Last week I looked at the writer/reader contract in a general way. Today’s riff breaks it down a bit more. What do people expect when they come to books? Does the new or occasional reader look for different things than the experienced reader?
Resolution. I think that one of the most powerful drives to storytelling is the human craving for resolution. The most enduring novels generally offer resolutions big and small—they can be simple, they can be complicated, they can be incredibly tense.
Someone will be quick to point out the fictional works that lean away from resolution, making a virtue of mirroring the muddle of real life. One of the sharpest divides in reader reactions occur over such novels; this narrative path, which I tend to think began with Lawrence’s Tristram Shandy, seems a tour de force to some and a confusing, boring waste of trees to others.
Motivation The new reader seems more ready to accept novels whose characters have single motivations, if they aren’t identified by their motivation. For example, in many of the science fiction stories I grew up with, there was usually a ‘science guy’ who was always to be found in his lab, wearing his white coat as he worked on arcane experiments day and night. He was always ready and willing to stop what he was doing and helpfully lecture the heroes on science factoids, and to invent robots or futuristic machines out of tools in dad’s garage, or the science lab at school, that the heroes then used to execute the action—unless, of course, he was a Mad Scientist. Then he would only issue his lectures after he captured our heroes, before which he worked 24/7 on machines to take over the world, or super-weapons, or giant-brain computers that we would now call AIs. He didn’t have a family, interests, didn’t even seem to have a home, unless bad guys were blowing it up.
This single motivation can especially extend to crowds, who all have the same expression, reaction, and action—without being mobs. (Mob psychology being a different, and terrifyingly fascinating subject.) Those crowds are there as set decoration, or to serve as audience to the heroes, and to underscore what the narrative voice wants the reader to think about characters or action.
Way at the other end of the spectrum are novels whose characters have such complex motivations that disentangling them is the real thrust of the book, and not the plot. There is relatively little action because we are buried so deeply inside characters’ heads that we are reading pages of self-examination and extended descriptions of emotional reactions to minutiae.
Meta-representation and levels of intent, or, expectations of accessibility. In the most accessible novel, the narrative voice clues the reader what to think about the characters and sometimes about the story. A character with “piercing eyes” is either a hero or villain, though in real life, what exactly are piercing eyes, since no one’s glance actually stabs us? But piercing eyes are the insta-signal of a character who is going to carry dramatic tension.
There’s probably a whole other riff in the various ways the narrative voice clues the reader in to things the characters don’t know. But right now I’m trying to stick to what brings us to novels . . . and what sends us away. For example, the contract can break when the more experienced reader feels that the narrative voice is telling her what to think about the characters and ideas. But some readers accept without question the judgments of the narrative voice.
Before I leave narrative voice, I want to add the observation that though committing the intentional fallacy is a literary no-no, I think we all occasionally play armchair detective (or psychologist), trying to reach into the mind behind the fiction. On a meta level, the narrative voice is going to reveal more than the author intended; cultural assumptions leap out when one reads very old novels, cultural assumptions being customs or viewpoints that the novel expresses as universally accepted, or reasonable, or even invisible, that are no longer so today.
Levels of intent are tied tightly with motivation, emotion, and reaction, but the levels come in with our recognition of who knows what. In novels considered difficult, or less accessible, part of the pleasure of reading is cognitive adaptation—the reader trying on different states of mind, without having actual responsibility for them.
Another part of the lure of less accessible novels comes in trying to comprehend who knows what. Some writers make the reader work hard to gain clues to motivation, such as Hemingway’s reporting on body language of characters, without letting the reader inside anyone’s thoughts. Virginia Woolf exhibited her mastery at hiding layers of intent in tiny clues in works such as Mrs. Dalloway: who noticed what about whom, leading to surmises about a third person, which influences a fourth, are little mysteries to be solved for the careful reader.