Joyce Hinnefeld


Thursday, March 24, 2011

What Does a Reader Want? Part 2

Sometimes I get a little fatigued by the way I read published fiction--yes, like a writer, I guess. I’m constantly thinking That scene made me mad; why did it make me mad? I should have been moved by that moment but I wasn’t; why wasn’t I moved? That was gorgeous; I have to read that again; what was the magic number of words in that sentence/balance of short and long sentences in that paragraph/ratio of external action to internal exploration in that passage or chapter? Why don’t I care about what happens to this character? Why did I cry when I finished this book (thinking here of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas again; sorry--I know I refer to that book obsessively)? Those kinds of things.

So after reading Terrence Rafferty’s review of Bradford Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale and writing about literary vs. genre fiction in my post on February 8, I made good on my promise to myself and read Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale. I found it really compelling--couldn’t put it down actually. I don’t agree at all with Rafferty’s assertion that the book fails as a horror or mystery (or maybe more accurately suspense) novel because of all its literary trappings, because of the way it “allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way,” in Rafferty’s terms. I found it quite suspenseful, and I thought it delivered up the goods (the hints of horror, the various possible explanations for those moments of horror and fear) with appropriate pacing. And I loved all the background on divining, on the inexplicable and mystical aspects of seeking water underground, the real history and psychological speculation throughout the book. Just loved that stuff.

But in the end I didn’t love the book. And now a warning: multiple spoilers follow here. I found that I didn’t care all that much about the characters, including Cassandra, the woman at the book’s center. I didn’t quite believe in her relationships with her sons. I was left cold by what should, I think, have been a brief but intensely erotic scene depicting Cassandra’s fleeting affair with her twin sons’ father. And most distressing: I didn’t find the depiction of Cassandra’s father’s Alzheimer’s particularly believable, and I hate to say this, but I didn’t care at all when he died. (I was also surprised that the villain turned out to be exactly who we’d been led all along to assume it would be--but that’s more a plot than a character point.)

So . . . I guess my reaction to the book was the polar opposite of Rafferty’s. I thought it worked on the level of compelling suspense (except for that rather un-surprising revelation of the bad guy), but disappointed on the more literary level of depicting emotionally compelling characters.

But is full and rich development of characters a literary thing? I know it’s not the only literary thing, of course. There were certainly moments when the language of The Diviner’s Tale thrilled me. There was, as I’ve said, fascinating background on divining, rich uses of history and mythology, stunning depictions of landscape. But the characters just didn’t reach me. Why? I’m not sure about this, but I think this might have been a function of the narrative necessities (horror, a mystery, plot with a capital “P”) trumping the full development of character. Dad’s Alzheimer’s there, dare I say it, as a convenient way to further the action. Twin boys there so we can worry about them in a dramatic final scene.

Yesterday I heard a visiting speaker at Lehigh University, Suzanne Keen, a literary scholar who’s the author of a book called Empathy and the Novel. I enjoyed her talk; it was rich with background in literary aesthetics, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. Lots of talk about this ongoing question of whether reading novels makes people more empathetic (and therefore better citizens, in a sense). Ultimately Keen seems to feel that no, we can’t make grand claims like this--or at least there’s little empirical evidence, so far, to back them up (though she did point to interesting work--and interesting results--with prisoners in a program called the “Changing Lives through Literature” program).

What I kept coming back to in Keen’s talk was her use of terms like “aesthetic emotion” and “narrative pleasure.” I left the talk with more questions than answers about what such terms might mean, but I think that’s a productive place to be, as a writer. It’s some mix of everything we want in a novel--the pleasure of suspense, yes, but also characters that reach us emotionally, rich and powerful language, the memorable voice of someone with worlds to show us there on the page.

Not long ago I came across these words from Sam Lipsyte (a writer who’s as squarely in the literary camp as it’s possible to be, I suppose), from an interview with him that was published in BOMB 111/Spring 2010: “The notion of the page-turner always seemed foreign to me. I don’t want to be sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to find out what happened next. I want to be falling off my seat in ecstatic pain because of what language and consciousness are doing on the page.”

I guess what I want--or what I’m dreaming of trying to achieve--is all of it: that “ecstatic pain” from a novel’s language and consciousness, but page-turning eagerness too. That may be too much “aesthetic emotion” or “narrative pleasure” to ask for. But I’ve found it, on rare occasions, and I keep hoping I can find my way toward a similar kind of magic in my own work.

Of course, I’m aware that the trick might be to stop thinking about it all so much, to stop obsessing about what readers (and therefore publishers) want. Here’s something else that Sam Lipsyte says in that interview, and that I want to print in large type and tape to the wall above my desk: “. . . there’s your writing, and there’s publishing, and occasionally they intersect, but mostly it’s just about your writing.”

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoy your thoughts on this, Joyce (and you can talk about David Mitchell until you're blue in the face because I am awed by him - and particularly Cloud Atlas - as well!). I think you have hit on one of the reasons I don't find a lot of genre fiction memorable - the focus is so much on plot and the characters seem like tools to get through the plot, rather than leaving me with wonderful characters. I just read Anna Quindlen's Every Last One and there is a book which I think meets that definition of aesthetic emotion - that book is quite literary (the characters will break your heart), and yet it was un-put-downable. I hate the word compelling - but that was what it was - suspense and tension, but oh such gorgeous character development. And I guess that is why, at the end of the day, I always cling to the literary novels.