Came upon a few posts from my old blog 50 shimmering pages that I thought might be of interest to some of you.
March 14, 2013
For the last several months, I have been obsessed with trying to understand what makes one novel more broadly appealing than another. Because the question is complex and thorny, we often reduce books to their genres: commercial fiction vs. literary fiction. This quickly distracts us from the task at hand. Rather than delving in for a closer look, we find ourselves defending whatever genre we camp out in. What I’d like to try here is to focus in closely on two aspects of narrative craft that both camps adhere to, though in roughly opposite measures. After reading and discussing lots of books with my writers’ group — and with my husband, who resides in a separate camp — I’ve come to believe that most novels fall into two categories, very very roughly speaking.
The first category is one I’ll call NOVELS THAT SATISFY. These are the books readers most often say they LIKE. And here’s my theory (one I’m still working on, so please chime in with your thoughts) of what makes us like a book or find it overall satisfying.
Digest-ability: It seems to me that readers like books they can finish. There’s something deeply gratifying about reading a book cover to cover, and most readers (not all, but according to what sells, we can assume it’s a majority) resent it when writers don’t do enough to make their efforts pay off. That’s not to say that readers are lazy. Or stupid. My husband falls into this camp, so don’t preach what I ain’t preaching. All I’m saying is that the books that succeed on this level with readers have (at least) these two features in common: 1. Structure: These writers take pains to avoid confusing their readers, and often the first place you see this is in structure. Readers are eased into the story with an arrangement that keeps them from getting lost. Again, I’m not suggesting we dumb down anything. I’m merely trying to point out a few things we should wise up to. 2. Action: Some of you will stop reading right here, and that’s baffling. Somehow action has become synonymous with so-called “genre” work, and while it’s true that “genre” novelists certainly know how to incorporate action, it is also true that no novelist writing about a character undergoing change (and that’s all of us) can afford to dismiss action as something outside his/her practice or realm of expertise. Readers are begging us — my husband among them — to MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN. Readers crave vicarious experience through action.
The second category is one I’ll call NOVELS THAT RESONATE. These are the books readers most often say they love or that linger in their minds, stay with them.Often they’re also the books that are, for various reasons, more difficult to “get into” or “stick with.” Sometimes these books are abandoned or set aside for long periods of time, but if and when a reader finishes this book, it’s often a life-long favorite. The dominating feature of books that resonate with readers?
Connection: The books that readers love most are the ones that touch them deeply and connect them to the universal experience. Usually this is accomplished through characters or setting or circumstances. Readers see themselves, or some part of themselves, in the people or creatures who inhabit this particular world in this particular time. Books that connect with readers usually do so in a couple of ways: 1. Voice: Writers who master voice cast spells upon their readers. They draw them in the way a dream draws us in. We don’t feel it happening. We’re swept away, lost at sea and happy about it. This voice speaks to some place deep inside a reader and touches on something he or she can’t even quite name. It conjures their memories, their fears, their aspirations – and, if it’s compelling enough, it hooks them like a drug. They want more of it, this voice. They can’t get enough of it. Even when the book is over, this voice lingers in their minds and hearts. If the voice isn’t quite strong enough, however, the book can sometimes feel slow or as if it’s bogging down. It may take several attempts, setting the book aside and picking it back up, before the voice really catches and draws us all the way down inside a book. 2. Complexity: Readers yearn for stories that are as complicated as their own lives. They want texture, substance, truth. They want vivid details that break open their hearts and minds. They long to spend time in fully imagined worlds with fully imagined characters undergoing real challenges. When a reader comes across a book that captures that depth and complexity, it often resonates with him for the rest of his life. Sometimes, though, a book can be too complicated, too dense with detail and other information, or just too difficult to follow. Sometimes readers, even patient readers who love complexity, throw up their hands in frustration.
The Enemy of Good is Better
The enemy of good is better. My husband likes this expression. I don’t, but I’m beginning to come around to it. Literary novelists think they’re better than everyone else. Come on, you know it’s true. But commercial fiction is kicking ass and taking names, so who’s out-smarting who(m)? My opinion? Both camps are only doing half of what they should be doing. And this leads me to Steve Almond’s brilliant insight into what readers really care most about when they pick up a novel. Readers, he says, have only two questions when they start reading: 1) Who do I care about (in this story)? — and — 2) What do they (those characters) care about? “It doesn’t especially matter what your heroine cares about,” Almond says, “so long as she cares a lot. Love and death are the usual suspects, but a great novel just might arise from a nun’s thwarted effort to remove dental floss from between her teeth (to borrow an example from Kurt Vonnegut). As long as her passion places her in peril, you’re in business.”
*The underlining is mine for emphasis.
Here’s what I want to suggest: Steve Almond’s insight may be even more profound than just this. This little nugget, I argue, contains the seed of everything we need to know about writing a novel that rings both bells in readers. Our novels, ALL NOVELS, should be both satisfying and resonant. If we focus on the first question – Who do I care about? — we’re focusing on the aspects that resonate with readers. If we focus on the second question — What do they care about? — we’re focusing on the aspects that satisfy readers.
Why is this so crucial, especially now when publishers are taking on less and less literary fiction? Readers want both, not one or the other.