Thursday, August 26, 2010

Captive Readers

Last evening I was in the hot seat at one of my writing groups. We reviewed the second chapter of a novel that is long in the tooth, but coming to a conclusion this year, finally. The advice I got was varied and helpful, encouraging and stern. That's what I need from a review of ongoing work. What got me thinking this morning was the interest these readers expressed in a pair of characters whom I have seen as plot elements, secondary, maybe tertiary. One of these characters dies in the next chapter, and the other  storms off the stage, never--till now--to be heard from again. I've devised a way to deepen these paper people and satisfy the readers' interest in those two characters' backstory.

But I have also spent much of my journal time this morning thinking about our relationships to characters, and realize that as a reader, I don't do well with tragic stories in which fictional people whom I have come to care about suffer. I just read most of The Cellist of Sarajevo. It's a wonderful novel, well written and bearing important information into the world. But it's relentlessly dark, as it can only be, given its wartime setting. I closed the book before the end because I just could not watch these people suffer and die, and it was clear that they would. I was helpless. I could not be a rescue hero or a good Samaritan to them. My choices were to read on and suffer with them, or turn away by closing the book.

What then, do I make of the writers' relationship to characters with whom we live for months or years, watching them grow and take life from the wimpy little letters we type? How does a writer find the courage to see the story to its one true conclusion, even when that end means the death of these characters? This sense of inevitable loss, an ongoing lesson in mortality, casts light on the comfort of series books. As a reader, I know that no matter how tight the fix, Kinsey Millhon and Stephanie Plum will survive to delight another day. Evanovitch and Grafton know that too. It explains my delight in the TV--now DVD--series Monk. I know that Adrian Monk is immortal, like Hawkeye Pierce. I can get involved and know that I don't ever have to say goodbye.


mknighten2 said...

Ah, but don't we earnestly hope that Evanovitch is NOT required reading in some future American lit course, while Melville certainly shall continue to be? There's an image in Moby Dick, at the end, of a bird caught somehow and dragged flapping and terrified down into the darkness, that I always thought was the reader.

Now I've blown my cover. I scandalized the department for years by claiming I was never able to finish Moby Dick.

It takes courage to be Melville-- and yes, a different kind of courage to be Evanovitch--but you wouldn't be you, would you, if you weren't willing to be Melville.

Now me, I won't even watch Titanic. I'm waiting for the version where the iceberg sinks.

Cheers, Merrell

Karen Douglass said...

Being Melville--me? Sounds like a good poetry prompt, but I doubt my kinship with that great whale of a writer. And by the way, I had to read it twice in grad school.