Tuesday, January 8, 2013

What I Learn from Fiction

Having recently passed through (one might say “survived”) a blog tour concerning my novel Vine, it seems like a pretty good time to address one part of the experience.

The reviews, which were mixed/favorable, tended to major on the things that I usually hear.  People liked the things I expected them to like, and had reservations about the things that usually draw misgiving.  Said misgivings often major on the texture of the language (I write in long sentences because they slow the eye and make one think in nuances; I sometimes use obscure words—I was once called a “poseur” by an Amazon reader, which made me smile, because I believe that any English speaker who uses the word “poseur” is, well, a poseur). Others contend that “nothing happens”, and I will admit that there are few swordfights, rappels down the side of skyscrapers, and cold-cocking of a dozen ninjas in a long bout of foot-fighting; for me, “what happens” to most people—the events that define their lives—are nuanced changes in the way they understand things, the way they regard each other and themselves.  That being said, there’s a virtue in more thunder and lightning, and I’m working toward it. In summary, one of the mixed reviews objected that the book was not for the “casual reader,” and though to me that is neither a badge of honor nor a valid critique, I’m fine with my work being characterized that way.

What I don’t get, however, is the insistence on finding a character with whom you can “identify”, or at least how “identify” is used when people say that. We all identify with characters in fiction, but I submit we have to do part of the work in order to do so: and in that lies the cool part.
You have to stretch.  It’s one of the ways that fiction deepens your understanding, but it’s not like mainstream TV, where the viewer can passively identify with characters so broad and typical that you can dilute almost any of your own personal traits to fit that character on the screen.  In short, you identify passively, because that’s the way the character is designed—to reach the widest market.   

I like what  fiction does better.  How it takes you out of your comfort zone, and, with a little work on your part, brings you to understand a character with whom you  don’t readily “identify”.  How it expands your prospects.

In VINE I made up a character named Bucky Trabue.  A chain-smoking, right-wing Republican operative with a dose of outrage and corruption.  Now, in real life, I would be appalled every time one of his candidates won office, but in the book I began to like him: I framed my imagination to see the world the way Bucky saw it, and I came out understanding him, and in a way identifying with him.  Certainly liking him, and emerging maybe a bit deepened from the encounter.  He has a part in the new thing I’m working on: I liked him enough to ask him back.

You may not want to stretch with the characters you read about.  May want to sit back, relax, and “identify” in a generalized way.  And no, I’m not criticizing you for making that choice.  Just saying that not all fiction makes that kind of transaction, and that meeting someone different than you—in real life or in fiction—can be a good and healthy rendezvous.