Thursday, April 22, 2010

Can't get no satisfaction

Don't know if you know this, but I really love Shakespeare.  I don't always understand him.  In truth, I got through many of his plays reading these alongside the original plays, which reside inside my giant red THE COMPLETE SHAKESPEARE book, spelled out in big, obnoxious, you-are-not-smart-enough-to-understand-this block letters just like that.  For awhile, I really loved King Lear--it's kind of messy and extremely melodramatic, and one of my favorite contemporary novels, A Thousand Acres, is a modern retelling of it (keep this in mind for later: A Thousand Acres won the Pulitzer Prize).  But in years past I've come to love Romeo & Juliet the very best.  Part of it is because in addition to reading it in high school, college, and graduate school, I also taught it three different times while I did my student teaching.  So it's the one that I understand the most fully, and the one that I've done the most reading about.  And beyond all that it just makes me swoon.

But this post isn't really about R&J or the Immortal Bard.

Remember the scene in the play when Romeo is outside Juliet's window the first night they meet, and he's shouting up to her where she stands on the balcony?
 He says, "Wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?" 
And Juliet responds, "What satisfaction canst thou have to-night?" 
And Romeo says, "The exchange of thy love's faithful vow for mine."
Well this little exchange came to my mind today as I was reading a New York Times article about the author of the newest Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, called Tinkers.  I haven't read the book yet (and I have absolutely no doubt that it may be quite good), but this post isn't even specifically about that book either.  In the article, there was this quote from the author, Paul Harding, on getting rejection letters when he first sent out Tinkers:
"They would lecture me about the pace of life today," Mr. Harding said last week over lunch at a diner in this college town, where he is now teaching at the workshop. "It was, ‘Where are the car chases?’ ” he said, recalling the gist of the letters. “ ‘Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative, quiet book."
Then, one of his writing professors and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist herself, Marilynne Robinson, gave this quote:
“One of the problems I have is making my students believe that they can write something that satisfies their definition of good, and they don’t have to calculate the market,” Ms. Robinson said. “Now that I have the Paul anecdote, they will believe me more.”
So here are a few thoughts on this, because it's been bothering me all day...

I love a quiet book.  Three of my favorite books that are also quiet books:

The Folded World by Amity Gage
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
Evening by Susan Minot

And it's true, like Marilynne Robinson says, there are so many writers out there who read things just to see what their own stories should be like.  They want to know what sells and then they want to duplicate it so that they too can be published.  I went through a phase where I was doing this...

But when we talk about books being marketable, and we talk, figuratively, about the "car crashes" in books, I think what we're really talking about is satisfying our reader.  Not boring them.  Not making them feel dumb.  Not giving them characters that do randomly odd stuff that does nothing to illuminate life or the way we live.  We're talking about giving readers a good story.  Something that is not work (work in the ugly sense of the word, it's okay if it's in the good sense) and keeps them turning the pages late into the night, not caring that they have a busy day tomorrow, or forgetting, as they sit riveted in an airport terminal, that they are there to get on a plane.

To me it's false to suggest that books that are page-turners and books that are meditative are meant for two different types of readers.  As though those of us who spent good money on English degrees don't appreciate a good story, and those who were smart and got applicable college degrees, or no degrees at all, are not capable of sitting quietly and appreciating something quiet.

Right now, I'm reading a Luanne Rice novel!  I'm loving it!

And Luanne Rice, though she'd never pass muster in a writer's workshop, seems to be VERY concerned that I am enjoying her book.  She seems like she'd be hurt if I stopped turning the pages, because on every page there's something that makes me want to keep reading.  She doesn't think it's about her, but about us, writer and reader together, exchanging a faithful vow of love.

Write me something that transports me--whether by thrill or meditation--and I shall sit dutifully enthralled.  Think of all the twists and turns in Romeo & Juliet: Romeo is depressed, Romeo meets Juliet (their families hate each other), Juliet and Romeo fall in love, Romeo kills Juliet's cousin, Romeo is banished, Juliet seeks out a magic potion to seem dead, Romeo believes that she is dead, Romeo kills himself, Juliet kills herself!!!!

A good writer, like a good lover, cares about the other person.

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