Another lovely letter, and so many interesting points for me to mull over this week.
I love what you say about being willing to ‘occasionally inconvenience’ your reader, as it gets right to the heart of a few of the ideas we’ve been talking about. I know there are some writers who see themselves as entertainers – their job is to give their reader a nice time, to shock them or thrill them or intellectually engage them with a plotted puzzle or a moral problem, but, in the end, to return them to where they started when they began the book. The books are like taking a drug or drinking too much – an intense, engaging emotional experience, but one which you are unchanged by when it all wears off. And I think there are other writers who write with no special consideration for their reader at all – they want to push the boundaries of what it is possible to do with writing. They are interested in style, in form, in making sure the novel stays new and fresh and really does respond to this very confusing and fragmented world – never mind ‘occasional inconvenience’ – they want to shake the reader to the core! And where-ever on this spectrum you fall, some of your readers are going to complain that you’re not doing it right – you’re either writing post-modern whimsy that only other writers are going to bother with, or you’re churning out something that someone, somewhere else, has done before and sooner or later the novel is going to die and it’s all your fault for wanting to give your reader a nice time!
I’m interested in connecting with my readers – in presenting something to them that they can recognise, even if it at first seems unfamiliar – so perhaps that makes me the safer sort of writer – the first kind? As novelists, we don’t only compete with other books – we need to lure a potential reader away from television, from the internet, from the cinema and all other kinds of narrative art forms. In my own work, I use suspense and the idea of the mystery to lure the reader in – and hope that in the end, my books have a little more than just that to offer them. But I never forget that a book doesn’t really exist until it is read, and I want my books to be approachable – to entice someone into reading them.
I have to say though, that I think you’re right and that it’s a good thing if we expect our readers to have to endure difficulty sometimes – to look up unfamiliar words or ideas – to examine scenes and characters in ways that they’re not used to, to be confronted with ideas that discomfort them, or to present our readers with a form or a style that is difficult – that is new and takes work and doesn’t give up all its treasures right away. It takes an amazing amount of – I was going to say courage, but I think the right word is hubris – to be able to do that, doesn’t it? To think that you have something new to say? Where do you think a writer can get her courage from?
With The Friday Gospels the decision to write in the first person took care of a lot of these stylistic decisions for me – about how much information to give, how much to spell out, how much I was allowed to ‘inconvenience’ (what a wonderful, well-mannered word) the reader. We don’t walk around our own lives explaining every little detail to an imaginary audience, do we? I didn’t let my characters do that either. So parts of the novel will seem strange and unfamiliar to readers who don’t have a Mormon background. But I can live with that. I never wanted to educate people, (though I agree with you that when books do that, it can be wonderful) I just wanted to ask questions and share the feeling of curiosity that I had about a culture I knew very well.
Like you, I am led by my ideas about realism – that books which portray people and things as ‘they really are’ are good books – but even as I write that, I wonder about the idea that we’re leaving unchallenged – realism’s central assumption that it is possible to utilise prose fiction to say something about ‘the way things really are’ or even that there’s such a thing as ‘the way things really are’ at all. Do you ever wonder about that? I know I do. How does it show up in your writing?
Your description of your research – your trips to Auschwitz – I think it’s fearless of you to engage with that period of history – the significance and impact of those events – the scale of the human evil and suffering is incomprehensible to most, and for a writer to take on the task of writing about that, well, it’s remarkable. Let me ask you – do you have any fear about your capacity to write about these things? Is there anything you think you really couldn’t write about? Are there some subjects, do you think, that can’t be tackled by a realist novel? You said you were writing a non-fiction piece based on your research – I wondered, are there some places realist fiction can’t touch? I don’t have any answers to these questions, but I am interested in hearing yours.