Perhaps cracking the cover on an unknown book is something like opening the door to strange children on Halloween. “Trick or Treat” they cry. We consider it mostly an idle threat, because we know if we’ve opened the door at all, we’re going to deliver a treat, and therefore not expect to be tricked. And perhaps this is analogous to shelling out our twenty-five dollars for a hardcover book: we expect to receive a treat and we don’t expect to be tricked.
But what’s the point of fiction? Is it to trick the reader into thinking that the characters they’re reading about and the circumstances in which they find themselves are real? (Oh, that reminds me of a pet peeve. Someone recently called a non-fiction book a “real” book, as distinct from novels, which she apparently considers to be “unreal.”) No, I’d say we’re all much too savvy to believe that the fictional situations we read in novels are actually taking place just as described.
Yet there are those who employ “writing tricks” hoping to pique readers’ interests or keep them coming back for more. You know the kind of tricks I’m talking about, like when a character does something he/she just wouldn’t do, but it’s page 223, and it’s time for something exciting to happen, so suddenly a man with a gun shows up at the door, or the phone rings and it’s a long-lost relative who’s running away from a stalker and needs to stay for a while. It’s not as though odd things don’t happen in life; they do. But what makes intersecting plot lines truthful—and truly interesting—is when we, the reader, get to see these plot lines aiming across the universe, sometimes long before the characters do. Writers who employ short cuts, Deus Ex Machina, and other tricks may believe readers aren’t smart enough to avoid being tricked. But on the contrary, I find readers to be smart about stories. Even if they can’t tell you why, they know a “true” one when they read it.
So, if good fiction doesn’t trick, does it, instead, deliver a treat—a too-sweet confection that allows us to slip the usual bounds of daily life and experience a heightened sense of possibility? And if so, is this “treat” just a sugar-high from which we will shortly crash as we put down the book and reenter the regular course of our real lives?
Well, yes, that can happen. Some books might indeed offer a kind of sugar-coated version of reality that leaves us distracted, but not informed; jacked-up but not truly fed. This style of fiction is fun occasionally, but to be avoided on a regular basis. We wouldn’t want a steady diet of this kind of reading any more than we’d want to try to subsist on candy bars and ice-cream, no matter how appealing this might sound. The aftertaste of both these “tricks” and “treats” is nasty, and may even drive a reader away from all kinds of fiction. But this would be a sad mistake. Why? Because fiction can offer real treats that no other form of writing, or of entertainment, can.
So what would a “real” novel offer? It would feed the soul as substantially as great meal does the body. It would expand the sense of possibility as startlingly and essentially as a Yoga class stretches the body. And it would offer a heightened perspective as naturally as a window seat on transcontinental flight. That’s the kind of treat I’m talking about, one that shows you how novel life can be.
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What a wonderful comparison. This made me think of writing fiction in a whole new way and made me consider elements of writing style that had never occurred to me before. You’re right: we would never want a steady diet of things too sweet or things that don’t ring true. Not in what we read, nor in real life.