I’ve been slowly digesting an article by Wyatt Mason, “Smarter than You Think,” in the NYRB (15 July). Ostensibly a review of David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, it’s much more than that, as NYRB reviews usually are (and why I subscribe to it).
Mason suggests that readers prefer novels with narratives that move along in straight chronology to ones that jump about because the former “provides a serious, sophisticated illusion of a comprehensible world in which causation and moral consequence both obtain and are discernible.” It reminded me of a discussion over lunch several years ago with my publisher and my editor at Century. I’d proposed what I thought was a compelling narrative structure for The King’s Mistress, beginning with Alice awaiting her summons to parliament and gradually revealing the story of how she arrived at such a crisis via thematic flashbacks. Both my publisher and editor felt strongly that in order to make Alice Perrers sympathetic she needed to be met in childhood, before her notoriety, and then the reader should experience Alice’s life alongside her, how she came to be who she was. As we talked I could see how satisfying this might be to a reader. (Perhaps they also dreaded the prospect of editing a book with such a complex structure?)
All the above is a prelude to presenting the idea that caught my attention this morning. Mason continues, “In the original Greek sense of the word, they [novels] are fantasies—‘a making visible.’ They put before us things that cannot be seen in life: other hearts, other minds. Their endurance is the proof of their value and the confirmation of our need for such shows of rationality.” This is what intrigues me about setting real historical figures in motion—fathoming their hearts and minds. What did they yearn for? What moved them to act? How did they feel about those around them? Whom did they trust? Whom did they fear? With Alice Perrers, I wound up writing the story solely from her point of view (see my earlier blog post about this), and though I found it wonderfully absorbing to remain in her consciousness I did yearn to reveal more of what others were thinking. I found it too close to real life! Now, with Joan of Kent (A Triple Knot), I’m writing in my preferred style, using multiple points of view, playing with what I think of as the counterbalance, seeing events from several perspectives.
Other hearts, other minds. For my own recreational reading I certainly gravitate toward writers who focus on character. My current crime favorites are Henning Mankell and Donna Leon, both with deeply realized protagonists, quite philosophical. I enjoyed Hilary Mantel’s depiction of Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall—how refreshing that she rejected the standard issue Thomas we love to hate. She set out to do for Thomas what I set out to do for Alice, reveal the human being behind the pantomime villain.
A making visible. Revealing the hearts and minds of the characters. Is this what you enjoy about reading novels? Let me know!
Mason’s points resound with me and why I enjoy reading so much. I very much enjoy reading novels that make visible the hearts and minds of the characters. To me, a novel that is worth reading more than once is one that makes me feel the emotions that the characters are feeling. If the writing doesn’t inflict a strong emotion on me, place me in the character’s heart, then I probably won’t read it a second time. I will finish it, but the books that stay on my shelf must be ones that I would pine for if I couldn’t read them again – the one that has stayed the longest is Jane Eyre. The emotion is nearly palpable in that book and although I rarely read all the words and I frequently skip around to feel the emotion I’m looking for at the time, I would be miserable if I couldn’t turn to Bronte’s words when I need them.
It sounds lame admitting it, but I want to feel those strong emotions because I don’t have them in my life – I’m happily suburban for once, and I miss the thrill of the unknown. When I was younger and wandering, I wanted to feel the emotion to be able to relate – to justify what I thought others were thinking and feeling and to explain my own emotions to myself. While I can hustle through scientific or mathematical factual books, I much rather prefer the land of make believe.
Joanna, what an intriguing way to reread Charlotte Bronte. I have a memory of feeling feverish as I read parts of her novel “Villette”. It would be interesting to go back to find those passages and see if I still feel that way.
Reading your comment, what popped into mind was the expression, “It left me cold.” When that happens to me when reading a novel, I often just put it aside. And it’s such a personal reaction, isn’t it? What resonates for one leaves another cold. Or flat–that’s another revealing expression, isn’t it?
Thanks for a great comment!