Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Can I be as good as Jane Austen?

(Originally posted on June 4, 2005.)

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 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.


Becca said...

To me, The Best Novel Ever, or even just A Good Novel, is a combination of the author's writing and my interest. I don't care about most of the classics, no matter what the critics say. But when someone takes the time to construct a plausible and intriguing plot, combining it with prose that inspires, I will recommend the book without worrying about the genre.

BTW, I do think you can be as good as Jane Austen, who is one of my favourite writers. :)

Bonnie Calhoun said...

LOL...by George...I think you got it..LOL...you sweet woman.

God gives everyone of us a gift, and if yours is to touch other people....God knows what He's doing!

Brenda Coulter said...

Thanks, ladies. You're both sweethearts.

Chris said...

Hey, the upside of not being Jane Austen is that you haven't been dead since 1817. I find being dead that long tends to put a kink one's weekend plans--kinky plans doubly so.

Margo Carmichael said...

Aaaa! Look me up at national and we'll talk about quantum mechanics! I read about a sports car the size of a grain of rice!

Brenda Coulter said...

Yeah, Chris, I'm really enjoying not being dead.

Margo, I'll be at RWA in Atlanta this summer. I'd love to see you.