Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Distinct Worlds

Over the weekend the New York Times ran an insightful article regarding genre novels versus "literary" writing. That article mentions a review written by John Updike a few years ago of a thriller. The article does not provide more information of this review nor give the link. However, it is referring to Updike's 2005 review of Robert Littell's Legends: A Novel of Dissimulation.

The NYT article and Updike's review speak of genre writers being restless to break outside their suspense genre's constraints--and question whether this is a good thing. Some of the points in the NYT article gave me pause, but what struck me even more was an excerpt from Updike's review. He's remembering devouring thrillers as a kid--how he could be entertained for hours without having his real world shaken:

Thrillers, as we shall call them, offer the reader a firm contract: there will be violent events, we will go places our parents didn’t take us, the protagonist will conquer and survive, and social order will, however temporarily, be restored. The reader’s essential safety, as he reclines on his red sofa, will not be breached. The world around him and the world he reads about remain distinct; the partition between them is not undermined by any connection to depths within himself.

Hm. I understand what Updike is saying, and in part I agree. There are times when suspense readers want to read books that completely take them outside their experiences and simply manage to thrill them, nothing more. However, feedback about my own novels indicates that a reader is more thrilled when something within the novel does connect "to depths within himself."

Doesn't this come down to the take-away value of the story? The character arc within a novel should say something about the human condition in general--and ourselves in particular--should it not? This is the difference between a book that is enjoyed for the moment and one that really sticks with us.

Of course, even those intended to offer some message won't resonate the same with every reader, since each of us comes to the book with different experiences.

Maybe Updike's opinion is partly due to his gender. Some male suspense writers seem to focus more on plot and action with less thought to character. And some male readers seem to prefer that.

Do you read a novel just to be entertained and nothing more? Do you enjoy a novel better when it strikes some chord within you?


Timothy Fish said...

I would say that the primary reason I read a novel is for entertainment, but I don't really see how one can seperate the entertainment value of a novel and a connection with who we are as people. A sci-fi novel can take us to the far reaches of the Universe, but the ones that are the most enjoyable are those that deal with the very same problems we face right here. That doesn't mean, however, that I will seek out a novel that deals with a particular problem.

Pam Halter said...

Sometimes I want to be thrilled. Sometimes I crave something deeper. I love it when I finish a book, take a deep, cleansing breath and say, wow, that was good!

C.J. Darlington said...

Oh, definitely I enjoy a novel better when it strikes a chord. I still enjoy novels that are pure entertainment, but the ones I talk about, the ones I give to my friends are the ones with characters who are so developed they feel real. I know that's a tricky balance in a thriller, but if done right you'll end up with very pleased readers.

PatriciaW said...

I open a novel for entertainment. I remember a novel when it touches me.

Anonymous said...

I guess it doesn't entertain me if it doesn't strike a chord. Even thrillers strike chords if done well. And what I want by "striking chords" is deep spiritual truth even if just suggested in the story. Fluff doesn't get it for me or just secular "thrills and chills".

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Patricia, I love your statement. That sums it up nicely.