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