Thursday, February 15, 2007

"Reading" People

This started out to be a ramble about my latest reads, but as I thought about it...well, you'll see. This rumination began when I started (and really tried to read) an old Grisham book, The Broker. I’ve never read Grisham, and he’s one of the authors I keep telling myself I ought to read, so when I saw this title in our work library, I thought I’d give it a try. The premise sounded intriguing enough; however, I just couldn’t get into it. I gave it several chapters (probably 40 pages or so—I gave it a good sampling) before I gave up. I just couldn’t care about anybody in the book…and unfortunately, for me, that usually means it hits the wall. It did get me thinking, however, about reader expectations. Those of us who call or have called ourselves “romance” authors over the years are fairly steeped in this notion of characters the readers can care about. Whether or not you buy into the notion that these are just elaborate and printed fantasies in which women place themselves really doesn’t matter: bottom line is, readers of genre fiction and romance in particular expect to make the acquaintance of a character for whom they can “root” early on. This doesn’t mean that the character is necessarily all that sweet to begin with…although it usually does. What is necessary, however, is to build a character about whom we care. For whom something is at stake, something we can identify with, something we also care about. The problem is, what I care about may not be what you care about. This explains the phenomenal success of someone like Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb…who I just cannot get into, no matter how I try. I’ve tried to read her stuff three times, and lost interest before I got through the first twenty pages. I just didn’t care about her people. I don’t know why that is; I know people who gobble up everything this woman writes, and there are a LOT of people who do the same thing. Me? No, thanks. Can’t do it. Don’t have the slightest interest in her characters. They leave me cold, and once they do, I leave the premises. The flip side of that is Jan Karon, whose books I devour, but whom I found out (to my surprise) not everybody “gets,” either. When the Mitford books were still pretty much the hot new thing on the block, I actually heard a multipublished author giving a talk in which she said, “Lots of people love these books, and I suppose they’re okay…but you go through At Home In Mitford and nothing happens. I mean, the whole story is nothing more than this preacher’s trying to decide whether he’s going to keep this stray dog or not. That’s the whole book!” Dumbfounded, I waited for her to elaborate further along the lines of “Well, okay, so that’s not ALL there is to the book,” but she didn’t. And she wasn’t kidding. Which left me wondering how she’d managed to read that whole book and completely miss the story question—a story question which had been spelled out, in quite poignant terms, in one sentence in the very first chapter. One you couldn’t miss…or so I thought. And, no, it wasn’t about whether Father Tim was going to keep the dog. :-) Why did this happen? Who knows? This was a bright woman speaking. Normally, she was pretty quick on the uptake. So I had to wonder if it wasn't a case of there being such a subtlety to that early Mitford book that people who are used to slam-bang in-your-face characters just couldn't take the time, or didn't know how, to walk at a more leisurely pace and get to know the people in this particular book a little better. I bonded with Father Tim from that first story question/issue, and I’ve reread those Mitford books probably each at least four times. This despite the fact that I have no particular love for “southern fiction” (and these are set in North Carolina)…that the books are overtly preachy at times…and that my ex-husband’s name is Tim (so I have a hurdle to get over automatically!). All of these things could have put me off the books; none of them did. Why? Because the first story was much bigger than a man and his dog—and mostly, because the people moved gently into my world and became so real that I couldn’t wait to find out what they were going to do next. Lawrence Block has been quoted as saying “Fiction is folks.” For this plot-driven writer, sometimes that’s hard to wrap her fingers around when she’s trying to write it—but I certainly know it when I see it, and have an inevitable sense of letdown when I don’t. So…read any good characters lately? Janny


Ron Estrada said...

The Mitford Series is a bit hard to explain to folks. The characters definately make it enjoyable, but there is an overlying theme. One of faith. The problem is the theme develops too slowly for modern readers. That's why the characters must carry it through. I love this series because of that. Karon doesn't go for the quick fix, which us new writers are almost forced to do.

Donna Alice said...

Interesting topic--one I've been thinking about since I read this. I like the Mitford series okay, but it's not one I grab off the New Books shelf first. That said, I do enjoy series that are more slow paced--like the St. Cecilia series.
It's a funny thing, but I realized after reading this that if a character is vibrant enough, I'll fall in love with a series I might not otherwise give a second glance. One series is the Claire books by Tracey Bateman. Under normal circumstances, I don't read about divorced characters. It's a personal pet peeve. So when I began my first Claire book, not having my new glasses, I couldn't read the back of the book blurb and went for the cute cover. BLUSHING.
Once I got into the book though, even though my life is a 180 from Claire's and I kept wanting to reach through the book and SHAKE her for letting her kids act that way---I couldn't put it down. Had to get on a waiting list to see the other two.
Another recent read was Heaven to Betsy and I confess, I forgot the author. This was also a surprise. Under normal circumstances, I'd never read a book about a woman priest. (Episcopal) Even though I knew a lovely woman who was a priest, it's not a topic I ever expected to enjoy in a bedtime read.
Betsy yanked me into the book and her life and I sat up until I read THE END. Now, I'm waiting for Betsy's Wedding to come out!
Guess it goes to show that if the character is strong enough, I can be pulled into any book.
I never could get into Grisham either. But then, I'm too ditzy to go for the long, involved plots. If I can't get into a book in the seconds between changing a diaper and scraping spaghetti off the walls, the author might as well forget it!

Deb said...

I, too, can't do Roberts. Yuck. Borrring. But that's just me. I no longer EXPECT to like what everyone else does, and I don't let people beat me up verbally because I don't.

By the same token, I try to walk the line in my writing, between having very little 'happening' and setting the my hero's hair on fire on Page One. I don't like stories that go for the guts before they've involved me in the characters, and too much fiction these days tends to try to do that.

So I guess I just said, in different verbiage, what Janny said.

T2, checking out now to go find my Redundancy Nerf Bat