Monday, June 21, 2010

On Purple Hearts and Cigarettes

By Kevin Guilfoile

I'm going to be talking out of my rear again today, just so you're warned.

Last week I finally got around to watching the series finale of Lost. I had spent the previous days avoiding any discussion of it, and so after I saw it I went out and surveyed the articles and chats and reviews. There were people who liked it and a lot of people who didn't. But what struck me about the response was the degree to which the fans of the show felt that as the series wound down they were "owed" something creatively by the producers and writers of the show. No one could quite explain what that something was, but they all thought they'd know it when they saw it. And a lot of them said they didn't see it.

I'm not trying to start a debate about the success or failure of the final season of Lost. But it got me thinking about this idea of what the artist owes the audience, and more specifically what the novelist owes the reader.

I'm basing this strictly on tangential conversations I've had over the years (and my experience with the novels themselves), but if I were to poll my friends who identify their books as literary fiction, I think many of them would say the writer owes nothing to the reader except for the obvious: A compelling story with finely-drawn characters, written well. (As my friend John Warner, an acclaimed short story writer and English professor whose debut novel will be released next year says, "I believe there’s an obligation to the audience to engage them with the text from the biggest picture stuff like character and story, all the way down to the sentence and word level. The text should be organic, true to itself, to the set of rules that it establishes on its own. By the end of a literary novel, I think the reader usually knows the rules the writer has established over the course of the text, so the blank slate isn’t so blank anymore.") Many would bristle at the idea that in terms of the details of the story--how the story specifically ends, what happens to the characters, whether or not every question has been explicitly answered, all the things fans were complaining about after the final Lost episode--they owe the reader a particular result. The story is the author's alone. A book is not a democracy. When the reader picks up a novel, they sign on to the author's vision and agree to go on that journey no matter where it takes them. They may or may not enjoy the story, but to wish it were different, or that the journey would take them to a different place, would be out of bounds, according to these writers. These are not elements that are negotiable by the reader.

But if I were to ask my friends who consider themselves genre writers, I think I'd get a slightly different answer. I think suspense writers, for instance, are acutely aware of the reader's expectations and are usually loath to defy them. I think many of them would say that if good doesn't win over evil, that if order is not restored, that if questions are not explicitly answered, they are cheating the reader. They aren't giving her what she paid for.

It's the difference, I guess, between Lee Child's ability to kill off Jack Reacher, and John Updike's ability to kill off Rabbit Angstrom.

Last week I was at an event, and afterwards I was sitting at the hotel bar watching the Lakers-Celtics game with Christopher Reich, the bestselling author of many terrific novels, including the upcoming RULES OF BETRAYAL. I was describing to him a short story I was contemplating writing and Chris was hammering me (in a helpful way) on a storyline that I had planned to leave largely unresolved."You can't do that," Chris said. "You can't raise a question that big and not resolve it. You have to tell the reader why it happened." And of course, he's right. If I'm writing a certain kind of story, I really shouldn't do that. But who decides what kind of story I'm writing? Is it me, or is it the reader?

Now this is an old debate (not to mention the plot of Misery), and in a lot of MFA programs they would deride this approach to writing as "formula." But that's a mischaracterization thats shows a lack of understanding about what these writers are really doing. Sure there are popular genre writers who are phoning it in, essentially writing the same book over and over, but for most suspense writers I think the thing that defines them is not a formula but a relationship with the reader. And for me, what makes a great genre novel is a writer who understands these expectations and uses them to surprise the reader, but also thrill and delight him--a writer who subverts and plays with the reader's expectations without completely betraying them.

Justin Cronin wrote two acclaimed works of literary fiction. He attended the Iowa Writers Workshop and is a professor at Rice University. Currently he's touring to support one of the most anticipated books of the summer, the vampire thriller The Passage. At BEA this month, he said, "I used to have readers, but now I think I'm going to have fans."

Readers can be critical, but fans can be disappointed. Writing for the latter seems to involve a whole other set of responsibilities.

---
Also a reminder about my Twitter contest. Ahead of my upcoming novel THE THOUSAND, I'm looking for 1,000 Twitter followers, and when I get them I'll be giving away ten signed advance copies, plus a handwritten deleted chapter and lots of other cool stuff.

20 comments:

libbyfh said...

Kevin, your post really requires a lot more time, and a few drinks in order to discuss it fully. Especially if you're buying.

As a genre writer, I believe I have an implicit "contract" with my readers, and it goes something like this: In return for them suspending their disbelief that murder occurs so frequently in my characters' universe, I will give them a credible, believable, plausible story that they can't put down. For me the credibiity factor is very important.

WHich is why I tend to shy away from vampire books, ghost stories, etc. Although Cronin's book might make me change my mind. Have you read it?

Michael Dymmoch said...

I think that, as a writer, you owe it to your reader to learn your craft and write the best book you can.

If it's good, if it holds to the unwritten contract--that you'll make it easy for your reader to suspend his disbelief and keep turning pages, and that you'll provide a protagonist he can identify with (or at least root for) and a story (WHICH IMPLIES a beginning, a middle and an end) in which SOMETHING happens--you've kept up your end.

Beyond that, if you please yourself, at least one person is satisfied. No one can please everyone.

Robin Allen said...

I agree that literary writers can pretty much do anything they want, but genre writers must stick to established rules. In fact, if you violate the rules of your genre, you likely won't be published--especially if you're a first-time author.

The writer always decides what he or she wants to write, but if you want to be published and read, you need to understand, and deliver on, reader expectations. As long as your story has the expected structure, you can dress it up anyway you want.

Tony D'Amato said...

Most fans of The Sopranos thought David Chase let them down with the ending to the series. I thought it was the finest, most appropriate, and most thoughtful ending I've ever seen in any TV series or movie for that matter (exclusive of Some Like it Hot).

Tony D'Amato

Libby Hellmann said...

I also loved the ending of the Sopranos, Tony. WOnderful use of suspense, right up till the final fade to black.

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