Saturday, August 28, 2010

So, What's the Point of Fiction?

I'm just going to bring this into the blog, because I think it's something both Shifter and I are interested in. And I'm not spoiler tagging anything--if you haven't read Tana French's first novel, I'm sorry to say that it is two years old and you are officially on your own. Feel free to go away and read it now. When you've finished it after two sleepless nights, the blog will still be here. Are you back now? Good.

Seeker, our most faithful commenter and author of her own blog, made note of the fact that I'm reading Tana French's new novel, Faithful Place. As it happens, I've been waiting for it desperately since I finished her last one, which I had been waiting for desperately since I finished her first book. Seeker asked if it was like her first book, In The Woods, the ending of which didn't meet with her approval:
The fact that she did not RESOLVE what happened IN THE WOODS made me CRAZY....I thought it was very unfair to her audience. Let me know when you finish if I can trust that she does not do the same thing in her other novels....
So, I don't need to finish French's book to answer you. If I were you, I just wouldn't read them. I don't think you and Tana French see eye to eye about what makes a good story, and I don't think that makes her an unfair writer or a bad writer or a mean writer. I think it just means she may not be writing for you.

I don't need a bow on everything, especially if the writer has any inkling that she might write about a character again. Frankly it makes the characters a lot less interesting if all their problems can be resolved in a mere three to five hundred pages. I know I have a boatload of stories that I'll never know the ending to in my life, and it doesn't bother me if a writer chooses to make her stories lifelike in that way.

And a cop who's dealing with an unresolved mystery in his past is far more interesting than a cop who figured it all out and put it to rest. I mean, I might be happy for the cop whose story has a bow on it...but I could understand if a writer never wanted to write about him again. I worry deeply about my favorite characters when I see the writer making a bow (Val McDermid, I'm looking at you).

I understand that part of the problem is that In The Woods was marketed as a mystery, and it is. And the convention in a mystery is for the detectives to figure it all out at the end. I think this serves some deeply human desire for us to see the Rebel Alliance defeat the Evil Empire, to see The Federation triumph over The Borg, and even to see Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson find their perverted criminal and put him away every Wednesday at 9:00 (8:00 Central). It's not a trivial thing--I think there's a very real and eternal need we have for fiction to put things right in a way that we don't get often in life, and mysteries are champs at this.

But here's the thing. The mystery genre has been around for a very long time. (Opinions differ on exactly how long--I'm partial to giving Wilkie Collins the credit for The Woman In White in 1860, but then I'm partial to Wilkie Collins in general.) There's a very recognizable formula, which is why we have all these subgenres around--it's a desperate effort to breathe some vitality and variety into a genre where avid readers nearly always know what's going to happen. I have no idea when my mother was last surprised by the end of a mystery. I suspect she may have been in her teens. Once it becomes so formulaic that all that distinguishes you is the type of crime and how technical or gut-driven your detectives are, you've gotten to the point where software can write a serviceable detective novel. (I sometimes wonder whether Hal has taken charge of Elliot and Olivia.)

When that happens, great writers play with the genre, and I think Tana French does really interesting things with it. In The Woods is delicately poised on a knife edge between mystery and the freakishly nebulous genre of Serious Fiction.* And there are two things that pull her novel out of the ordinary (well, two that matter to me as a reader). One is the characters--they had a life before the story and they have a life after the story, and none of it seems like it's any less complicated than the bit we're seeing for the 400 pages or so where we keep them company. And the other is that she frustrates our expectations in a genre that's held very few surprises for decades--which only makes the characters more exciting. I would be thrilled to see Rob or Cassie again. I have often wondered, since I put the book down, how Rob will make sense of what we've seen him go through.

If every book ends with everything all tied up it starts to remind me of a television show that's written to be syndicated and run out of order, like a sitcom. (Or, indeed, Law and Order. "Do you think he did it?" "Yeah, it's 9:52.") It's a very artificial narrative style. That's fine sometimes, but it would be awful if every story on earth had to be like that or be branded as "unfair." Luckily, there are plenty of great writers whose fiction will satisfy your ideas of fairness and good storytelling--we're spoiled for choice, and there is something for everyone. It's kind of like being at an amusement park. You're either a spinny-ride person or you're a roller coaster person.

Me, I want the descendants of Wilkie Collins, whose advice to Charles Dickens was, "Make 'em laugh...make 'em cry.........make 'em WAIT." If a writer were nice to us all the time, Little Nell would have lived, and men all over England would have gone to their graves without once crying in public. If you can always count on a fair universe, it takes away a little of the suspense. I read partly because I want the thrill of the unknown, the frisson of being pulled inexorably from page to page under the spell of a writer's story. And I read my favorite writers partly to give myself over to their safekeeping, to trust them to take me somewhere that I might not go myself and that I might not even like, because I think the experience is one worth having. If you bought your ticket for the spinny ride once and you threw up at the very end, look for a roller-coaster. Look for someone who will thrill you in a way that makes you trust them to take you on a worthwhile journey.

As always, someone else has said it better than I. I think this is very much related to the "the writer isn't working for you" theme that Neil Gaiman has progressively elaborated from time to time, to the vexation of lots of different readers (which I kind of think proves his point). As he says, "For me, I would rather read a good book, from a contented author. I don't really care what it takes to produce that."

*NB: You have to say "Serious Fiction" with a Very Serious Face.


Seeker said...


And I am saying that with a VERY SERIOUS FACE...

Katy said...

Hahaha! I love it! :)

Well, all I can say is, you don't want to ask Tana French.

Seeker said...

I went back on Amazon and read the reader reviews of IN THE WOODS....I feel bolstered in profound support...THEY ALL WANT TO KNOW WHO DID IT TOO!!!!! :)

...and where do they come up with these WORD VERIFICATIONS to post comments?

Katy said...

What can I say? Maybe all the whiny little reviewers on Amazon need to take their whiny butts back to the store and buy something more their style. James Patterson writes about 73 books a year. Any one of them would do. I'm sure they're all beautifully self-contained and their protagonist takes a few boring pages at the end to tell you that the butler did it. Go read one of them.

(You're right--hyrendd? What the heck is a hyrendd?)

Seeker said...

I will just have to accept my affiliation with the great mob of WHINY UNWASHED MYSTERY READERS...and bow to the LET THEM READ PATTERSON ELITE! Go forth and read French!

now it wants me to verify with:


Katy said...

Hey, I think I was pretty live and let live for about 1000 words up there. But my point is the same, if you don't like it, you don't have to read it. If you want to know if you'd like her new book, well, why would you want to read it? If the first one made you so upset that you've been stewing about it for two years, why not just give up on her and move on to someone else.

And I think it's plenty obvious that I read a little of everything, so if you're going to call me elitist then you can just not do it here.

Katy said...

I'm actually really upset that I bothered to engage you thoughtfully and tried to demonstrate my respect your point of view (which, by the way is real).

And that whole elitist thing really burns my cookies. I read dozens of mysteries every year. 99.9999999% of them are ones I think you'd like, and I have certainly never implied that they are any worse. I love them. I love Val McDermid, I love Tess Gerritsen, I love Jeffery Deaver. (Although I have to say that occasionally in Gerritsen and Deaver the bad guy gets away--you always know that eventually we'll get him, though, and you always know who was guilty, so I'm pretty sure that conforms to your rules about what a writer has to do to avoid being "unfair" to readers.) So I don't know where you get off with your accusations of elitism.

The only person in this conversation who's arguing that her way is the best and anything that's not her way is awful is you.

I will admit that I think Patterson is boring, which is why I (oh my God, wait for it, huge crazy idea here) don't normally buy them.

I actually have one of his books on my to-read list because I love "Castle" and he is involved with the show, so I've resolved to give him another chance. But if he bores me to the teeth again I won't be shouting that he's been unfair, and I won't take it all personally. I'll just go back to not reading his books. There are too many good books and too little reading time. Why waste it on someone you don't like?

And now I've wasted enough of my time on this conversation. I could be reading.

Seeker said...

KATY!!!! I WAS JOKING!!! I AM SO SORRY YOU MISUNDERSTOOD ME...ask Shifter..I have a rather interesting sense of humor....PLEASE DO NOT BE OFFENDED!

I have so enjoyed your entries...again I deeply apologize for hurting your feelings...I was playing with the MARIE ANTOINETTE words...PLAYING...

I do that ALL the time...

I would NEVER think of you as an ELITEST....and would certainly NEVER call anyone names...again I am so sorry...

Katy said...

I'm sorry, too--my sense of humor is obviously seriously atrophied!