Joyce Hinnefeld


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What Does a Reader Want?

“Life consisted of the small things, with only scattered moments of intensity.”

I’ve been reading romance novels lately--as part of my research for a new book (I swear)--and the line above, from Linda Howard’s Mackenzie’s Mountain, may be my favorite line so far, just because I find it so ironic. This is what the novel’s central character, Mary, thinks to herself as she ponders her relationship with the “halfbreed” (as in half Native American) Wolf Mackenzie. Mary might claim to want just “the small things,” but that sure isn’t what keeps you reading Mackenzie’s Mountain. I’m guessing it doesn’t make me a unique or unusual reader of this book to say that I raced quickly through the details about the town of Ruth, Wyoming, Wolf’s gentle breaking of horses (sexy as even that was), and so forth in order to get to the next outrageously unrealistic (but really fun) sex scene. These seemed to happen every ten or twenty pages or so. No wonder Mary was left pining for “the small things.”

I don’t intend to try to write a romance novel, but I may have a character who does write them. What I’m envisioning is a literary novel that gets its readers to look at romance novels in a new light--maybe. Right now I’m really just pondering all these things myself, as I read and take notes for this barely formed novel, and I’m also thinking about Terrence Rafferty’s review of Bradford Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale in Sundays’ New York Time Book Review. Rafferty contends that the mix of genre fiction and literary novel that Morrow attempts in The Diviner’s Tale doesn’t work, that reading the book “is an odd, disorienting experience because its matter and manner don’t match up.”

Yet it’s become pretty common for our well-known “literary” writers to attempt this blend, to write works that draw on pulp novels, horror, comics, etc. in a knowing, even winking, way, and so what, I’m wondering, makes this attempt such a failure in Rafferty’s eyes? (Yes, I guess I’ll just have to read the book to find out if I think he’s right.) I’m thinking, for instance, of a book I adored, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with its incredible mix of futuristic science fiction, playful tinkering with the thrust and energy of traditional narrative, and moments of pure lyricism. I wonder what Rafferty would say about that book.

“In a horror story or a mystery novel,” Rafferty writes in this review, “the flow is all toward narrative resolution, and is--or should be--swift and fierce. Literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way.” So, he seems to be saying, go ahead and write your literary novel--but don’t you dare lead us to expect something “swift and fierce.” Don’t set us up with those “moments of intensity” every ten pages or so.

So much for old barriers between literary and non-literary breaking down, I guess. What I’m left with is this nagging question of who reads what now--if anyone still reads anything. These can be trying questions for a writer, and probably they’re questions better left for others (publishing people?) to try to answer. But I am curious about what readers would say they’re looking for now. Swift and fierce narrative resolution? Quiet literary dawdling over stray beauties and small things? Maybe with some mind-bendingly acrobatic sex scenes--if not every ten, then maybe every fifty pages or so? What, dear reader, is it? What are you looking for?


  1. It is so difficult isn't it? I've been talking books with everyone I come into contact with and yet it is so difficult to narrow down. For myself, I have a vast and varied collection. I enjoy difficult novels that get you thinking, narrative that has depth and is still engaging. But I cannot read many in that vein before my brain gives in and asks for something lighter. Chick lit is fun and quick to read as are some of the classic detective/thriller novels.

    I suspect the truth is, like food, I want different things on different days depending on so many other factors. I love books for themselves so they need to continue to be as individual as people themselves.

  2. I tend to agree with Rafferty. I think. I am a horror/thriller fan and personally, I can not stand "romance" getting in the way of my story line. I have been known to put away a book if the romance aspect starts to overshadow the story.

    I think my response should be taken with a grain of salt however, since I generally detest the romance genre in fiction, et al. If I wanted romance, or sex for that matter, I would put the book away and go spend time with my husband. LOL.

    People do still read, and they will read just about ANYTHING. Just visit or and you will be smacked in the face with thousands of people who love a good storyline! We are out there, hungrily gobbling up anything that looks even remotely entertaining and/or informative! Regardless of our preferred favorite genres I think we all are just looking to be entertained, provided a temporary escape from the monotony of our daily routines.

    The internet, technology for that matter, have changed the format for writers somewhat. I'm afraid for the future of my beloved hardbacks. Writing and story telling will never die out though. Ever. I say write what YOU love, and there will be those that LOVE it as much as you do.

  3. Another great post! By the way, I am in total agreement with you re: Cloud Atlas...amazing, wonderful book and it defies genre or pigeonholing which may be one reason it is memorable.

    But what am I looking for in a book? Oh, such a tough question because if I think in terms of genre it gets muddled. I love the lightness of a good women's fiction book, I enjoy being thrilled by a thriller, I love sinking into literary fiction and being taken away by beautiful writing, I find myself crying over touching memoirs...the list goes on and on. But if I had to narrow it down I think I would have to say that what I am really craving when I open a book are characters (or a character) who I fall in love with, want to get to know, feel like they are a friend...and to whom I hate to say good-bye when the last page is turned.

  4. I read all kinds of books in my advancing age -- literary fiction, pulp thrillers, poetry, lots of non-fiction, and even chick lit -- and move between them as the mood strikes (and without guilt). So, yes, if you give us a good bodice ripper I'll dig in!

    The pile beside my bed: Sebald's Emigrants (again), The Great Gatsby (never read it), collected poetry of Czeslaw Milosz, The Middle Place (non-fiction about a daughter and father getting cancer at same time), Alix Ohlin's novel The Missing Person, Scott Turow's Personal Injuries. I would have the Stieg Larsson books, too, but I blew through them in record time.

    It's all good.

  5. You know, if I were capable of writing a good bodice ripper, I think my problems would be solved . . . . But thanks, all, for these comments. I love the range of your reading! And I'm taking real solace in this reminder that people do still love to read, and read widely.