When I saw this article pop up on my Twitter feed some days ago, the headline “Fear and Literature” seemed promising enough that I checked out the article. The piece opened thus: “Is the novel a space of intense engagement with the world, of risk and adventure? Or is it a place of refuge, of hanging back from life? The answer will be all too easy if we are living in a country that does not allow certain stories to be told. For Solzhenitsyn writing novels was indeed a serious risk. But in the West?”
This seemed like a promising (if somewhat pretentiously worded) beginning, potentially highlighting the differences under which the writing process was undertaken, and the relative value of writing to those in different circumstances. But by the end of the article, I was ready to throw something about the person who wrote it. To paraphrase a point made near the end, a writer who believes that reading can give an experience unique to reading where the reader is able to enter fully into other characters thoughts and feelings cannot be a good novelist.
I’m sorry, but that’s completely ridiculous. If you’re a good writer, you place a unique value on reading.
And I don’t mean from a sheer monetary standpoint- though that’s a part of it. For a novelist, reading is the first step to making a living. Here’s the shocker- reading in and of itself does not necessarily guarantee that you will make it as a writer. You need people to enjoy the writing you put out- especially if you’re trying to make it as a novelist. That’s where characters become a factor.
I recently sent a story in to a magazine on a whim, a sort of what-the-hell-why-not venture. It was rejected in what is quite possibly the nicest rejection letter I’ll ever see in my life- I was told in it that the writing of my story had made the reader feel “as though they had been transported out of their chair” but that because I hadn’t adequately established the main character or his reason for accepting a bizarre occurrence in my story, it wasn’t up to par.
That’s a failure on my part to draw the reader into the story so that they accepted the experience unique to that particular tale. And that contributed to its being rejected. Granted, a short story is not the same as a novel, but I think the point still stands. When it comes to reading, the person’s experience while reading is- for the most part- a very solid indicator of the writer’s skill in telling their story. There will always be the idiots who love everything thrown at them, but when it comes to reading classic works, the experience of reading those stories is a very large reason they endure. Ideas alone are not enough to make something a true classic; neither is form. A good example of this is the book I just reviewed, Divergent. There are some really fascinating ideas in this book, and the form, is, for the most part, both conventional with what’s trending today (first person present tense narration, dystopia) and formally adequate, if not stunning. But there’s more to a book than that. Divergent’s rank in convention and form are not enough to make it high-quality, nor are they enough to make the book middling. What does that are the characters and the story. It’s the reader’s experience of the story and the people within it that will shape how they experience that tale.
An even better example, perhaps, would be The Hunger Games. The writing in this book series really is not very good from a formal standpoint (too much telling, poor description, poor worldbuilding, etc.) but the experience of following Katniss in her struggles is enough for many readers to forgive those flaws. There’s something about reading those books that draws you in in a way that can’t be reduced to just the story itself. The fact that there are so many debates about whether a film adaption of x book is better than the original is enough to show that there’s something about a book that’s unique from other forms of storytelling. Describing novels as being “largely form and convention,” does a huge disservice to the authors who half-kill themselves trying to build incredible worlds and realistic characters.
The other problem I had with this article was that it seemed to be dismissing books on the grounds that they couldn’t ever truly prepare you for something in real life. While it’s definitely true that nothing on a printed page can replace something occurring in front of a person, a reader has the chance to think about the things they read and wonder: “What if something like this happened to me?” The thought process that a book can trigger can prepare a person to think and face what comes in the real world, even if that reading is nothing like what occurs in real life. Books aren’t meant to be true to life. They should be an image that, while unreal, is still instructive and useful in seeing what the world is truly like.
I won’t deny that it’s rare for a book to transcend the printed page thoroughly enough to show an image of life. But it does happen, and those stories endure past their original forms. Those stories are the reason for which we struggle though Shakespeare’s plays and translate old Greek texts. Such stories last because they depict something about life that is real across various cultures and centuries- and it’s for that depiction of something real that they deserve to be honored.