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Books as Friends

Feb 15,2013
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    But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll, 
    My left hand hooks you round the waist, 
    My right hand points to landscapes of continents and the public road.

    Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you, 
    You must travel it for yourself.

    It is not far, it is within reach, 
    Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know, 
    Perhaps it is every where on water and on land.

    Shoulder your duds dear son, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth, 
    Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.

Excerpt from Walt Whitman - Song of Myself 1855


Over the last few years I've been contemplating this idea of books as friends. I read Wayne Booth's 'The Company We Keep', which I found intriguing and enlightening about what had been the biggest shortcomings of my novels to that point. I had not been a friend to the reader. I had tried to be entertaining, and funny, and for the plot to make sense, but I did have a whole "you figure it out" dismissiveness when it came to the reader, which I am now ashamed of. 

Setting aside content altogether - which is a separate issue - what I am most interested in is that way the structure of the narrative can be a friend to the reader. How is the author crafting the work in a way that hooks you around the waist?

How is it that you can tell a story with a generosity of spirit, of humility, being inclusive in the way the story is told, rather than shutting the reader out, or being didactic, or even crafty? Worst of all being self-indulgent and clever.

You would have read, as I have, books that in other respects are interesting, or mysterious, or even fun, but there is something in the execution that makes us angry or even resentful.

I'm going to talk about some examples *spoiler alert*. If you don't want to know what happens in these books then stop reading.

I felt cheated by 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd', for example. This is an Agatha Christie book where it is revealed at the very end that the murder was perpetrated by the narrator. This didn't happen some time before the novel began. It happened while we were in his company, but he just chose not to tell us about it. It wasn't fair because there is a rule about omissions on that kind of scale. One needs to include all of the pertinent information. That's the craft of a murder mystery - that the reader has the clues and yet doesn't guess the answer. And it's not even because the writer can't break the rules from time to time. ''The Real Inspector Hound', a play by Tom Stoppard, where members of the audience become involved in the murder mystery that is played out on stage, makes fun of this particular set of rules, but also bends the genre, without being sneaky about it, or excluding the rest of the audience.

And it's not about whether or not the story is spelled out either. 'The Life of Pi', for example, where a man tells the same story twice, but with different characters occupying the roles in each version, offers us possibilities to choose from in terms of what you think actually happened, and what it's all about, without being obstructive. It's not about the story being easy to understand, or the characters being easier or more difficult to feel for. Another one that springs to mind is 'The House of Sand and Fog' which I love because you feel equally for all parties. In this book a woman is mistakenly evicted from her home, and a man and his family buy the home while there is confusion about the ownership. Both parties have the same sincere claims and genuine grievances. It wrenches in all directions at once.

'Alex as Well' is the first manuscript that I have written since I have been pondering this approach to writing, and I do hope that it comes through in the final product. I have tried to offer alternative versions of events and to give the reader all of the information that they need at pertinent points in the plot, without being obstructive.

I'm still fleshing out these ideas. I'm wondering if you've read something that either got up your nose, or where you think there was something of a hand extended in friendship in the way the story was put together.

What was the book and what did you love/hate about the way it was manufactured?

Feb 18,2013

I agree with ambivalence on The Book Thief. That's the best of example I could think of. I was really annoyed when he spoiled the ending, but when I finished the book.... well it turns out it didn't spoil the effect at all. ^^

Feb 16,2013

It took me ten books to figure this out. It's the writer's job to make their intention and purpose clear. If your intention is to be deliberately obstructive, then you can't complain when you get reviewed badly, or readers 'don't get it'.

Again, I'm not talking about content or matters of personal taste. I'm happy for readers not to like my characters, or to take issue with the story, but it's my job to make sure they are given the best opportunity to make those judgements.

I agree that a deus ex machina ending is infuriating - as is and ending with no resolution at all.

Feb 16,2013
anonymous's picture

I love the Walt Whitman poem and the question about books that disappoint. A book is my friend if it entertains, surprises, informs and transports me. I don’t want it to insult me with poor research or sloppy attention to detail and continuity. I don’t want it to be didactic or finger pointing. I don’t want to be inundated with technical knowledge that stifles the plot. Mostly I hope for a bit of poetry, maybe a smile, some suspense and an emotional roller coaster ride. Last month I read a recently-released YA book (name withheld to protect the not-so-innocent) with a Deus Ex Machina plot resolution. I was furious. That was not the emotional ride I was hoping for!

Feb 15,2013

I'm just that type of mean person who likes to keep the audience in suspense, even after the book is over, witholding information and stuff. On the other hand, I get just as irritated as the next person when the same thing is done to me :P I'll work on being nicer, I will, but for now, when I'm not that serious about being a professionally published author.... I'll stick to being mean ^_^

I have to say The Book Thief was one that I hated and loved - though the latter more than the former. It was the way he told us what would happen in the end, at the start...!! >.< But still, Markus Zusak is just that genius, the way that even though you knew what would happen, you couldn't stop reading and you still bawled at the end.... *sigh* That was a friendly book indeed.

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