‘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.http://www.dreamstime.com/-image18243419I 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’. Headache‘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!






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  1. Polly says:

    The phrase ‘disturb your reader’ comes to mind—I don’t know from where, but I believe it…

  2. Christine Donovan says:

    Well that’s Wuthering Heights out the window then, and most other books that are any good. Life is messy! Novels should be as well – the tears I’ve cried…

  3. Derek says:

    I can see what the Guardian article means. A good deal of sense in it. But I’m not totally convinced. Isn’t the more powerful argument that a character who’s presented as being from a certain culture but whose behaviour isn’t then consistent with that culture, may not be believable? Isn’t that the real risk? Success, I guess, would depend on how deeply the writer is able to steep her/himself in the character’s culture.

  4. Sounds terrible advice.

  5. Lindsay says:

    I agree, Christine, but think there is perhaps a move towards ‘neater’ novels.

  6. Lindsay says:

    But some readers don’t want to be disturbed! Perhaps they’re not ‘my’ readers.

  7. Lindsay says:

    Not sure if you’ve read the whole article or the bits I quoted, Derek, but she goes on to say ‘it sometimes means taking a single strand from your own life – a small incident, an inexplicably resonant encounter, an unnamed feeling – and giving it to another, a fictional creation with whom you share not race or gender or history, but something both less defining and yet almost more profound.’ I think that’s the idea I’m trying to catch hold of.

  8. Lindsay says:

    I agree, Elizabeth, but I think there’s a difficulty if you want to write about unlikeable characters.

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