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Making an End of Things

with 3 comments

I actually started to write this post yesterday, and then things happened, and then it snowed.   It was a disappointing snowstorm.   We’d spent three days hearing about what an awful whack we were going to get, and being given prospective snow totals that seemed to go up every hour, and then when I woke up this morning there was barely a dusting on my walk and not much more on the car and the porch.  It’s not that anybody really minds that much.  Snow is fun when you’re still too younger to shovel that.  Afterwards, it’s just a chore waiting to happen. 

I was thinking about that business about knowing  how a books ends, or else readers, or at least some readers, won’t read it.  I’ll stick by what I said.  I’m not much interesting in books when I know beforehand how they’re going to end–at least, in most cases.   Yes, of course, I reread books and that means I must read some whose endings I know in advance. But I don’t read those books for their endings.

And I agree, of course, that reading a genre novel restricts the possible endings a novel can have, but how far it restricts it depends on the genre.  Don Westlake once said that the Gothic romance was “a story about a girl who got a house,” and maybe that’s one of the reasons I don’t like romance novels much  and don’t like category romance novels at all.

But the problem with those novels for me is not just that I know the hero and the heroine will end up together in the end, but that I can anticipate every step on their journey in that direction.   These are Patient Griselda stories, as rigidly predetermined as a Tridentine Mass.  Our heroine will be beautiful but poor, forced to earn her living as a gentile servant in the house of a cruel but stupendously handsome man.  Our hero will be tall, dark, handsome, compelling, always on the edge of violence, and hiding wounds that will not heal.  Somewhere in the picture there will be the  Evil  Rival, the beautiful woman from the hero’s own social circle who will stop at nothing to drive our heroine away and bring our hero to marry herself.  “Some way or the other the hero and the heroine will get married by the end of this book” is one thing.  “I know in advance every single thing that is going to happen here” is something else.

Murder mystery certainly come with some expectations of how the book will end–the detective will catch the murderer, as John says–but apart from the creative habits of particular writers, there’s not much more that a reader can count on from the genre itself.

And even that bottom line–the detective will catch the murderer–is not always rigidly adhered to.  In one of the more memorable examples of a divergence from the expected, the detective did catch the murdererss, but was unable to determine exactly who she was.  That’s because she was one half of a set of identical twins, and it was the other half she murdered, and there was largely no way to tell the difference between them except by an admission of the murderer, and she wasn’t talking.  The writer didn’t help us out, either.  The book ended without our ever being able to know.

That sort of thing aside, however, the only reason why a murder mystery need be predictable in the sense that a Gothic novel is unless the writer wants it to be.  And a lot of mystery writers do write one version or the other of the Completely Predetermined Plot.  But that’s a choice.   The form itself, and most of its subforms, are loose skeletons into which you can and do find a lot of variation. 

And, in case you’re wondering, I tend not to read the Compltely Predetermined stuff.  I have in mind now things like, say, Patricia Wentworth, a writer of country house mysteries in the “golden era” in whose books the murderer was almost always one of the servants.   I got to thinking that this might be a kind of social statement, but not one I wanted to plow through a dozen books to hear over and over again.

The detective may catch the murderer, but that’s not a reason for me to read a book.  It’s no reason at all for me to read it more than once.  There has to be something going on in a book that I did not expect, something new that is being said that I’m interested in listening to, before I’m going to devote a day or two to reading it.  My house is full of books.  I get sent a few more almost every week.  There’s got to be a point.

I  agree with FE in at least one way:  the more I hear from readers, the more it seems to me that what most people want is to hear what they already think is true.  If you think the US military is full of brave and honorable men doing their best to defend civilization, you  read Tom Clancy.  If you think the  US military is full of corrupt assholes for whom civilization is but a thin veneer, you read Ron Kovic.

Maybe this explains the persistant phenomenon of readers who are convinced that writers hold the opinions of their characters.  If the character is sympathetically presented, then the writer must agree with him politically, or socially, or whatever other way. 

I suppose that explains the plethora of small-niche politcal magazines, targeted to audiences of a few thousand, or a couple of tens of thousands, like-minded readers, where the other side is invariably presented as evil and conniving (if they’re liberals) or evil, conniving and stupid (if they’re conservatives), and no mention is ever made of the possibility that everybody on every side is just trying to do her best for the country.

This is, I think, why students often have so much trouble with the idea of evil people–if I ask them to write from the point of view of a villain, they almost always produce pages of  gloating, self-conscious malice.  Aha!  Look at me!  I’m evil and I’m going to destroy you!

They have a hard time understanding that people who do truly evil things–even blatantly evil people like Himmler and Charles Manson–don’t think of themselves as doing wrong.  If they did, they wouldn’t do what they do.  Students think that in order to be guilty, you must not only choose to do what you do, but choose to do wrong knowing it is wrong. 

There’s a weird echo of that in the old statutes determining who has a valid insanity defense–did he know what he was doing?  Did he know that it was wrong?  If the old statutes had meant what my students mean, anybody who showed up in court would have half an insanity defense merely because they didn’t think they were doing “wrong.”  What the old statutes meant, though was, simply that the murderer knew what he was doing, chose it consciously, and was aware of the fact that the society around him thought this was wrong.  It wasn’t an era when we worried a lot about the interior lives of criminals.

I need there to be something in a book that I’m not expecting.   I need there to be something in a book that I don’t know.   I want my mind to work, and preferably to work hard.  I don’t want to relax.  I don’t want to escape.  And I really, really, really don’t want to feel as if  I’m being conned, which is how those political magazines always make me feel.

And I do mean all those political magazines, left, right and libertarian.   That schtick, that tell the reader what you already know he wants to hear, is the first resort of the con man.   And I’ve known some con men in my life.  I don’t need to pay good money to get to know more.

I reread books because, in good ones, there’s always something I’ve missed.  If I ever get to the point where a new reading isn’t giving me something new, I stop rereading that book. 

And it’s one of the odd circumstances of my life that a couple of the books I reread on a regular basis happen to have been written by me.

Written by janeh

January 11th, 2009 at 11:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Making an End of Things'

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  1. Hello. Just found this great blog.
    I do a lot of reading for work — in fact, that’s a lot of what I do all day. Much of the work reading is hard; it requires me to concetrate, analyze, remember, put pieces of information together from other sources. So — to answer a question posed previously — I read mysteries at the end of the day to relax. They have to be good enough to engage me; they have to be plausible (characters have to speak like real people, plots have to be believable in some way) and they have to be written well enough to keep me interested and not annoyed. I like mysteries in which I learn — in a lazy sort of way — something about times, places, and people I know nothing about. (I think I know something about Anglo-Egyptian politics in the 1920s from reading Michael Pearce mysteries.)

    I know in advance how they will turn out; as you say, in most cases the bad guy gets caught and (presumably) punished, and we find out why the bad guy did what he did. That’s what so satisfying. In real life the bad guys get away with it and I never know why people do half the things they do.

    I reread mysteries over and over again. After a year or two, I don’t remember who did it (usually), but I remember “oh, that’s the one that takes place in the convent” or “that’s the one with the advertising company.” So I agree; it’s all the stuff the author has attached to the skeleton of the mystery and its solution that keeps me reading and rereading.

    mab

    11 Jan 09 at 1:38 pm

  2. “I need there to be something in a book that I’m not expecting. I need there to be something in a book that I don’t know. I want my mind to work, and preferably to work hard. I don’t want to relax. I don’t want to escape.”

    Fair enough, we probably do most of our reading for different reasons.

    I think it’s going a little to far to assume that ‘what most people want is to hear what they already think is true. ‘

    Sure, many people like reading about situations they can identify with or that they like and approve of. But that doesn’t have much to do with the popularity of genre fiction. OK, I don’t read much romance any more, but even when I did, I certainly knew that domineering men with anger contol issues and hidden psychological problems weren’t the most attractive men around and certainly weren’t the best bet as husbands, no matter how handsome or rich they were. And I know perfectly well that sometimes the wrong person is convicted of a crime, sometimes crimes simply aren’t solved at all, and in real life the fallout is far more widespread and insidious than the neat little puzzle in a mystery novel. Surely all but the most naive readers don’t mistake these for truth! (Always excepting a certain subset of adolescent and young adult females who do indeed fall for the local bad boy, seeing in every sign of psychopathy and criminality minor problems that can be fixed By The Love of a Good Woman. I’m not sure you can blame this on reading romance novels, though. I think it’s the mothering instinct gone wrong.)

    I can’t say anything about the small political magazines because I don’t read them.

    I think it’s normal for it to be difficult to understand that people who do evil things don’t think of themselves as evil (unless they’re the type who wants to shock and terrify ordinary types). I think you come to this awareness through experience, both your own and others. But you have to bring to the observations a critical eye; otherwise you will never realize that what you did for perfectly good reasons actually caused harm to someone else. And then you have to do that for other people, to see things through their eyes, as best you can. Those are two difficult tasks.

    I read a suggestion recently that an ethical code should be based on empathy, which I thought had to be one of the silliest ideas I’d heard in a long time, because people just aren’t very good at putting themselves in other people’s shoes. They tend to come up with decisions that they, not the other person, would like. When you’re asking someone to imagine what a Hitler would think like, rather than a neighbour, you’re asking something even more difficult than garden-variety empathy.

    And I’m sure that others will ask – which of your books do you re-read?

    cperkins

    11 Jan 09 at 6:30 pm

  3. Coming back to the original point, there is a tremendous gap between knowing how a type of story should end and having a completely predictable plot.

    For instance compare your “Patient Griselda” narrative with one of those novels I’ve reread to the death of the paperback–Georgette Heyer’s A CIVIL CONTRACT. The handsome heir of an English earldom finds that his father has bankrupted them, and in order to save the estate he has to abandon a girl of his own class and marry the heiress of a City merchant. In the hands of nine writers in ten, it would plot out very much as you describe, with about four sex scenes in the more recent versions. Heyer makes her merchant’s daughter a prosaic but intelligent young woman, short and a little plump, marries them off relatively early, forgoes the sex scenes and concentrates on the culture clash between her hero and his mother–landed aristocracy to the marrow–and the hero’s father in law, the embodiment of the Victorian mercantile class to be. It’s funny and touching by turns, and I’ve very grateful to Harlequin for reprinting it.
    More generally, think of a lot of genre fiction as being the narative equivalent of a chess problem: “white to mate in four moves.” Yes, but HOW? The ending is locked in, but it’s the trip that’s interesting.

    But a word in defense of “reading to reinforce beliefs.” It’s a bad idea when you’re gathering information, but gathering information by reading novels is already a bad idea. The novel reader has to feel that what he’s reading is “true, even if it didn’t happen” and that being so, the reader who feels that wars result froma failure to communicate will have a hard time with STARSHIP TROOPERS and the reader who feels that wars are the inevitable result of population pressures will choke on THE FOREVER WAR. (Either set may find David Drake congenial, of course.) Generally, the more you study and come to conclusions about a subject, the more limited the range of fiction you feel to be “true,” like a medievalist finding much heroic fantasy unbelievable.
    The danger point comes when one believes something because of the fiction, but that’s not the same thing.

    robert_piepenbrink

    11 Jan 09 at 7:43 pm

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