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Don’t Look Back–They Might Be Gaining On You

with 5 comments

So, first, an update–at eleven o’clock yesterday morning, common sense somehow reached the vital core of the administrative brain, and all classes were cancelled for the rest of the day.  I wouldn’t put it past the state police to have raised a fuss–the idea of students and teachers slipping and sliding in what was by then a major ice storm, on top of the snow, probably had the Smokies completely frazzled.  And I don’t blame them.

I do wonder if my need to meet my obligations no matter what shouldn’t undergo an overhaul.  At some point, I have to admit that doing that is stupid and dangerous, which driving would have been yesterday.  Especially driving by me.

But–let me get back to murder mysteries for a bit, and to something people have said here on and off all throughout this blog, and that is that they read to “escape.”

It started to occur to me that I was taking this to mean something it might not mean–that is, that people read in order to shut down their minds and stop thinking.  That’s the sense in which I tend to think of “entertainment’ as ‘escape.” 

But most of the books I like do not allow me to shut down my mind, and it occurs to me that, depending on what a reader wants to escape from, he might not be shutting down his mind, either.

Let’s start with the biggies–I have looked in on a number of e-mail discussion lists, Usenet newsgroups, and Listservs in my time, and I have dropped out of all of them that allowed for “moderation.”  By “moderation” is usually meant that there is a topic for the list, and a moderator or two who will step in and end discussions if they go off topic.  Some lists specifically put some topics–religion, say, or politics–off limits.

In practice, “moderation” never works as advertised.  What usually happens is this:  Poster A zings off a round condemnation of Political Party B, and his post is applauded by Posters C, D, E, and F.  So far, there is NO sign of moderation.  None.  Then Poster G writes in to say that Political Party B is actually the most wonderful thing on the planet, and the posters who have been knocking it are not only wrong but misinformed.  Then Poster G lists the misinformation in the prior posts, and provides corrections.

THEN, and only then, do the “moderators” step in to stop the discussion.  They almost always complain that Poster G has been “uncivil” to the other posters.

Contrary to what this often looks like when you’re in the fray, it’s almost never the case that the moderator or moderators are avid opponents of Political Party B.  It’s not that they’re taking sides in a political discussion, except by default.

In fact, if ithad been Poster G who started the discussion and then received a lot of concurring e-mails for the opposite position, and Poster A who had written in to complain, the discussion would have been shut down then.

What the moderators of these groups object to is not one political or religious position or the other, but the mear fact of conflict of any kind.

It’s conflict that these people–and not only these people–find objectiionable, uncomfortable, and insupportable.

Many of the lists I have looked in on over time have been devoted to books, and some of them have been devoted to mystery books.  But it seems to me that conflict is at the heart of any crime novel of any sort.  A murder mystery can’t exist without a murder, and a murder can’t take place without somebody being in conflict with somebody else over something. 

So my first question is this–is conflict per se what most readers want to excape from?  And if so, why doesn’t the conflict between the characters in a mystery usually count?

Some readers obviously do want to escape from political and/or religious arguments, like that reader who wrote in to me to say that she’d returned my book because she read to leave all that behind her.  I’ve had other readers over time who have written in to say that a novelist has no right to put any political discussion at all in her books.  I wrote back and pointed out that the world is full of political novels.  She wrote back to say I shouldn’t write her ever again.

So is that the issue?  is the present day political world so distasteful and distressing that readers are coming to books to imagine their way out of it, or to imagine a world where those conflicts do not exist?

What about the personal problems of the characters?  At least somebody writing in here suggested that one of the things readers might want to escape thinking about is the bills–but money problems are often a motive for murder, outside the murder mystery as well as in it.  Does a character who is drowning in bills or has a gambling problem or is on the brink of foreclosure–all of which are solid reasons for killing off his rich father in law so that his wife can inherit–is that something that would break the hold of the fantasy and make the book no longer an escape?

Money problems was what were mentioned in the comment, but I can think of others–nasty divorces, custody battles, downsizings and firings, bullying at school.

If readers really are trying to escape from all these things, if the mention of them makes the book distasteful, I can almost understand the lure of cozies.  The world they present is fluffy and fake.  The conflicts they present are stylized and trivial. 

But cozies are not the best selling branch of mystery fiction out there, and in fact they do less well than several of the other subgenres.  So maybe I don’t understand what readers mean when they say whty want to “escape” into fiction. 

Is it all right for the characters to have the same problems readers have, because it’s a relief to look at somebody else in the same position?  or because if that character finds a way to triumph over the problem that would give the reader hope?

And then there’s that thing that somebody–Lee?–said about how the characters in mystery fiction have a goal they’re striving to achieve and that they do achieve, in contrast to the aimlessness of characters in more mainstream fiction.  Is what readers want to “escape” from just that sense of aimlessness in their own lives?

I have been beating the crap out of the prologue for the 2010 Gregor the last few days, and there are several characters there who are drowning in the kinds of problems I have, or have had, myself.  But I like to write my way through those things.  When I’m in the middle of them and the experience of living with and through them is fresh in my mind, I find it helps to funnel them into a character.

And that’s strange, in a way.  When I was  younger, I used to keep very long and detailed journals, “writing it out” every single day on every single thing that was going right or wrong in my life.  I gave it up in graduate school when I realized that those journals were the only things that had ever made me feel honestly and pressingly suicidal–for some reason, concentrating on expressing my problems made me feel so hopeless and overwhelmed that I couldn’t see the point in going on.

Giving my problems to characters, however, seems to have absolutely the opposite effect.  The only explanation I have for that is that, in the writing, the problems belong not to me but to somebody else, and that’s enough to create enough distance for me get some kind of a grip on them I can’t get otherwise.

A while back I said that I sometimes found myself rereading my own books, that I sometimes find things in those books I do not remember and do not expect.

The book I’ve reread most often has been Somebody Else’s Music.  I think I repressed a lot of what happened to me in junior high school, so thoroughly repressed it that it not only came up from my subconscious while I was writing that book but that it managed to bypass my conscious mind while doing so. 

In the book, I moved myself and that group of girls from junior high to regular high school and then dragged us all into another state, but other people who went through all that with me recognized it without a problem, and I’m only now beginning to get it all sorted out.

Mosst books don’t have that kind of an impact on me, of course, but I also reread Skeleton Key on occasion, and True Believers.  And lately I try to reread all of them just about the time they come out, because I usually think they’re absolutely terrible, and then I change my mind. 

Maybe my problem is just that I “escape” into politics and religion–arguing for fun was a big deal in my family, and if I’m excoriating  George Bush or beating up “the new atheists” for knowing as much about the religion they criticize as I know about the internal combustion engine, I’m not thinking about whatever happens to be on my mind for the day. 

Personal trouble makes me hyperventilate.  The Great Issues of the Day just get my metabolism moving.

Written by janeh

January 29th, 2009 at 11:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Don’t Look Back–They Might Be Gaining On You'

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  1. Well I’ll be the first to talk here. I can speak for no other person but myself (me???), but I just plain do not like the ‘word’ escape’. It implies that significant parts of one’s life are unsatisfactory and that mysteries (or sports, or television, or politics, or religion (Marx was interesing on this) offer one a hole to run through to get away ‘from’ something.

    For me, reading books I love, walking the dogs in the snow, tennis, even, gasp, television, are parts of my reality. They are things I do, things I think, ways that shape reality for me. Now I know that Gregor is not ‘real’ in the sense in which my sister is, but in another way, he is a person I know whose world I share when I read. In that sense he is ‘real’. I like knowing some of the characters in books I read.

    As for conflict, heck, I LOVE conflict (and readily admit to being ‘aggressive/aggressive’ (as opposed to passive aggressive)). So many of the people with whom I come into contact are so conflict aversive that it’s almost impossible to start a really good argument because they’re afraid someone might get angry (a perfectly healthy emotion, in my opinion). Having been raised in a traditional WASP family where shows of emotion were frowned on (my mother would leave the room if disagreement got heated), I was always envious of those families who could have knock down, drag out screaming arguments and then be done and all go out for a pizza. So the conflicts I find in mysteries are a welcome relief from the constant need to ‘get along’ all the time. Granted there are way too many petty conflicts, but significant ones stimulate my thoughs and emotions and that’s a high for me.

    So I go ‘to’ mysteries, among other things, for my one of my alternate perspectives on reality, to look at conflict, to see where it leads, to try to figure out how and why the murder was committed as well as by whom, to hang out with folks I have come to like, or at least be comfortable with. It’s not that I have an unhappy life, or that I somehow need to suppliment my empirical reality; it’s just that I like my alternate realities too.

    Janet Lewis

    29 Jan 09 at 12:24 pm

  2. I concur wholeheartedly with Janet’s comment…the alternative reality offered in books supplements my own, not replaces it.

    I think of reading as a “brain vacation” in the sense that while I’m immersed in a story my mind is occupied with issues entirely different (even if they might be similar to events in my own life) from what I’ll be thinking about once I surface.

    When I read what Jane said about writing issues into characters which then enables her to deal with them differently or at all, I thought “Of course, once you give your problem to a character, you can treat it like the problem of a friend or acquaintance. It’s easy to see resolution or give advice in that situation. It’s internalizing the solution and applying it to yourself that’s difficult, but perhaps easier once the character processes it *for* you.”

    The journaling didn’t help because the character *was* you. Distancing even a little makes everything more tolerable.

    I also see the almost hysterical avoidance of disagreement or conflict in many online communities and in real life. It’s as if a disagreement threatens the stability of any relationship and so must be avoided at any cost. However, this avoidance seems mostly female-related, sexist as that might sound. I attribute to the “good girl” meme we all grew up with. Good girls don’t argue, good girls don’t disagree (in public) and to a certain extent, good girls who stand up for themselves aren’t really all that good, are they? They’re “strident.” They’re “aggressive.” Feh.

    I’ve gotten better about tolerating conflict as I’ve gotten older, and also distinguishing between actual conflict and a spirited debate of opposing viewpoints. In part, Jane, I attribute some of this maturity to your contributions on RAM. So thank you.

    I think most people have distanced themselves so far from any disagreement, that they cannot distinguish between debate/discussion/argument to convince and real heartfelt conflict. So any step in that direction is alarming and requires a massive reaction. Right Now. Such people shut themselves off from any possible negative emotion, I wonder how they determine when they’re happy. What do they have to compare to?

    And so, we circle back to a previous topic, the perfectability of life. Some folks seem to think that life *can* be perfect and that life that contains conflict isn’t, by definition. Thankfully, there are others who disagree. Vociferously. ;)


    29 Jan 09 at 1:59 pm

  3. Talk about opposites!

    I don’t mind the word ‘escape’ at all – and find it completely natural and inevitable that various bits of my life are unsatisfactory from time to time. I don’t necessarily associate escape with not thinking, though. It’s associated with thinking about something other than whatever bit of my life is currently not as I’d like it. I suppose in this context I do think of escape as being temporarily away from whatever it is I’m escaping. I suppose experience has shown me that whatever it is tends to still be there when I’ve finished my book – but I’m somewhat refreshed and can deal with it with more effectiveness and a greater sense of proportion.

    And I don’t consider fictional characters real, or part of my reality. They’re imaginary; fantasy. They may illustrate parts of human nature, but that’s as far as I’d go.

    I hate conflict. OK, for those who may know me from another forum, I admit I do like discussion, even very lively discussion. But it has to stay at a certain level of, oh, I don’t know. Abstractness, maybe. Or above a certain level of courtesy. Or at a certain proportion of my life or my interactions with a person or group. Some of my family tend to be very reserved and some tend to be, well, the opposite, and personally, I have no desire at all to have a screaming argument followed by pizza. It wouldn’t be followed by pizza for me, because no way do I calm down from a battle royal that fast, and in any case I find having to deal with other people’s dramatics and histrionics not worth the trouble, particularly as they tend to neither clarify the underlying issues of the conflict nor to contribute to some kind of modus vivendi.

    So I read to escape, to think about a puzzle or a fantasy character or situation for a while. The conflict inherent in a crime novel doesn’t bother me. It’s not real. It’s fantasy, just like the characters. And I suppose I might read to escape from real conflict, but mostly I don’t because by now I’ve generally figured out how to deal with real-life conflict in ways that suit me, if not those who prefer a livelier life. What I might be escaping from is worries over various situations – usually ones that I’ve done what I can for now, and which simply have to work out – or be lived with – longterm. Or I might be a bit bored, and escaping from that. I’m not sure if there’s a difference between reading to escape boredom and reading because I have a few minutes with nothing important to do and am a bit curious about a new book.

    It’s interesting that Jane found that ‘writing it out’ in journals was counter-productive. I’ve often thought that the often-recommended similar effort to analyze the origins etc of one’s problems is far less helpful than acknowledging that the problems exist in the here and now, and dealing with them (or their results) now.


    29 Jan 09 at 2:17 pm

  4. Isn’t there a saying that most people live lives of quiet desperation?

    Back when I was in high school, I used to think that adults had exciting and romantic lives. But as an adult, I found that I got up, went to work, came home, went to bed, got up …

    Reading the Hornblower novels or the Brother Cadfael novels gives me a world completely different from my own and experiences which don’t repeat my own life.

    Even police procedure novels give me a different source of excitement. They leave out the days and days of dull routine and concentrate on the exciting parts.


    29 Jan 09 at 5:43 pm

  5. I’ll continue to make the distinction between escape and desertion. The man who neglects his responsibilities in favor of videogames, television or books is morally culpable. The man who has done what he can, or has thought about courses of action until his head hurts and can’t think of a solution is entitled to some time off, and may be the better for it. My father favors train trips across the United States or the British Isles. I spend that time on Barsoom or in the Hyborian Age. (Not only is it cheaper, but you don’t have to book your trip in advance. I think the accomodations are better, too.)

    I’ve hears a LOT of denunciations of “escapist” literature, but as far as I’m concerned the author who has provided me with a refuge at the end of a long day or a rough week is a public benefactor. And that’s not something I’d say of the “fiction” writer who twists characters and circumstances to make a political or philsophical point.

    As far as argumentation goes, there’s a place for some friendly arm-wrestling at the end of the day, and maybe there’s a place for knife fights. But it is important that both parties agree on which they’re doing. Nor are time, place and forum unimportant considerations.


    29 Jan 09 at 7:21 pm

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