“Get a grip!” the man told his partner as her body shook with sobs. “Isn’t there enough to cry about in the real world without getting so upset over a story?”
“No, I don’t read novels anymore,” a counsellor told a friend. “I get emotional enough watching the news.”
“I don’t like novelists who try to get inside your head,” the woman complained, “and change the way you feel about things.”
On a train I looked over Leslie’s shoulder to see how far, over some months, he’d progressed with Marilynne Robinson’s Lila. “A hundred and fifty-seven!” I marvelled at the inexplicable – that he’d read so far without snivelling or leaking once. I wept through the same book in two soggy days, after which it continued to possess me as I mourned the loss of it. If I didn’t know how deep and sensitive a soul he is, I’d conclude that he’s made of granite. Yet we share a world view as well as a home, and with a very few exceptions, admire the same writers. A few weeks ago I emailed a new short story to a couple of people, one of whom told me how funny it was while the other said it was terribly sad. I should add that I was gratified by both reactions, and might argue that all good stories need both elements. Nonetheless I was amused. And bemused. It seems writers are working in the dark when it comes to reader response, which is why some say the only course is to write for oneself. After all, a book’s audience is the same crowd addressed on the leaflet that comes with our medication. One in ten may experience disaffection; one in a hundred may reread the book a dozen times and hold it to the heart; one in a thousand may use it to squash flies.
As a reader who has been criticised for crying over stories, I have a writer’s defence. More than anything else I want readers to engage emotionally with my own characters. But more than that, I aim to explore themes that will always matter, emotionally as well as philosophically or psychologically. To use an obvious example, only a small percentage of those who read my short story The Goddess in my collection RAVELLED will have experienced alopecia, but many will have felt isolated, disrespected (or even uncomfortably admired) and almost all will have struggled to find their core identity. I believe a novel should always be bigger than its characters, storyline or author and make as many connections as the synapses in a brain.
So this tearful reader isn’t ashamed. Not even of sounds that may make Leslie look in a corner for a rodent shaking its way to a heart attack or out of the window for loudly migrating geese. I’m not overreacting. I’m just suspending disbelief in the way the writer intended, and connecting with feelings fundamental to the human condition in a context that is other – just as I do when a friend tells an emotional story. It’s not self-indulgence but empathy: one of the reasons fiction matters. That defiant individual I quoted, who won’t allow an author’s characters to invade her psyche, is choosing separation over intersection. Not good for her or society. After all, she’s missing out on the kind of insight into another human being (albeit one that doesn’t exist) that life rarely offers, because characters live more fully in the consciousness of the reader than anyone out there in the real world. That’s the author’s intention too.
I believe in the novel as experience, and experience shapes us. And it’s experience, of course, that we bring to every novel we read. Because I’m a woman who lost babies in pregnancy long ago, I was deeply distressed by the presentation of a miscarriage in Anne Michaels’ powerful novel, The Winter Vault. Most readers won’t react with the same shock-like, reflex response, but they will live this experience vicariously and take from it a new understanding – which may even prevent them telling anyone, “You’ll have another” or, “Maybe it wasn’t meant to be.” On the other hand, my first memory of being reduced to what my mother would call a dishrag concerns Erich Segal’s Love Story – read at a tender age when I hadn’t yet fallen in love or known bereavement. All I had in common with the novel was a belief in romantic, undying love. So perhaps my apparent pain – and here I have to admit to its strangely exquisite nature – was really a yearning for passion, for adult life with all its mysteriously intense potential. How differently would I react to the same novel after forty-six years of life, love and loss – and pain of a more vivid, bodily kind – now that Woolf, Eliot, Dickens, Tolstoy, Flaubert and co inform my understanding of what writing can be and do? Time, I think, to conduct a literary investigation…
Looking back at the things people say about fiction, I’m reminded of my Leslie, Lila and granite. If some people don’t read that way, then how and why do they read at all? Some may choose the kind of fiction that bypasses emotion, but I can’t comment on that because I’ve never read or written any such thing. Maybe some are like the wedding guest who admitted, after several strangers sharing a table had declared what they loved most, “I don’t have any passions.” (My list was long). Or maybe, like my counsellor friend, they’re too intimately involved with real drama; they’ve reached capacity. In the case of that writer-reader I know rather well, who rates Lila as highly as I do in spite of his dry eyes, he’s focusing primarily not on the emotional impact of the work but the word choices and combinations, the sentence structures, effects and rhythms. He’s using the blue eye while I, in my reading and wardrobe, choose red.
Of course I can do blue too. Although I’ve laughed at my lifelong tendency to loose-washer syndrome, I’m increasingly and sometimes annoyingly aware of the technical. Inside knowledge makes me both critical and respectful of other writers, alert to stylistic issues, structuring and pace – which all matter to me and contribute to my assessment of the novel’s success. But I try to subdue such cerebral responses into second place, because however profound my appreciation of virtuoso technique, it means nothing – it has no power – unless my emotions are exercised. I love to reread a sentence or paragraph for its quality but also to reinforce that involvement. And if I respond emotionally to the beauty of the prose, as I do to a sunrise or the light through a forest roof, I’m grateful; it’s the same kind of awe. That’s quite different from the kind of distracting analysis I can’t allow to block the flow. Years after I’ve loved a novel I won’t remember much, if anything, about the plot, but I’ll know how it made me feel, because a trace of that feeling will stay with me.
Clearly, a novel that stirs and moves one reader may bore another. Writing acclaimed as beautiful and poignant by one critic may be dismissed by a different reviewer as sentimental. As an author who embraces individuality in my stories, I must celebrate this diversity among readers. But where does it leave the writer? Well, she could prioritise language in the hope of achieving greater consensus among more objective or scholarly readers like Leslie. She could make plot the driver, sidelining all feelings but terror, or manipulating curiosity and inviting the reader on a course of problem solving. She could aim for one single emotional tone, and work so hard to strike it that any variations in response must be limited: a comic romp or ‘a tear-jerker’ like Love Story. She could adopt a cool and theoretic distance, in a post-modern exploration of ideas that’s essentially an experiment outside emotional experience as most humans live it. They’re all valid as approaches and they’ll all find readers minded to recommend them. But no one will carry such a novel as part of their identity because it rewired their emotional DNA and changed who they became.
A great novel will exercise our brains in many ways, but for me that’s not enough. Give me feeling every time.