A couple of weeks ago I heard a talk by Francine Prose, author of Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. Like many writers of fiction, Ms. Prose uses the word “books” here to mean novels, and her talk was similar to the first part of Reading, a discussion of the reasons people read, or might want to. First on her list was: Escape.
Ms. Prose's outlook is deeply informed by the sense that reading and writing go together, that the reasons people like to read are, or should be, the same reasons that make them want to write—a no-brainer it would seem, except that, as she told us, she was rather taken aback to discover that many of her writing-class students have little interest in reading, or at least reading any writer who's dead. Her book, therefore, came about as a way to explain good writing to eager readers, and also to help would-be writers understand what it is they are trying to create.
As anyone who's looked at my website knows, I describe myself as enjoying “reading—and writing—for escape.” Ms. Prose's arguments, therefore, were something I understood intuitively before I read her book. Her talk was a great pleasure, less for any new revelations than to hear a sardonic, even wry expression of my own thoughts, from a better writer who has read far more widely than I have. I felt like the poor imitation of Francine Prose listening to the Real Deal, and if that sounds sad, it wasn't. I felt privileged to see her in the (tall) flesh and to listen to her (cool, deep) voice.
At any rate, I was reminded of all this because I have recently had two experiences of Escape in my reading, two books that took me completely out of myself, my life, my world, into theirs. One left me totally ravished, so thoroughly satisfied all I could do was gasp and moan, lie flat on my back, mentally, and feel unable to f*ck--I mean read ;)--for a month. The other was a mixed experience; halfway through I was ravished, in a slightly more literal way, but the plot led to a kind of coitus interruptus. I was left somewhere on the near side of that ultimate reading orgasm, not because of the quality of the writing, but something to do with the way I perhaps (over)identified with the characters.
The first book, that toe-curling, explosive multiple-orgasm of a read, was Emma Donoghue's Room, the most extraordinary novel I've read in years. I can't praise it enough, but I don't want to spoil it by writing too much. If you've heard anything about it you know it's a grim topic, but the book itself is not grim and the ending is “happy,” which should alleviate some trepidation. Like any book, it's something you have to be in the mood to read, but I am urging everybody to get in the mood, soon, because this book is amazing.
At the end of Ms. Prose's talk, in the Q&A, someone put “my” unformed question into words, asking, Have you ever read something so wonderful that you can't read anything else right away? And if yes, what do you do about it? Ms. Prose answered that yes, she had, and that when that happens, just don't read for a while. It's a good thing, proof of how great that last book was. It's like breaking up with your girl- or boyfriend: if you were in love, you shouldn't plunge into a new relationship immediately. Room was that book for me, and it's taken me a while to get back into reading again.
Now that I have, my second noteworthy experience was Diana Gabaldon's second full-length novel in her Lord John series, Lord John and the Brotherhood of the Blade. Her main character, Lord John Grey, is a career soldier, the younger son of a duke, and a hero in the old-fashioned sense. He doesn't appear to have one flaw. He's brave, honorable and decent. He's also possessed of the necessary physical hardihood to survive severe battle wounds, as well as the beatings and violence and long days with little food and no sleep that come with being a character in what are essentially mysteries set in the mid-18th century. And he's good-looking and witty—and gay. It's a testament to Ms. Gabaldon's writing that I don't detest Lord John. In fact, I'm very fond of him (the gay thing helps a lot) and I want him to find love and happiness in his fictional existence.
And this is where my escapism as Reader conflicts with the escapism of the Writer. I've written about this kind of thing before, so I apologize, but it's my life; I can't help it. Readers want to read about certain things. Writers want to write about certain things. Ideally, these will be the same things, but it's never going to be a 100% match, and sometime the intersecting set is very tiny. In Room, it's the situation itself that is off-putting to potential readers. Once they've made the decision to enter this world, this room, it's hard to imagine them being disappointed. Still, I have the sense that some readers were upset with what Ms. Donoghue made her characters do, were not “satisfied” by her brilliant talent, unwilling simply to lie back and let her have her way with them, as I was.
This reader/writer conflict has a lot to do with why I liked Room better than the Lord John stories. The two main characters in Room are, by the nature of their situation, flawed. Jack, the narrator, who starts the story on his fifth birthday, and his mom, are ordinary people in highly extraordinary circumstances, which means they are both forced to behave, at some point, heroically. They take risks, make mistakes, do their best, and, sometimes, almost fail. Mom has to put her own son in peril in order to save them both. Who am I to judge her? What would I do in her place? I know one thing: I wouldn't do half as well, and I just hung on through this intense story, relieved that we all reached the end without tragedy, but sorry that it was the end.
My main problem with Lord John is similar to the one some readers had with Room: I don't like the way his creator treats him. Ms. Gabaldon is a very good writer of historical fiction, one who strives for realism. If her character is gay and lives in 18th-century England, he's not going to have a very satisfying love life, not if he's going to live long enough to complete the planned trilogy of novels. He's in love with a man who can't return his feelings, and he can't get a true love of his own. In the first novel, Lord John and the Private Matter, he didn't even get laid until the end.
Although I don't put much stock in online “customer reviews,” I can never resist checking them out, and one of the factors that decided me on reading Blade was the minority who were annoyed at the gay sex. Based on the complaints, I figured we'd get a little more action in this one than the previous one, and I wasn't disappointed. In fact, that's why I'm writing about this book now; that first part of the story, in which Lord John meets a lovely young man and has a beautifully written love/sex scene or two, transported me as much as anything else I've read recently. But Ms. Gabaldon never lets things go well for her hero for long, and when this idyl ended I almost cried. Fifty-five years old and I'm moping around like a middle-school student with the latest pre-teen vampire stuff.
I think the main issue for me was Lord John's “flawed” partner. That is, I identified with him as I can't with perfect Lord John. Percy Wainwright turned out to be morally compromised in a way that resonates with me. No, I'm not a gorgeous twenty-something young man who has had to do some degrading things that “made the difference between starving and poverty,” as he puts it. But I have, like most people who live to middle age, done things I'm ashamed of, made wrong choices, even some things I knew were wrong at the time and did them anyway. And when Percy makes a very wrong decision and ruins his chances with Lord John forever, I was heartbroken. Just as there's no more chance for him, it brought it home that there's no more chance for me.
This is why Room was the Great Escape for me, and Blade not: because I want to think there's hope for people as flawed as I am. I write stories about imperfect characters who find happiness and true love despite their mistakes—and I like to read stories like that, too. Cynical as I am, it turns out I may be an “inspirational” writer, at least to myself. And that's a scary thought for Halloween.