Monday, March 07, 2016

What We Look for in a Novel.

"And yet, as readers, don’t we read fiction exactly to be upset?"

This is from a longer piece by Hanya Yanagihara (A LITTLE LIFE) in THE GUARDIAN. Her editor felt there were too many upsetting incidents in her novel. This is why (and also due to the length) I have put off reading A LITTLE LIFE despite its great reviews. Am I a coward? A lazy reader? Do I prefer books that don't "upset" me.

I think the most enduring books (like Bill's mention of SILAS MARNER and George's reading of it) will always have this element to some degree They will always make us uneasy.

Certainly we don't want every book we read to upset us, but if there is not some aspect of this in some or most of what we read, can our experience in reading the book have any real value? Can it be a lasting experience? I think many books classified as crime fiction do a better job of this than so-called literary fiction. They show rather than tell us about a social issue. Witness Winslow's THE CARTEL, Richard Price's work, the not very nice people in Patricia Highsmith. Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman, Sara Paretsky, Tana French, Tony Hillerman, Craig Johnson, Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell. These writers are able to entertain and inform in equal measure.They create flawed complex characters facing real life issues.

And at least some of the time this is what I want to read.

Thoughts?What was the last upsetting book you read?

19 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

I read that piece, Patti, and thought it was really interesting. There've been a few books I've read, too, that have had that impact on me. I think it does (can) add to a book's 'punch.'

Bill Crider said...

I've found that the older I get, the less I want to read upsetting literature.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, that's true for me too. Although I also can't be very entertained by something too light unless it's Hap and Leonard funny. No cozy will ever hold my interest sadly.
So I find it very hard to find the right book some days. Police procedurals work best.

George said...

The last book that upset me was Lee Child's MAKE ME. My review will be up on my blog on Wednesday.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm reading Roots now, which is pretty upsetting.

Al Tucher said...

I have a few no-go topics, which tend to be hopeless, intractable problems like stalking. I can't read about such topics, but I can write about them. I think that's because writing give me agency.

Nice of me to inflict it on the reader, isn't it?

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have a lot of trouble with children being physically abused in some way. One of my favorite writers, Michael Robotham wrote one book where a child was hidden away for years and I haven't picked up a book of his since. I will though. He's too good to pass up.
ROOTS upset me more than almost any book I can think of.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

No, I don't want to read really upsetting books. There are any number of crime fiction authors writing now (one example: Denise Mina) who write books that are so dark that no, I don't want to read them I want to be entertained. I like humor in my fiction, though it can be be subtle or broad, I don't mind dark in moderation but when it's child killings, mutilations, depressed and depressing characters who make you feel as suicidal as they are, then no. I'll pass. I liked the first three Logan McRae books set in Aberdeen by Stuart MacBride, but they turned too dark for me.

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Patti, Bill Crider's books about Sheriff Rhodes are perfect for that,

pattinase (abbott) said...

I've read a few and like them very much.

J F Norris said...

Thanks for pointing me to an essay that so eloquently articulates many things I have been talking about for years. It's alarming that she and her editor had to sit down and talk about her book in a way that treated it as a product and not as a work of art. It's more upsetting to me that publishers are homogenizing new fiction in order to sell books and avoid "upsetting the reader" with unpleasant topics and characters. Interesting that her essay talk addresses the concept of what is brave and cowardly. To me that meeting seemed pretty much a cowardly approach to publishing. I had a vision of the cliché of an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. I may just read Yanagihara 's book now. I like her thinking.

pattinase (abbott) said...

There is also a very good interview with her on Brad Listi's podcast. I too like the cut of her jibe!

Cap'n Bob said...

Is "the cut of her jibe" a clever joke or misspelling of jib? I rather like it.

I don't recall the last upsetting book I read. I tend to pick up books that I know will please me and dark and dreary works don't fall into that category.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Not a clever joke, sadly. Just a misspelling or perhaps a wrong reading of the word for my entire life.

TracyK said...

I don't read to be upset, but there are varying levels. Racial injustice is something that is very uncomfortable for me to read about, but I can read Mosley's Easy Rawlings books (at least the ones I have read so far). Books where the mistreatment escalates make me so uncomfortable that I sometimes cannot continue. I could not finish Chiefs by Stuart Woods for that reason, although I am sure overall it is a worthwhile book.

Rick Robinson said...

I certainly do not want my fiction reading to upset me. Why would I?

It seems to me mystery fiction has been getting darker for years now, noir more hopeless, novels about very bad things happening, and often in a brutal, senseless way, have become almost common. It's not a trend I like, and it limits my reading. It's notable that this darkness has also become common in science fiction and fantasy, so much so it's considered a separate sub-genre.

I won't read a book with a pedophile, serial child murderer, or killer without motive, though it's not always easy to tell without a review or some other clue. I can read some Cozies, because there are the older style ones and the seemingly ubiquitous baking, tea shop, library cat, and the like ones. You can tell them by the covers. Barbara likes darker stuff, and serial killer stuff, and some of it, like Val McDermid's books, I can read, but most of it is too much for my simple tastes.

Rick Robinson said...

It may also be worth noting that I have no trouble accepting the conventions mores and manners of the time in which the book was written or is set. Thus I'm not upset by language that's not currently PC, which many current readers may find repugnant.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, I see that, Rick. I am willing to allow some latitude to writer of other eras. But I would not allow that with writers of today. Even if they are discussing other eras.
And yes, it is not always easy to tell.

Mathew Paust said...

To first respond to the Cap'm's question, in sailing the "jib" is involved when you "jibe," which is the action of changing the boat's course. The "jib" is the little triangular forward sail, hence the "cut of his jib" would describe the appearance of that sail.

For me, the voice and craft are all. I'll go a long way with a novel if the tone is right, and that's not always easy to pin down. Like Bill Crider, I'm less drawn to downers the older I get. And yet, if the writing is exceptional, as with Robert Stone, I can absorb the aura of impending doom without it depressing me. But sometimes the story itself is so alien to me I can't hack it. I've tried twice now to read a debut novel narrated by a fictional serial killer. The writing is brilliant, but it's simply too dark for me to proceed to where I know the story is going. The writing is so good I find myself identifying with the narrator, and this makes me queasy. I was given a review copy by the author, and I feel remiss in not delivering, but I keep putting it off, and I don't think I'm going to try again. For anyone who might be interested in checking it out, it's on Amazon: Delilah, My Woman by M. F. Sullivan.