Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Over the weekend the New York Times ran an insightful article regarding genre novels versus "literary" writing. That article mentions a review written by John Updike a few years ago of a thriller. The article does not provide more information of this review nor give the link. However, it is referring to Updike's 2005 review of Robert Littell's Legends: A Novel of Dissimulation.
The NYT article and Updike's review speak of genre writers being restless to break outside their suspense genre's constraints--and question whether this is a good thing. Some of the points in the NYT article gave me pause, but what struck me even more was an excerpt from Updike's review. He's remembering devouring thrillers as a kid--how he could be entertained for hours without having his real world shaken:
Thrillers, as we shall call them, offer the reader a firm contract: there will be violent events, we will go places our parents didn’t take us, the protagonist will conquer and survive, and social order will, however temporarily, be restored. The reader’s essential safety, as he reclines on his red sofa, will not be breached. The world around him and the world he reads about remain distinct; the partition between them is not undermined by any connection to depths within himself.
Hm. I understand what Updike is saying, and in part I agree. There are times when suspense readers want to read books that completely take them outside their experiences and simply manage to thrill them, nothing more. However, feedback about my own novels indicates that a reader is more thrilled when something within the novel does connect "to depths within himself."
Doesn't this come down to the take-away value of the story? The character arc within a novel should say something about the human condition in general--and ourselves in particular--should it not? This is the difference between a book that is enjoyed for the moment and one that really sticks with us.
Of course, even those intended to offer some message won't resonate the same with every reader, since each of us comes to the book with different experiences.
Maybe Updike's opinion is partly due to his gender. Some male suspense writers seem to focus more on plot and action with less thought to character. And some male readers seem to prefer that.
Do you read a novel just to be entertained and nothing more? Do you enjoy a novel better when it strikes some chord within you?