Saturday, June 04, 2005

Can I be as good as Jane Austen?

If I'd been more on the ball last week, I'd have pointed you to this wonderful piece over at Grumpy Old Bookman. In "There are no Great Novels" Michael Allen shares an excerpt from his book, The Truth About Writing. The post is a bit long, and he actually brings up quantum mechanics (which thrills my little heart if not yours), but stick with it because there are some real gems there. If you can't read it now, be sure to bookmark it for later. This one's a keeper.

Have a sample:
According to the professors and opinion-setters of our time, the great novel somehow has a stature all of its own; it remains a great book whether you happen to enjoy it or not. In fact if you, as an individual, happen to consider the great novel excruciatingly dull and boring, then it is you, the moron, who is at fault. The novel in question allegedly remains a great novel, regardless of whether or not you – the individual reader – have the good taste and intellectual equipment to recognise it as such.

Nonsense, is my view. I know of no argument which constitutes grounds for believing these ideas to be true, and I can put forward a strong case for believing the opposite.

And he goes on to do exactly that. I liked this part a lot:
Personally I do not believe that a book can be said to be good or bad in any absolute sense – it is only successful or unsuccessful in terms of its intended audience. And its intended audience, to repeat a point made earlier, is a group of people who speak a particular language, either literally or metaphorically; it is a group of people who share a set of interests and a common frame of reference.

But here is where I felt something inside me go thump and I finally got it:
It follows, therefore, that great novels do not exist as entities in their own right. A novel only has the power to generate emotion when a reader of the right kind comes across it. And this is true whether we are talking about D.H. Lawrence or Mills and Boon.

Mills and Boon is, of course, owned by Harlequin Enterprises. Yep, the guy is actually admitting the possibility that a "category" romance novel can be a Great Novel. Does that blow you away?

It is no exaggeration when I say that hundreds of people have written to me and said things like, "Your book is absolutely the best novel I've ever read. I have read it several times. It has changed my life!"

Much as my ego enjoys being stroked, those letters and e-mails have always made me a little uncomfortable because, people, I'm no Jane Austen. I did put my very best effort into Finding Hope, but I'm really not all that clever and talented. That isn't false modesty but fact. I'm no Jane Austen.

And yet to some people, apparently, I am. Because if Michael Allen has it right, then my little book might actually speak to some readers' hearts in a way that Pride and Prejudice never did.

Allen points out that the purpose of a novel is to entertain readers by eliciting emotional responses from them. That's doubly true in the case of romance novels, where book-buyers demand that the authors wring some very specific emotions from them. Romance readers want to feel the tingles of falling in love, then they want to taste the heartbreak of almost losing everything because that makes the happily-ever-after ending all the sweeter. So if I as a writer can deliver a story that meets those readers' expectations, it won't matter that I don't have a master's degree in English literature or that I use weak verbs and too many adverbs; some people will actually think my book is powerful and life-changing and, well . . . a Great Novel.

So I've been looking at this all wrong. I thought those effusive compliments were praising my talent and writing skills, and that was why I just couldn't take them seriously; because I know I am a competent but not a great writer. But I'm beginning to understand that when someone gushes about my book being hands-down The Best Novel Ever, she's not talking about my writing, she's telling me something about herself. She's telling me what rings her emotional bell. What makes her laugh and cry and feel good. She's telling me that the story I chose to tell and the way I told it touched her heart in a way no other novel ever has.

I like that a lot.


Anonymous said...

I for one am glad that you are not Jane Austen, who needes two of the same, you are your own person, and I like the way you write, your not a cookie cutter writer, keep it up!!

Mary Stella said...

What a great, thoughtful, blog entry. We don't need to be Jane Austen or Nora Roberts or Tolstoy. (Although I wouldn't sneer at Nora's royalty checks.) We only need to write books that touch someone in some way -- whether we make them laugh, cry, get warm-fuzzies or simply close our books, sigh and think, "I really enjoyed that story."

lindaruth said...

This is enlightening. I'd never really thought about it that way.

And looked at from the other side, maybe I don't have to feel so guilty that I've never read Tolstoy. :)


Brenda Coulter said...

Hope you all clicked over and read the whole Michael Allen piece. It was a real eye-opener for me.

Anonymous, thanks for the love.

Anonymous said...

Whether or not we realize it as a "personal experience" it is just that. You and a book. Further, that personal experience can be different at different times...with the same book. Books I was required to read in high school were okay...but much better when read as an adult. Perhaps a book that was your favorite at some point in your life may now (absent the emotional connection) seem not so great....because of your different perspective or circumstances.

I think the definition of a "great book" is one that successfully connects with a broad readership OVER TIME. Not just this year or next. I believe Finding Hope will do that. I have a few copies I have kept in my "hope" chest (how appropriate!) to pass down to my future grandchildren or anyone else that may someday need a little "hope".

And I look forward to more from my personal favorite author.


Anonymous said...

you got a good sister, Brenda

Brenda Coulter said...

Yup. And she's smart, too:

I think the definition of a "great book" is one that successfully connects with a broad readership OVER TIME.

I agree. Good comment, Skeezicks.

<3 <3 <3

Heather Diane Tipton said...

Ok don't string me up here but for the life of me I can't remember what your book is about* BUT what I do remember of your book is that I finished reading it and thought "wow, this isn't your typical SH LI. I love it." At the time I didn't know anything about writing but now that I do, I know that it was your voice that made it so different.
I have books that I think are some of the greatest books ever, I'm not saying they are some great literary novel, far from it. It's all a matter of where you are in your life at the time you read that book that it touches you where you are in that moment.
*In my defense, I've lived in this hotel for two years next week and all my babies (books) are in storage and that is where your book is. I would remember it once I started reading it.