for me, alongside character must come setting. I don't care whether it's India or Iowa (both are equally exotic to me) but setting needs to be authentic, and the characters need to give me a sense of who they are because of the place they live in.

Patti Hill said...

Megan: You've summed what makes a novel extraordinary perfectly-- beautifully crafted characters set in a place and/or time that takes us someplace we've never been or gives us a view through new eyes. Thanks!

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Yes. The characters. I was to experience their lives, their circumstances.

Also, I want to be changed, even if only a little, by the story/characters/setting/etc. I'm not an "escape" reader. I prefer to slip my feet into the shoes of someone who can walk me through the world to learn, challenge my thinking, build within me compassion.

Man, oh, man. I love reading.

Patti Hill said...

Me too, Susie. Me too.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Susie, I couldn't agree more. I don't need to escape either, but I do want what you want out of a novel. Well said!

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Adventure, Creative Imagination that gives me a new way to look at the world and my fellows and maybe even God. Language, Poetry, rhythm and colour. And Adventure! Discovery, Exploration, Movement, Risk, Loss, Unexpected Gain.

Patti Hill said...

Well said, Henrietta. This is how we walk that mile in someone else's shoes. And hopefully learn.

Cherry Odelberg said...

What do I look for in a novel? I look for ME. A me in different clothes, in a different culture, but me, just the same. I found little bits of me in "Memoirs of a Geisha,"though I would never be one; in "Diary of Anne Frank," though I am not Jewish; In Maisie Dobbs and Pride and Prejudice though I have only been in an airport in England. I loved James Michener's "The Source," but was troubled by a female character whose actions I did not think consistent with her personality type.
When I read, I am reading for entertainment - to feel good, but also for understanding - a bit more understanding of what makes people tick. Also, I read with that searching yearning question, "Am I understood?" It is very fulfilling to find an author who described me - in any culture and any century-better than I could describe myself. Always, always I am learning, so I choose books carefully. I do not want to learn wrong things. I want to learn about people and history and world views in delicious bites and well turned phrases. I expect books to make me better - a better person, a better writer, a better analyzer; more imaginative. I expect a lot from novels. When I open a novel, I am looking for me; a me that has been lost and forgotten, repressed or suppressed; or not yet awakened.

Kathleen Popa said...

Cherry, yes. Me too, to all of that.

Latayne, you are so kind to mention my book. Thank you!

wanderer said...

Often I try to tell my husband or a friend about a book I've read and I can't find the words. I find myself trailing off into nothing, saying, "Well, actually, nothing much really happened but I fell in love with the character/setting/prose."

That's what I look for in a book: a character who either speaks for me or in a tongue I've never heard but long to understand. Or a character who speaks from a time and place that charms me. Or an author whose prose turns ordinary into amazing. That's not to say I don't like a nifty plot but for me, plot is secondary to character, setting and voice. And the sweetest of these is character.