Monday, March 18, 2013

Why Readers Read and How Writers Disappoint


Popular fiction is read for entertainment. Seems obvious, doesn't it?

And some writers consistently deliver a good read and some don't. Why is that? When I turn to standard literary criticism, I find that it deals with everything but how to entertain readers. Wow, how defunct is that? Shouldn't that be the heart and soul of literary criticism? Shouldn't it be a guidebook for the writer of popular fiction? I guess not.

There is a school of literary thought called Reader Response Criticism. These folks argue that standard literary criticism focuses heavily on the writer and little on the reader. So these folks want to correct that imbalance and focus on the reader. I don't know, but I'm thinking these guy went too far the other way. Wikipedia has a great write-up.

I have found it both entertaining and educational  to visit sites like Amazon or Goodreads and read what readers think about popular works of fiction. In fact, I'm beginning to formulate an alternative school of criticism. I wonder what I should call it? Well, never mind the name....

Readers cite immersive as the best kind of reading experience. Total immersion in an alternate reality where common life is left behind. If a reader can reach total immersion and stay there, he will be a happy reader indeed. Standard literary criticism speaks of the suspension of disbelief. Sure, but the mere suspension of disbelief is not sufficient for the reader to enter another world or another time. The writer must catch and hold the reader's attention while he creates this alternate reality and immerses the reader in it. And having accomplished this goal, he must keep the reader immersed until the last word of the last page. Anything that causes the reader to surface, to remember that he is merely reading should be avoided. And there are so many ways to go wrong.


One is clunky prose. I want to get this one out of the way early because it's a personal peeve. Fortunately, the really bad stuff never makes it past a literary agent let alone an editor. But some of the big name fantasy writers have some pretty inefficient prose. I spend too much time mentally rewriting their sentences, so I'm always conscious that I'm reading.

Then there's Henry James. He could write sentences that were one or two pages long. His friend Edith Wharton pronounced some of it unreadable. Hey Henry, if the reader has to diagram your sentences to figure out what you're getting at, he's no longer immersed. Others, like Theodore Dreiser, yammered on and on about god-knows-what until the reader was beaten into submission. Boredom is not a prescription for immersion.

Prose can be divided into pre- and post-Hemingway. Hemingway and his contemporaries simplified prose, made it more direct, more concise. If you can say it in three words instead of five, use three. If you can say it in three syllables instead of three multi-syllabic words, do that. If a sentence furthers the cause of immersion, well and good. But if it doesn't, get rid of it, because if nothing else it dilutes. Dilution flirts with boredom and boredom is the enemy of immersion.

There is at least one pre-Hemingway writer who used thoroughly modern prose and she was Jane Austen. Here are the first two sentences of Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
Austen propels the reader directly into the story. In fact, she has told us what it's all about. That is how it's done. The faster the reader enters the story, the better because it is story that pulls the reader along. It is the story that links the chapters, links the episodes. Even a novel that's all about character is really about character change and this change is wrought by the events in the story. There has to be enough story to carry the words otherwise we have dilution. Am I repeating myself?

Rebecca is much beloved with Manderley, Mrs. Danvers, and the dead yet ever present Rebecca. British television has filmed it at least twice, both with good result, but the novel needed an editor unafraid to wield a blue pencil. Daphne du Maurier never wrote a sentence she didn't like and she kept them all. While you're reading you keep asking yourself 'Why is this here? When will it ever end?'. It is a series of irrelevant digressions. Too many words for the story to carry.

The same with Theodore Dreiser and An American Tragedy. There was a good story in there and they made a fine movie out of it. Dreiser just couldn't put his pencil down, boredom ensues and the mind wanders. 'Did I turn off the oven?' Some books are hard to put down, others once put down are hard to pick back up.

Good pacing varies throughout a novel. Sure, too many words for the story to carry destroys pacing. But writing non-stop action also wears the reader out and eventually becomes monotonous. Fast action needs slower parts for contrast so it is necessary to slow the story down at intervals. A good writer will use these intervals to do a little world building and/or a little character building that later drives the story.

Speaking of character building, another common criticism, especially by fantasy readers, is shallow characterization. Readers want fully developed characters with strengths and flaws; they make careful decisions, they also act on the spur of the moment. Sometimes characters do things both good and bad despite the personal cost. Why? Characterization must be deep enough so that we understand motivations. When a reader has to stop to mull over a character's motivation, immersion is at risk.

Readers often remark that all of the characters were a disagreeable lot and  the reader cared little what happened to any of them. When a reader ceases to care what happens to  the characters, the game is over. The reader needs a rooting interest. The same is true for characters whose goodness is never a struggle; they are uninteresting.

Novelists like to choose a story set in a world unfamiliar to most readers, the world of the cop or the criminal, the con artist, the world of elves and fairies, alien worlds, the world of the fighter pilot, the combat infantryman, the chain gang, the gambler. It's new to the reader or at least different enough and it holds his attention. Readers appreciate a writer who has worked hard to evoke a time and a place, a language and a set of rules. They refer to it as world building and it is a great deal more than setting.

Thus far, I have proposed five major elements of a novel that the writer needs for an immersive read: story, character, world, pace and prose. I will propose one last optional element and that is theme.

Stephen King says theme's optional. He's an immensely popular writer and ought to know a thing or two about an entertaining read. I suppose we could pull a theme out of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep if forced. It's a damn fine read, but I'm not sure Chandler had any theme or even needed one.

I have always felt theme to deepen the reading experience. Readers don't call a novel deep unless they think there is theme lurking behind the story. John le Carre wrote a wonderful novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and it has an easily spotted theme, betrayal. The characters comprehensively betray one another and eventually even their own principles, their own reason for being and this slowly dawns on us as we approach the conclusion. What could have been only a fairly decent spy story became so much more with the addition of theme.

I commend The Spy Who Came in From the Cold to everyone who wants to see how a very good novel is constructed. It has in Alec Leamas a sympathetic character who wants to do one last thing, one good thing as his career as a field agent closes. Le Carre understands the importance of characterization and provides us enough so that we understand why the characters make the story unfold as it does. It's set is a cheap and grimy world, complete with spycraft and wonderfully described. We cannot imagine it any other way. The pacing is spot on with the slower bits used for character and world building. Le Carre prose is descriptive, but not elaborate. The novel is about 65,000 words long, more or less, and le Carre does not dilute it irrelevant digressions. And it has a theme. In my humble opinion, it is on the short list of the best novels ever written.

So it seems readers are happiest when they are sucked into the story from the first sentence, and glide into a finely fashioned world inhabited by characters they come to understand and whose fate they care about. They are unhappy with difficult prose, pointless digressions, a world they cannot see or hear, shallow characters, and insufficient story and bad pacing.

It doesn't sound easy, not easy at all. And this is just the shallowest of glosses (I've already yammered on far too long). Some writers (very few I suspect) have an innate sense of how it is done; the rest must study their quarry and rely on their own personal readers. Pleasing readers is rather an art form in itself.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dark Places (2009) Gillian Flynn

Abandoned on page 114 out of 345 and it BROKE MY HEART. 

First of all, Gillian Flynn and I share some roots and I am predisposed to LIKE her work. I LIKED her first book, Sharp Objects. I LIKED the story idea. There was a lot a really stupid stuff going on during the Satanic Panic: recovered memories, corrupted child testimony, and the almost complete abandonment of good sense. This was going to be a GREAT read! This is the trifecta of FAVORABLE PREDISPOSAL.







And here is her picture. Isn't she fetching! (You'll see why I have included the photo.) 

What went wrong? I liked the character of Libby Day. Damaged, quirky, and I liked the parts where Libby is telling the story. 

But the third person parts began to drag. Oh, the prose was good, but not as fresh as Libby's. And all the detail...I know she was fleshing out the other characters and I usually like that sort of thing, but...I became bored. I would look at Gillian's picture on the inside dust flap, try to rally myself and continue, but...is that an Ivory Billed Woodpecker down by the Old Pond? Where are my binoculars...no, just a blue jay. Back to Dark Places. First I look at Gillian's picture, then I read a little more...I wonder if I should mulch the fig tree? I look at Gillian's picture again and sigh. I wonder if she would consider dyeing her hair Pre-Raphaelite red? 

Finally, after many tears and a crushing sense of BETRAYAL, I abandoned the read. I'm so SORRY Gillian, but I want you to know: I loved EVERYTHING about Dark Places...except READING it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Smiley's People (1979) by John Le Carre

I liked it. I liked it a lot.

The final book of the Karla trilogy that started with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

I liked it, because every character has a back story and a motivation. I understood why everyone did everything (at least by the end). I liked the tradecraft and the anecdotal observations of it (see especially chapter 21).

I liked the moral ambivalence of it. Maybe the bad guys were always bad, but had the good guys been corrupted in the long fight?

I liked the prose. Le Carre is at the height of his powers. Fresh, powerful, lyrical...transparent. You don't even notice it. You glide along with it, all in the service of the story...you don't even realize you're reading.

This is better than Tinker, better than The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. That's saying something.

Monday, October 3, 2011

In a Shallow Grave (1975) by James Purdy

I liked it. I liked it a lot.

Told in the first person by Garnet Montrose, a horribly disfigured Army veteran. Garnet describes himself as having been turned inside out; people cannot look at him without wretching.

Garnet returns to his Virginia home and lives alone in the house of his grandfather and great-grandfather. He seeks the aid of an assistant to nurse him, read to him and to carry letters to the Widow Rance, a childhood friend, with whom he is desperately in love.

Garnet winds up with two assistants. Quintus is a young, intelligent African American who reads to Garnet and Daventry who ministers to Garnet and with whom Garnet forms a Platonic relationship. This unpromising mix of characters results in a surprisingly engaging story in which Garnet is transformed.

In a Shallow Grave is allegory, call it Southern Allegory (as opposed to the misnomer, Southern Gothic). It follows in the tradition of Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms and even earlier antecedents.

Being allegory, even the characters must be viewed in that light. Garnet, having been turned inside out, by being in an explosion that killed his comrades, views himself as horribly disgusting to others. Perhaps he believes his inner self has been revealed. Quintus, from the Latin name to his habit of reading the obscure and archaic books that seem to litter the house, reads aloud to Garnet those passages the Garnet needs to hear and functions as sort of a Greek chorus. Daventry is a beautiful outlaw, but missing his front teeth.

There are many twists and turns, all with hidden meaning and what starts out one way has, by the end, turned out as quite another. This is a novel about the outsider, the dispossessed, and his journey of self discovery.

Purdy's prose is spare, unornamented and free of unnecessary digression. Gore Vidal has called him "an authentic American genius." He has been called the best 'unknown' American writer.

Shallow is a quick read, 140 small pages of not small print, but a long ponder. I find myself returning to it at odd moments. It is instantly recognizable as a great work of fiction.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The classic mole hunt by John Le Carre.


I liked it.

I liked it because it seemed more complex than it was. I liked it for its casual fear and resentment of America.

"You hate America?"

Not at all. America is all I have ever known. I love its out-sized sloppiness, its unending variety, it's energy. Its intelligence and stupidity in equal measure.

"But it's the French who hate America."

And the Americans hate them back for it. Like children in a kindergarten. But always remember, there is that same strain of hate, perhaps more virulent, among the British intelligentsia, the last true outpost of French existentialism. They hate the French too, though. They have that strong belief in their divine right to rule and have found themselves instead on the last bus to Hampstead Heath.

This was a very enjoyable read. There are few spy or detective novels that hold up all the way to the end and Tinker is one of them. Usually I become a little disenchanted about 2/3 of the way through. Plot holes surface, explanations become a little too pat, there is a drawn out 'chase' at the end. None of this for Le Carre.

What he did right by me:

He had a great story. Seemingly complex. Mole hunts are tailor made (forgive the pun) for complexity. The way in which a mole is even suspected must be a bit round about otherwise the mole hunt would have already commenced (Le Carre has it both ways - genius). Catching a mole is tricky because great measures have been taken to conceal his identity. A ruse is required (Le Carre uses two).

Character development. Early spy/detective novels were mere puzzles - you have seen the clues afforded our detective, can you solve it? Some contained elaborate summaries to help the reader. This kind of thing got old fast, enter Hammett, Chandler, et al. Le Carre works at characterization and there is no ham-fisted explanation at the end for why the mole did it (rather, more than one explanation offered by the characters involved).

Good, clear prose. Fresh and descriptive, very serviceable. I liked the way he interspersed dialog with brief summaries of digressions. It makes it all very natural without having to wade through the irrelevant bits.

The weaker bits:

Plot is inseparable from motivation which is inseparable from character. We understand the characters when we can explain their motivations for ourselves.  This is forever and always a hugely difficult undertaking and almost no one carries it off completely (please comment if you know an exception). Le Carre did work at characterization, just not enough.

A novel, a good novel, is made up of many things. A good novel has a story and a theme and Tinker has a theme. It is betrayal. Gerald the mole's betrayal of his country, his colleagues, and his lovers. Ann Smiley's serial betrayals of her husband, George. I do wish Le Carre would have done a little more with it.

Would I recommend this? You bet. To anyone. It's a must read.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Post Office

Charles Bukowski's first novel, published in 1971. I liked it.

John Martin of Black Sparrow Press offered Bukowski, at that time noted more for poetry than prose, $100/month to quit the post office and write full time. As poetry did (and does) not sell, Bukowski wrote Post Office, which is a fictional account of Bukowski's life from the early 1950's to 1969 when he quit the post office once and for all.

Bukowski transforms himself into Henry Chinaski and the women in his life into beautiful nymphomaniacs, tragic alcoholics, and free living hipsters. Chinaski is no sucker, he detests the work ethic and the colateral death march. He enjoys pretty girls, the race track and plenty of liquor with which to chase it all. He has no real philosophy, no selfless ambition, cares for everyone, but mostly for himself.


Post Office is written in very short chapters, many only a half page long, slices of life. Bukowski's prose is simple, fresh and direct. The tone never changes, the essence of the experiences never changes, yet Bukowski kept me reading, reading 'til the the very end. I didn't feel disappointed; I didn't feel cheated.



Monday, August 29, 2011

The Bridge in the Jungle

I liked it.

Written by the mysterious B. Traven as a short story and serialized in 1927, subsequently published in a longer book form in 1929.

I had been trolling the used book stores looking for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927) also by Traven and came upon this for $2. I took a chance.

It is indeed a short story - about the death and burial of a little Indian boy in the jungles of Mexico, 176 pages of small print, perhaps 45,000 words. I had to put it down over the course of several days to do those things we all must to keep body and soul concomitant, but I kept picking it back up, kept on reading. It is a tribute to Traven's ability as a writer.

It is clear that Traven had that love and respect for indigenous peoples that afflicts the idealist, but in his case is tempered by a realistic appreciation of ignorance and poverty. Most writers of indigenous peoples fall into two camps: the noble savage or the carefree children. The noble savage is proud, lives at one with the land and has a mystical communion with the universe. The carefree children are good-hearted, irresponsible, comic emulators of European sophistication. Traven travels a more realistic middle ground.

I could not but help seeing in The Bridge in the Jungle the seeds of a magical realism, subtle and restrained - not the careless mixture of fantasy and reality encountered so often and so much later. And this in 1927, well before Borges' Ficciones in 1944.

Traven was revered in Mexico, at one point his literary representative was Esperanza Lopez Mateos, sister of a future President of Mexico, until her suicide in 1951, the same Year Traven was granted Mexican Citizenship.

I'm going to keep my eye out for more Traven. If you ignore the anti-capitalist rants (actually, I found them to be lots of fun), Traven writes with a certain degree of subtlety. And how can a story so simple be stretched to 45,000 words and still keep the reader interested all the way to the end? He did it pretty well.