Thursday, June 11, 2009
Recently, a novelist friend of mine shared one of her fan letters with me. It was from a woman who'd been blind and had recovered the sight of one eye. She raved about my friend's last book, specifically about its realism--the protagonist had an accident that severely diminished her eyesight--even going so far as to say she was sure my friend had had experience with visual impairment herself or knew someone who had, so well had she captured what that world was like.
Wow--I can understand why my pal was so touched by that note. It affirmed her world-building skills, her meticulous research and ability to use real-life detail to create a sympathetic story. By "sympathetic," I mean a tale that the reader identifies with, nods her head to, thinking "yes, that's true, that's how things really are, and I didn't know how to articulate it."
Before I started writing fiction seriously (that is, taking the time to learn the business and investing the time in finishing manuscripts), I attended a writing workshop at a prestigious university. During the two-day program, participants critiqued each others' short stories, with occasional words of guidance thrown in by the teacher, an author of a published book of short stories.
There are only two things that stand out in my memory from that workshop. One was an absolutely wonderful magical realism story written by a man in his fifties or sixties who, I was extremely chagrined to learn, had never had his works published--they'd been rejected by literary magazines left and right. (The rant I could insert here about this is for another day, another post!)
The other memorable moment came when our teacher observed that what writers should strive for is not soaring prose so much as the head-nodding moments, those points in the story where the reader immediately "gets it," and is grateful for the author's ability to articulate whatever "it" is.
My favorite reviews and reader reactions always come from "head nodders" -- readers who not only loved my storytelling but identified with or understood thoroughly the threads that run through the book or the deeper story or some telling detail that I'd inserted to illustrate a point about life or love.
But, no matter how tickled I am at eliciting those reactions, I know there will always be some readers for whom my writing is not their cup of tea. That's okay -- and their thumbs-downs are okay (as long as they don't get story details wrong, like the woman who said my book was...well, no need to go into that...). We all have different tastes.
In fact, even the most celebrated stories aren't universally loved. This was reinforced for me recently when I decided to reread for the gajillionth time (okay, maybe just the sixth time, but that's a lot, right?)a classic, Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, trying to see in it what lots of other folks see. While I love other books from that time period--most notably the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald -- and I enjoyed Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, I was always left cold by Arms.
So I tried again. And liked it a bit more. But still remain an agnostic as far as believing in its greatness. Is that heresy?
As a reader, what classics have you had trouble with? What good and bad reactions have you had to the greats of literature?