Thursday, October 27, 2016

Why stimulate the reader's emotions?

The headline question is one that, as a novelist, has caused me some trouble. After all, isn't one of the reasons to read novels to be entertained (i.e., be positively stimulated), to feel safe grief when a character dies (i.e., it's only a story), to enjoy satisfaction when the protagonist triumphs? These emotions may not have the same quality as those we feel when a parent/friend/child dies or when we ourselves triumph, but they're convenient an cheap. They may not be as intense as the real thing, but they're better than nothing.

The question has caused me trouble because I am not convinced that my own fiction engenders emotion in readers—which I regard as a failure—while consoling myself that whether I intend to provoke emotion or not, a story automatically does so. The issue is not whether a novel stimulates emotions, but whether it stimulates strong emotions or weak and whether the emotions are what the author intended.

These thoughts were stimulated by an essay in The New York Times Book Review by Tim Parks, one of my favorite authors. Parks notes that today a book stimulates extreme emotions as a promotional tool. "Anything that disturbs us, arouses us, unsettles us, is unconditionally positive." The point of course is to sell books.

One effect of the current situation, Parks argues—from an admittedly limited perspective—is that contemporary creative writing courses "are obsessed with technique—how to arrive at that powerful detail, how to give it prominence, how to grab the reader, not why we want to grab the reader or to what end. Traditional literature courses used to reflect on the way detail was used inside a novel's overall vision. The present zeitgeist invites us only to contemplate how the trigger can be pulled, not where the bullet is going, because the purpose of creative writing courses—especially when the fees are high—is to teach the would-be writer how to produce a publishable narrative, not a 'good,' let alone 'responsible' narrative."

One might argue that this cry from the heart is Parks' rational for not writing more popular novels (as if best-sellerdom where the measure of quality). It certainly is a condemnation of much of commercial publishing: If you don't grab the reader—agent, editor, editorial committee—in the first two pages, if you don't put her on the edge of her seat, if you don't set her pulse racing, why publish the thing at all?

Perhaps because, as Parks suggests, the novel invites the reader to a higher level of intellectual engagement with complex issues. Or because it retreats "from spicy detail to offer a balanced view of life overall." Or because its characters manage "to handle potentially dangerous conflicts without arriving at a destructive showdown."

"Intellectual engagement"? "Balanced view"? No "destructive showdown" with a comely young woman threatened by ugly death? It sounds boring. And Lord (and publishing) knows, boring doesn't sell books.

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