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.