Monday, July 25, 2011

Hope, promise, and tenderness

Thank you, to those of you who commented on my last post. You've brought up a number of ideas that are new to me. Best reason for maintaining a blog, I say, not marketing or platform, but I digress.

To recap, this was the question I asked:

Why are some books difficult to read on?

I am excluding obvious reasons such as poor writing or dull story.

I kept this question front and center as I read The Solitude of Prime Numbers, which I finished over the weekend. I had wanted to put it down after the initial chapters but decided to use this reading experience as an experiment to see if I can figure out possible reasons for why I feel compelled to put down books.

And I did come away with a few observations.

I mentioned in the earlier post that I find it hard to stomach reading about young people suffering, yet that alone doesn't stop me. Room is about a very young, innocent, and vulnerable child, yet I was able to read it to the end.

The difference is this: hope. This young boy and his mother speak of their environment not as their destiny but keep hope alive in their minds about how life can be. In Solitude of Prime Numbers, the young people who are affected and those around them are portrayed as having surrendered to their lot. There is no hint that there may be changes in the future. Their days, their interactions, their outlook: they're all shrouded in despair.

In Okay For Now, Doug doesn't come across as someone who is hopeful for change either. In fact, he seems to be following in exactly the type of behavior--channeling his nasty brother, Lucas-- that will seal his fate in its current manifestation. Yet, Gary Schmidt managed to infuse an uncertainty in Doug's behavior when he acts in -self-destructive ways. We feel that underneath the bravado, he is still holding out hope for a different, a better outcome that he seems destined for.

Hope, that's a big difference in why I will or will not read on.

The second reason I discovered is this: how characters treat one another makes a huge different to me. When people treat another with nastiness and contempt continuously, it gives me a bad taste in my mouth. In Prime Numbers, the moment when I didn't have to push myself to finish the book was when the characters started feeling empathy and treating others with tenderness. In Okay For Now, even when Doug was being mean outwardly, a few key people treated him with respect and understanding. In Room, mom and son loved each other fiercely.

I'm not sure why this issue have such a strong impact on me, People treating one another badly isn't uncommon.Again, I believe it's the sentiment underlying the behavior that affects me. I need a smidgen of suggestion that these people have some respect or understanding or acceptance of the people they mistreat to not make me despair. People being nasty to people just because: it's not something I can handle a lot of.

So hope and understanding between people: these are the ingredients necessary for me to read about people going through horrible circumstances.

Any of these resonate with you?


Domey Malasarn said...

I once had a writing teacher tell me, in regard to characters, that you can't bring back the dead. I had written a story about a man who was in a bad situation. The story ended with him in a slightly better situation, but my teacher didn't buy into it because I had him come off as being too hopeless internally to begin with. I think my teacher and you are talking about the same thing. There needs to be that spark for people to care. The spark allows emotional people to sympathize.

scott g.f.bailey said...

To me it has less to do with the fictional characters empathizing with each other and more to do with the author empathizing with the characters. For example, in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, I really got the impression that Franzen didn't care at all about his characters, and so neither did I and that's the only book in recent memory that I didn't finish. In Davin Malasarn's Bread, you have people making horrific decisions and acting like monsters, but the author clearly cares about these people so I was emotionally invested. Same with Shakespeare: plays like "Hamlet" or "MacBeth" have a lot of brutality and end with the stage covered in bloody corpses, but Shakespeare made his characters real people and you can tell that he loved them. That's the difference for me as a reader. The level of violence is pretty well beside the point.

Laoch of Chicago said...

As I have grown older and the reality of my mortality has settled in I much less likely to read really grim works, thinking on some level that real life is depressing enough.

Yat-Yee said...

Doney: When I started reading your comment, I thought you were going the opposite direction. I thought you meant that this teacher is saying that if you started a person in a hopeless situation, dead, as it were, then trying to bring hope to his character later in the story doesn't ring true. But what you're saying is that if a character is to find some measure of hope or redemption, there needs to be a hint of it from the beginning. Am I right? Or am I totally off base?

Scott: Do you think there is any correlation between how an author feels about his/her characters and how the characters treat one another?

Loach: I agree with you. Real life is more than depressing in many ways and I've put down a few books that made me despair for that very reason.

Sometimes though, when I come across a book that is bleak and grim but holds out a promise of hope, even if it's a tiny slither of one, I get a boost in viewing my own life. Maybe that's why I don't mind reading depressing books.

Domey Malasarn said...

Yat-Yee, yes, I think we're saying the same thing. And I may be wrong, but I think this relates to what Scott is saying too. If a writer cares about a character, then she or he will probably make her or his "soul" alive in some way. At least I've never loved a character and decided not to give that character a living soul.

Yat-Yee said...

Domey: love a character and then not give it a living soul: your new book? :P

Domey Malasarn said...

Is that a dare?

Yat-Yee said...

Now that you've put it this way: YES!

I have no clue how somebody would do that, but I'm sure you'll come up with something fabulous.

(Don't you dare give me zombies.)

scott g.f.bailey said...

Yat-Yee: "Do you think there is any correlation between how an author feels about his/her characters and how the characters treat one another?"

I'm going to say no. I don't think there's any connection at all, nor should there be. I try hard to love all of my characters unreservedly, but some of them are villainous and they frequently treat each other horribly. My job is to be as honest as I can be, not kind or hopeful (or particularly grim, either). I have no interest in saving my characters or having them learn lessons; I want them to be how they are, and I want them to be like real people, so my novels aren't designed to teach or to reassure or any of that. If there is a moralistic bent in my fiction, it's to show the reader that the world is a difficult place and that happiness is hard to come by, so we should all treat each other better than we do to ameliorate the existential pain. But I don't say any of that in my books.

Yat-Yee said...

Scott: I can guess that you won't try to be moralistic in your writing. I also don't mean that I need the author to be kind or hopeful in order to write something good and meaningful. That would be very limiting.

I guess all of this discussion is leading me to realize that as a reader at this moment in my life, I can't handle unrelenting bleak and nastiness.

Interesting tie0in to what you have on your blog, the Man Booker Prize longlist. I read reviews of almost all of the books and I get the feeling that quite a number of them tend to be on the bleakish side. I do intend to read a few though. If not for anything, then at least for expanding my horizons and to challenge if what I am saying now is indeed true.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Yat-Yee: When I read Elizabeth Strout's book Olive Kitteridge, I realized that in each of her 16 or so stories there comes a point where you realize how sad life can be, and I'd feel like all the air was sucked out of space and I'd never be happy again, but it wasn't so much bleak as beautifully revelatory, I guess. I don't know. I don't read to be uplifted, in general. I get my hope elsewhere than fiction. I have a really hard time reading about heroes overcoming adversity because I don't believe in that world. But I can't take unrelenting grimness either and sometimes I just read Paddington Bear books. I worry that I'm coming across as a really bleak sort of person, when I'm really not at all! Ask Davin, he'll tell you!

Yat-Yee said...

Scott: Are you sure Davin will say that? :) I'm sure he's willing to be bribed though. Maybe he'd like a Paddington Bear. Quite uplifting, that fuzzy one. (And if you don't feel like sharing your stuff animals, it's okay. Anyone who has a goat named Noel in his yard cannot be all that grim..)

I am a person who can get easily depressed and while I don't think being such is necessarily a curse, at least not all the time, I do have to be careful what I feed my mind.

Olive Kitteridge is quite bleak, I agree, and my heart did ache and a few times I had to stop and breathe. But it didn't push me over the edge. It didn't feel so much as an uplifting experience as partaking in sadness together. Okay, now I may be talking nonsense.

scott g.f.bailey said...

"partaking in sadness together" is pretty good. It's like a group catharsis (or a private catharsis shared by a bunch of people if that makes sense). But that's about as bleak as I want my fiction to be. Or Fahrenheit 451 or Oryx and Crake bleak, but not necessarily gruesome.