Saturday, November 17, 2012

Back to Our Regular Programming

I am currently reading a novel that has gotten a tremendous amount of buzz in the last few months. Most of the buzz has been positive, but there have been a few people I know who have expressed--how do I put this--frustration with the ending. Halfway through it, I'll probably put up a review at some point soon, but based on the reactions that I've been reading, I think this might be a good time to bring up the issue of trust.

I've talked a lot about the implicit contract that develops between a writer and her/his reader. In a successful contract, the writer and the reader are on the same page. It basically boils down to the reader, in essence, saying: "You wrote a novel in such a way that most of my expectations were fulfilled. Thanks!" This contract falls apart when a reader's expectations aren't met.

The most difficult aspect of this writing business is accepting that not all people will like your writing. I've gotten to the point where I think that if 75% of readers likes what I've written, then I'm doing pretty damn well. Like I've said before, part of what makes a novel work is an understanding that the person flipping through your book shares some of your baggage or at least understands your baggage or is enthralled by your baggage or sympathizes with your baggage. The writer and the readers are handing that suitcase of anxiety, woe, humor, danger, frustration, sadness, and joy back and forth between each other as a reader journeys through a novel. What happens when a novel doesn't work? Then when the hand-off happens, the reader withdraws their hand and the baggage falls to the floor. The journey stops.

When I first starting writing mystery I got a lot of advice about what readers will and will not accept but there seems to be three basic tenets: (1) you can kill people but not animals (interesting that); (2) you can kill a child but it's difficult and problematic and you'd better be a damn fine writer to pull it off; and (3) you should have all the clue(s) available to the reader so that they can solve the crime. Number three is occasionally abused (and probably the most famous abuser of all would be the writer Conan Doyle), but not too often. It might not derail a book, but I know that if an author does abuse that rule that it will haunt them a little, as in, Wow, I liked that book, but the writer didn't play fair. T

So what is fair? Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd defined "clever," taking the notion of the unreliable narrator to its zenith. What distinguishes a clever twist from a pulled-the-rug-out-sneaky trick? When does a reader accept that an unreliable narrator is not a form of betrayal? I think that it does all boil down to how the author lays the ground work throughout the novel and how that groundwork compliments the ending. No reader wants to feel duped. Surprised? Yes. Isn't that what makes mystery such a compelling genre: that sense of surprise? The "aha!" But no reader wants to feel betrayed, because after all, they've been hauling that suitcase of baggage for about 70,000-90,000 words.