My friend Matt Cheney had some interesting things to say on his blog concerning the overuse of the term “self-indulgent” among reviewers. Although I don’t have much to add to that discussion — chiefly because I think of a review as just another artistic creation that often has little do with the work being reviewed — it did get me thinking about what I really respond to as a reader, and what I think your average reader responds to in fiction. And for the sake of discussion, let’s define “average readers” as people who love good fiction but who aren’t writers and don’t give a rat’s ass whether a particular story should be defined as slipstream or modern fantasy, or whether third person limited point of view is more distancing than first person point of view. People who just want a good tale. And that’s heart.
Oh, yes, I can hear the snickering from the fellows in the back row dressed in black turtlenecks, obscured by their haze of cigarette smoke, and trading witty barbs that are just regurgitations of something Nietzsche said much better. Yes, heart. It’s easy to toss that off that as sentimental nonsense, but great fiction, fiction that is remembered for more than a few weeks, that keeps coming back when stories that are far more clever (which might be another way to define self-indulgent) with their structure or their style become part of a great blur of other clever stories, is fiction that moves you in some way.
It makes you laugh. It makes you cry. It makes you stay up until the first gray light of dawn just to find out what happens next.
I guess that’s my chief complaint about a lot of what’s called experimental fiction these days. While I don’t mind a nonconventional story structure or style, I find that 90% of the time these stories do nothing for me emotionally. And therefore they’re quickly forgotten. A story like “The Cold Equations” still gets to me after all these years, despite its almost total lack of ornament, because it has heart. “Flowers for Algernon” is one my favorite stories, not because it’s nonconventional, which it certainly is, but because it moved me to tears when I read it. Oh,
gosh. Did I admit that? I’m a man who cried at something he read? Well, yeah, that’s the whole damn point. I read because I want to feel like I’m not alone, that other people share my misery, my joy, my loneliness, that I’m part of something larger than myself.
Now, as a writer, how do you achieve that? How do you move readers to laughter or to tears? I have no idea. But I can tell you how you won’t do it: if you write something that doesn’t move you, that doesn’t do anything for you other than to reaffirm just how clever you really are, the chances of it moving someone else beyond that same level (“Boy, isn’t this writer clever!”)
is pretty much nil. There is a danger in becoming melodramatic or overly sentimental, and an even greater danger in being called melodramatic or sentimental by those too jilted by their haze of cleverness to respond emotionally to anything, but the reward is that every now and then, when you least expect it, a reader drops you an email to say, “Your story made me cry, man. Thanks.” Or, “You had me laughing so hard I nearly peed my pants.” It’s what I reach for.
Do I fail? Oh yeah, big time, far more often than I succeed, but I keep reaching. It’s why I write.
You made me laugh.
You made me cry.
For me, there’s no better review than that, and none that’s necessary.