‘Don’t Upset the Reader’
I’ve been conditioned since I did my MA not to upset the reader. Don’t write about unlikeable characters. Don’t write about characters doing things that most of us wouldn’t do. Don’t be too emotional. Don’t write unhappy endings. Don’t be too obvious – or too subtle. Messy situations are okay, as long as they’re not too messy. And I’m starting to think I want to break out of the strait jacket.
Gradually my thoughts are returning to my unwritten novel – the one that had to go into hibernation once I realised the novel that has become The Broken Road was actually two novels squashed into one. I had to unpick the two stories and decide which one to go with.I opted for the one that seemed less challenging (how foolish was I?!), and thought I would allow the other one to percolate in my mind. I then decided it was too difficult, and I probably wouldn’t write it at all. The character was too different from me. What right did have to write about a young Ethiopian woman whose experience of life was totally different from mine? The horrible advice, Write What You Know, nagged at my brain, even though I don’t believe it.
But some characters/stories refuse to go away. You push them to the back of your mind and hope they’ll disappear. But they’re still there – lurking, waiting to pounce on you when you least expect it. And so my character and story refuse to go away quietly.
So, I was really interested to read an article in last Saturday’s Guardian by Hanya Yanagihara, author of ‘A Little Life’, in which she says some of her editor’s suggestions fell into a category she called ‘Don’t upset the reader’. ‘The violence of the book would, it seem Upset the Reader. The wildness the embarrassing bigness, the excessiveness of emotion would upset the reader. The length would upset the reader.’ And yet, she goes on to say ‘As readers, don’t we read fiction exactly to be upset? A novel is a questioning of what it means to be human, of what a life is.’
I agree with those last two sentences completely. And I was even more delighted to read her next point about a writer’s willingness ‘to create characters and circumstances beyond which is easy or what reflects the literal details of her life and experience’. Hurrah! Just what I want to hear. I can write my Ethiopian character’s story!
I’m just about to start reading ‘A Little Life’, so I’ll let you know! But clearly you pay a price for ‘upsetting the reader’. A quick check through the Amazon review reveals 130 5-star, 54 2 and 1-star with comments veering widely from fantastic, best book ever to awful, I’ve had to abandon it. It’s worth reading them. Whether the book is remains to be seen!