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The Higher Gossip

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I really wish I could say I’d invented the phrase I used for a title this morning, but it’s actually been around a long time, usually as a way to describe the nineteenth century novel in both  Frrance and England.  I was thinking about it, though, because of what somebody said about characters with goals. 

First, let me get back to escape.   I understand just how Janet feels about the word, because it repels me, too–there’s something about it that just feels wrong.   I willl say with some of the rest of you t hat there are times when my life is very unsatisfactory.  I don’t think it’s possible to avoid that in any life.  People get sick, people die, jobs don’t an out or turn out not to be what you expected them to be, relationships fail–and that’s assuming that you’re very lucky and nothing truly serious hits the fan.

But “escape” for me always has a tinge of mindlessness–of shutting down my ability to think.  I don’t think  I’ve ever actually wanted to do that, but even if I had,  I’m not sure I would have been able. 

And I do like arguments, at least political and religious and aesthetic arguments, and, like Janet,  I can be driven crazy by people who freak out and get hysterical at the first sign that anybody is disagreeing with anybody else.  If you go to the main web site this blog is on and look on the left side of the main bag, you’ll see an essay called “Jane’s Rules of the  Road.”  I wrote that in response to an incident of just that sort.

But I will reiterate what I said yesterday, and agree with Cheryl a bit here–there is something about focusing on my own problems that makes them worse.  That was true of writing journals, which, as I said, is why  I don’t write them any more.   But it is also true of the one or two times I tried “therapy.”

For me, there are two things wrong with therapy, at least as  I experienced it.  First was certainy the necessity of thinking always and forever on what was wrong with my life and what I felt about it.  Second was the need to define myself as sick, a requirement that was almost self fulfilling.

In that one period when I was severely depressed–so depressed that I couldn’t write, and it was long before I was publishing, so I didn’t have writing income (or lack of it) as an incentive–the one thing that helped was Doing Something, and what I did that time was to volunteer at  a call in help line. If you ever want a really fast dose of  “there but for the grace of God,” I’d suggest that you volunteer at a call in help line in Detroit.  And that was in the days when Detroit was still a viable city.

But the characters help as well, these days, and I still don’t know if they help anybody else but me.  Not only can I write about characters who have my problems and yet feel better about those problems as they have to do with myself, but I can read about them as well.  Writing is better, but the mere fact that the relative dying of cancer belongs to  a friendless young woman in Victorian London is enough to distance the issue from me.

That this is not true for everybody is obvious from those letters I get from readers who complain that they come to fiction to relax, not to read about all these terrible things they’ve got enough of in their own lives.

But the fact is that most of my reading isn’t in the genres any more, and it never was in any genre outside the mystery.  Most of my reading of fiction tends to be in those nineteenth century novels I mentioned, when the point of the novel was assumed by everyone to be, as Trollope put it, showing the reader The Way We Live Now.

At the momen, I’ve just managed to get started with the book I meant to read for Christmas, Trollope’s The Prime Minister.  This is the second to last in a series of books usually called “The Palliser Novels,” because the have to do–sort of, and I’ll get to that in a minute–with a man named Plantagenet Palliser and his career first in the House of Commons and later, once he’s entered the House of Lords, as Prime Minister.

And yes, I know. In these days, nobody in the House of Lords could be Prime Minister.  But  Trollope is dealing with a period in English history before Memebers of Parliament were even paid.

Anyway, Trollope’s two main obsessions were Parliament and the Church of England.   He stood for Parliament, but his career was not successful.   His more famous series of novels concerns the Church, and many college students over the years have been forced to suffer through The Vicar of  Wakefield because of it.  If that was all I had known of Trollope, I’d never have gone back.  But in graduate school I got the second of the Palliser novels, called Phineas Finn, and I loved that one so much that I went actively looking for more.

It wasn’t easy.  For a couple of decades there, most of Trollope’s novels were out of print.  For the graduate course I mentioned, we had to read Phineas Finn in a “miniature classics” edition so tiny it almost fit in the palm of my hand, and with those paper-thin pages that pocket Bibles used to be printed on.

In each of the Palliser novels, there are two threads.   One is the specific focus of the book, a set of characters who will appear in detail only in this particular volume.  This thread in The Prime Minister concerns a young woman named Emily Wharton and her family, thrown into difficulties because Emily insists on marrying a man–called Ferdinand Lopez–about whom her family knows nothing, and in spite of the fact that she is being sought by the nicest, finest, richest man in her circie, who also happens to be a man she grew up with.

Needless to say, Lopez turns out to be everything her family tries to toll her he is, and worse, and the novel follows the arc of the marriage and of Lopez’s career until both of them end in ruin.  Whether Emily will then get to live a decent life, I can’t tell.   In  Victorian England, a woman once married tended to be a woman thoroughly stuck.  But I’m interested to know what happens, and that’s what I was getting at about The Higher  Gossip.  This is the kind of information we are concerned about among the people we know, and sometimes for some of us about “celebrities.”  I don’t know that there is a goal here, but I also don’t think the characters just drift, as they do in a lot of contemporary literary fiction.   There’s a narrative arc, it’s just not about somebody achieving something.

The other thread in the Palliser novels concerns the Pallisers, and that amounts to The Higher Gossip, Extended Version.  I have by now followed Planty Pall’s career through four books.  This is the fifth, and there’s a sixth still to come.   The very first novel in the series traced the difficult early days of his marriage to the greatest heiress in England.  Once that settled down and the couple became committed to each other in every way possible, the books followed the careers of the two of them together, because Lady Glencora definitely “helps.”  She’s also a force of nature, which is fun.

The thing is this–I definitely perk up whenever one of the regular series characters shows up or has a more than passing part in the proceedings.  I like reading about Lady Glen because she’s Lady Glen and I know her, and that’s true by now of Plantagenet himself, some of their friends (like Phineas Finn and his wife, and a complete little tramp with money called Lizzie Eustace), and even some of the minor personalities who have popped in and out over time.

Trollope’s idea of a “political novel” is not what we usually think of it.   He wasn’t interested in the great issues of the day, but in the personal lives and careers of ambition of political persons.  You don’t have to know anything about the history of Home Rule for  Ireland or the county suffrage to understand what is going on in these books, and you don’t have to care.  What you’re supposed to care about is the people, and I do.

But that’s the question of the day–lots of people write to me to tell me that what they like best about the Gregor books is Cavanaugh Street and the community that lives on it.  These are the elements in the books that have the least to do with the mystery.   I did set a murder there once, in Bleeding Hearts, but I’ve always been wary of Cabot Cove Syndrome.   I mean, for God’s sake, it was a small town in Maine and it had a higher murder rate  than Beirut.

But why is it that I get excited to find series characters reappearing, and that other readers do, too?  What is it about the mere reappearance of such characters that can perk up an otherwise not very interesting book?  I do think The Prime Minister is very interesting, but there are a couple of volumes in that series that are less so, and they’re always redeemed by the re-emergency of Planty  Pall and  Lady Glen and company.  I know more about the domestic arrangements of the Duke of Omnium than I know of my own, and I’m more interested.

What is it about series characters that matter so much to readers?  Why will readers go on reading a series that has really fallen apart–and I know of some mystery series that have completely imploded–just to get to the continuing plot lines? 

“I love your books,” people write to me, “but I especially love te people on Cavanaugh Street.”  And I don’t care what the rest of the book is like, books set on Cavanaugh Street or with a heavy Cavanaugh  Street presence always seem to do better than books without it. 

I don’t understand this quite even as a reader.  As a writer, I find myself blowing h ot and cold on series characters.  Sometimes they’re just there and alive in front of me.  Sometimes I’m so sick of them I want to kill them all off in some literary version of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.

Written by janeh

January 30th, 2009 at 6:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'The Higher Gossip'

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  1. I can understand the distancing effect of problems occurring in characters rather than real life. I am not one of those people who write complaining that they have enough problems in real life and don’t want them in their reading material, probably because I don’t experience the problems in books as real. Yet they have enough ‘life’ to interest me. I know that’s a contradiction. It’s similar to another contradiction in my reading – I long ago stopped reading almost anything about some wars, because I found I was rather pointlessly obsessing about the atrocities of WW I & II. Yet, I can happily – well, with some kind of enjoyment – read about much earlier wars and atrocities, which are certainly as ‘real’ as the World Wars and more so than novels with violent scenes, which I also read from time to time. I think people (real or fictional) have to be real enough to interest me, but there’s a certain point, so far only in history or current affairs, at which they become too real. Then I don’t want to read about them – or at least, about their suffering. A friend of mine has a similar reaction based on age rather than historical or fictional dividing line – she can’t read anything involving child abuse (or, now that I think about it, ‘true crime’). The age (and reality) of the victims spoils her ability to enjoy the characters.

    It doesn’t surprise me that people like interesting characters and their relationships. We’re a social species living in a fairly fragmented world. Oh, in spite of social fragmentation, we do all *have* various real social circles – family, work, friends, fellow-hobbyists or volunteers etc. But we’ve got a natural tendency to be interested in people and relationships, and can always add on a fictional network which has as a bonus the inability to make personal demands and the ability to be dropped the minute it becomes boring (or real life starts making demands).

    Or maybe this is a female characteristic. I’m always hearing that women focus on people and men on things.


    30 Jan 09 at 9:25 am

  2. For me the experience of therapy was very different. I wasn’t sick, self-defined or regarded as so by the therapist…I was unhappy. I wanted to deal with the misery, in the here and now, and though the roots of the issue making me miserable might be informative, it wasn’t that helpful in resolving it. The goal of the therapy wasn’t to *be* in therapy, as some long-term kind of commitment, it was to resolve the issue that was making me miserable right now.

    And it worked. *I* worked, altering attitudes, recognizing what benefit I was deriving from being miserable, and either getting that benefit from a different source, or realizing the benefit was unworthy and learning to do without. I got happy, because after all, my life is pretty darn good.

    Therapy can be for different purposes during different phases of life. During my divorce, it was for emotional support. I was depressed for a reason. After my second marriage it was to increase communication, so that the marriage succeeded. Then there were personal issues I felt I needed work to alter, so as to remove self-imposed barriers to enjoyment of life.

    I was very lucky to find a therapist who fit into my view of therapy and had similar goals.

    Now, on to series characters. Honestly, Jane, in a few of your books I’ve felt that they would have been better (or at least more adventurous) without the crew on Cavanaugh street. “Somebody Else’s Music” is a case in point. Gregor doesn’t even enter the book until late in the story and I was utterly captivated by the interweaving story up until that point. The characters were wonderful, fresh and vital. I couldn’t quite predict where things were going. Then Gregor arrives, and suddenly we’ve got familiar behaviors and a familiar resolution in sight. Hmmm. It was almost like a screaming U-turn in the feeling of the book. I wondered to myself at the time, “she was doing so terrifically up to then, why not make this a stand-alone?” The quality of writing didn’t change, it was still excellent, but the *feeling* of the book altered for me.

    It’s interesting you say that Demarkian books do better than non-Demarkian ones. Many people enjoy that feeling of comfort in reading about familiar characters. It’s easier to empathize with characters you know more about, and when you’ve got a dozen books to garner small facts about any minor character, you get a lot more familiarity than can be developed in a single book.

    I imagine there must be a corresponding author’s level of comfort…you don’t have to write *every* little thing to reveal character, because it’s been written before. Even if it’s not referred to in the current book, faithful readers will know this character is tramatized by clowns or afraid of horses. If a reader is reading out of sequence, well, you can include the important stuff but leave out the irrelevant. But the richness and depth of character is there.

    And seeing a familiar character appear as you describe in the Trollope novels is like seeing a friend appear at your door. You know something, good or bad, is going to happen around this person, and that sense of anticipation is a delicious feeling to have while reading. Pleasure, excitement, or for some characters, suspense. Anytime you can get that kind of feeling going in a book it’s a good thing for the readers. I think it’s harder for stand-alone books to engender that feeling, certainly it can’t be done with the mere appearance of a character.

    That’s my take on it, anyway.


    30 Jan 09 at 2:55 pm

  3. Please note that for some of us “mainstream” IS a genre, but that’s not the present topic.

    I hadn’t thought of it that way, but yes, clusters of fictional characters can be a selling point for me. Explaining exactly why one book satisfies and another does not is a bit like sorting out all the ingredients in a stew, but I suspect it’s one reason–and possibly a major one–why I keep bringing home the JD Robb “Eve Dallas” stories. The same for Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and several others. In present company, it was a selling point with Pay McKenna and friends, but not, in my case, of the Cavanaugh Street group. Father Tibor holds my interest and has my respect, but he’s not a group.

    There seems to be some genetic predisposition in favor of “cute,” which is probably one of the things keeping two year olds, kittens and puppies alive. There may be a natural bent toward empathy so broad it includes people we know perfectly well don’t exist–but we worry about them anyway. (I’ve lost a few relatives whose deaths didn’t hit me as hard as the death of Catherine Chandler in BEAUTY AND THE BEST. That may be wrong of me, but it is nonetheless so.)

    But supporting characters may be a worthwhile part of the stew without the Soap Opera Effect. One of the main attractions of the old Travis McGee stories–for me, anyway–was G. Ludwig Meyer, Certified Guarantor, and the times when something happened to him were some of his least interesting appearances. I would pay good money to be able to sit somewhere adn listen to Dr. Meyer and Fr Tibor discuss–anything: anything at all. I don’t think McGee and Demarkian would be as interesting and informative. I’m not concerned for Meyer or Father Tibor” I’m just glad to spend some time with them.

    And it’s worth considering place as distinct from people. Yes, of course they overlap, but certain real places have been used as fictional settings so often that some of the magic of storytelling has transferred to the real place. The post-Civil War American West, Regency and late Victorian London and contemporary New York City are part of the cast, with the writer able to benefit from the depth that repeated trips impart. But not all the best places are real. Lankhmar, Todos Santos and Jekkara are as much home to me as several places I’ve worked and paid taxes. If I return to them for an evening, that may be “escape” but it is no more shutting down my mind than would a trip to New York to visit the Strand again.

    If all your favorite haunts can be found on maps, you haven’t traveled far enough.


    30 Jan 09 at 8:54 pm

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