Howard Jacobson, a favourite writer of mine, was recently quoted as saying that he felt a sense of heartbreak when he heard readers say, “I don’t like this book because I don’t sympathise with the main character.”
It triggered a small tirade from him, “The language of sympathy and identity and what we call political correctness is killing the way we read. Who ever told anyone that they read a book in order to find themselves?”
Well, I have to agree and disagree. I think often we read to find our way in this troubled world. A well created character will quite often put a different spin on a problem, allowing the reader’s imagination and inner voice to take some of the character’s life into their own, and by doing so, possibly make their lives better, or even worse.
Novels, and I have to agree with Jacobson, are not self-help books. His statement triggered a memory for me.
Years ago, when I had completed a draft and sent it off to an agent, I got the dreaded rejection letter. Had it been, the writing needs work, the plot isn’t there, sorry this is not for me, it would have gone down in a wave of ‘rejection depression’, but not this response, for on the top of my query letter was the sentence written in thick bold ink…
“What a disagreeable character. I dislike her immensely!!!”
( yes, she added three exclamations marks!)
Well, I thought, at least my disagreeable character triggered a strong response in you. I chalked it up as an odd reaction to a first chapter. I fear I am of the old school, and don’t believe that every character should be likeable, loveable, or make the reader feel that is them in a fantasy life. That’s not really the job of the novelist. The novelist job is to create a world where the reader can try to make sense, or not, of our senseless and chaotic world. It is the job of the novelist to take a slice, an idea, a whisper of a dream, and transport those thoughts into a world that only the novelist has the compass for. It is so often a voyage of discovery for both reader and writer. A great novel can change lives and history.
I wonder if the term novel itself needs to be changed. Novels were writing of note, they were a creation of a new experience, a new thought, a new way of writing, or an original way of allowing the reader to see a world they were not part of, or a world they did not want to belong to.
In all innocence and with good intentions there are a plethora of writing books out there all working with one premise in mind- to write a novel that sells. All these book touted the same message, beginnings, middles, endings, and clear character arcs. And the advice has been taken, but what is novel about this approach? It becomes a cookie cutter way of writing.
Is this like Howard Jacobson’s writes, the possible demise of the novel? Can the young novelist be given permission to experiment, and by experimentation, create something new and wondrous for us to read? Or will those attempt go unpublished?
Novels in the truest sense of that word are not bread winners, they are not the “popular” best-selling read. Even Booker prize winners, as far as I can remember, haven’t topped sales figures of lets just say, Harry Potter.
Should there be a new term for all those books out there written with one thing in mind, to sell, to entertain the reader, to allow a reader romance, sex, or even play a cop, or a wizard, and now suffer domination for a few hours? All of those books have an important place in the library, but should the novel have a different place on the shelf. It is just to be a select few who read novels, or to use the closest modern term that fits the kind of writing Jacobson is mourning, the literary novel? Where would our great books be if those writers had stuck to the formula taught so often these days? Some books even dare to declare that you must have your character arch at a certain page point. Would To The Lighthouse even be published today? I doubt it. Where is the likeable characters in Lord of the Flies? Simon perhaps..but he gets killed off.
Recently along with The Finkler Question, which I loved and hated, hated simply because some of Jacobson’s phraseology stayed in my brain for days, I also fell in love with The Frozen Rabbi, by Steve Stern, It’s a curious novel, and one that I wished I had purchased on my kindle. It’s not an easy read, simply because I am not an expert in that area of history, or mysticism, and there is so much to learn from this book. I wanted to put it down every few minutes to go and look something up.
I needed to read it quickly for its highly original story and well written story, and now I need to go back and slowly re read it with the internet on hand to look up all the information in the book. Certainly it is not a beach read. I dislike the term beach read as I firmly believe all writing has a place and time. I don’t want to read War and Peace whilst sipping a cold drink under a sun umbrella. But The Frozen Rabbi, manages to hit all points for me to classify it as a true novel, it informs, it entertains, it provokes thought and most importantly the story itself is highly novel. It’s fresh, original, and unusual, and as far as I know, this story has not been done before. It is in short, a novel that deserves attention. Is Jacobson correct to mourn the death of the novel, or do we still have writer’s out there, whose writing will change lives and perhaps even the world we live in? More importantly, do we have readers for these books? I have to believe the answer is yes.
“Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story”
“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are”
W. Somerset Maugham
Great piece. And it does seem that what sells is definitely a plot-driven story, carefully architected to achieve certain plot points at certain times. I recently read a book on story construction that said this should occur at this point and this should occur at that point. To be honest, the left-brained thinking in me liked this. I like structure and order. I wonder over time, as I improve my writing skills and can advance to more character-driven work with less focus on storytelling, if I will still feel this way. But I am not at that point yet. I’m still a very concrete writer. And maybe with my analytical brain, I always will be.
As for characters being likable–I’ve never felt it was the writer’s job to make a character likable, but I do think the writer needs to make the character one we can at least marginally empathize with.
Susan, I can understand the need for structure in any kind of writing, but I don’t understand that the structure needs to be exactly the same for each piece. I always think that the reading is the journey, the end of the story the destination, but how the reader (traveler) is led along the journey is up to the writer. Maybe there are shortcuts or long routes to follow, dead ends to arrive at, roundabouts to go around and other ways to either throw the reader off track, or keep them firmly fixed on it. The same with characters. Not everyone is the same, and not everyone likes the same thing, so does it matter if a character is disagreeable or not? Unless the tale is solely about one person, the other characters support or balance out the main character. Although if the tale is about one character who is disagreeable, it’s the job of the writer to portray the character in the best way possible, using the best structure for the tale, not the same structure as everyone else.
You’ve certainly got me thinking about this, Susan… I don’t think I use any kind of structure in what I write, but then again I don’t write anything like a novel! There seems to be more to story telling than just telling a story!
Great, thought-provoking post this one, thanks for posting it.
Hi Tom, I really believe each story has its own road. I so agree with you, that if the character is disagreeable, it is indeed the writer’s job to portray that character in such a way that the reader sees not necessarily the root cause of the behaviour but at least a reasonable explanation of sorts to validate the behaviour. We get tired of just monsters quickly. Even Shrek has a backstory! 😉
Susan, I too have bemoaned the rise of pop books. I don’t know what else to call them. They’re like pop music, only written.
I think it is a symptom of a greater problem, one I do not know how to solve. In America, we are very boxed into our labels. “I don’t like this person if she votes for him.” “I can’t stand that person because of who they love.” “I won’t be around those ignorant espousers of that particular view.” Our books must navigate those labels to sell, as all these people must see a main character they like to bother with them in the first place – because they don’t bother with anything they don’t like.
The world would be a mighty boring place if everyone were just like me. I like variety, and I enjoy hearing other points of view. Sadly, that’s not the world we live in anymore. Maybe one of us should write a book about that? 🙂
Andra, I wish we could say it is just one country’s way of looking at things, but it is happening world wide. And yes, wouldn’t the world be so boring if we were all cookie cutter copies of ourselves! Thanks for such a detailed comment!
Love the Somerset Maugham quote.
Oh Susan: a dread the answer to your question. I am not sure the readers are out there: What sells is not the criteria for great art, or many artists would not have spent their lives starving in garrets. Poor Van Gogh. Our society is driven by what will make money. However will we get out of this hole?
Hi Kate, I just wonder if there should a different name for literary novels, and let the rest take the moniker novel and those tags…romance etc..Haven’t come up with anything yet though! 😉