Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Books We Read

Okay, first the question: what is it that people see in characters who treat others in a nasty way for no real reason?

And now on to why I ask. I want to make it clear this is not why I left my book club, because honestly, when I only have time to read one or two books a month, I prefer for them to be my own choice. However, the dichotomy between my opinions and those of the other book club members did have a factor in this question bubbling to the top.

We most recently read The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Several of the other readers adored this book while I found moments interesting, the overall well written and a main character that left me cold. This is the same reaction I had to The Kite Runner, another popular and much lauded book.

I started to suspect I had lost my taste for mainstream writing as the majority of my reading has been science fiction/fantasy and romance novels of late. And before anyone says that those are "fluffy" books, they should take on some of my favorite science fiction which explores the political, cultural and social ramifications of change, what I classify sociological science fiction. Anyway, I had a novel recommended to me as research for a character who is going feral. The novel, A Girl Named Disaster, is young adult mainstream fiction about a young girl from Zimbabwe and what happens in her life. Now, if my suspicions were true, this would hold no interest. Instead, I find myself extending the few reading periods I can carve out of my schedule and moving through the book at what, for me, is a good clip.

Being of an analytical frame of mind, I started asking questions about why one novel about a young girl in horrible circumstances who had lost her mother should enthrall me while another leaves me cold.

To add to the confusion, a show I've been watching called Ghost Whisperer had appeared to be changing formats based on the "next on" advertising. I'd been willing to give it one more chance, but if it went the creepy horror route, I would stop watching. As it turned out, the advertising was misleading and the show continues along the path of Dead Like Me or Touched by an Angel where a person with a gift or special ability goes out and helps those in need.

These bits and pieces of information led me to an answer of sorts and the question above. What I didn't like in both those mainstream novels was not that the novels had no fantastical elements, was not that they plodded through "normal" life, but that the characters were not nice. Now, I don't mean to come across as wanting goodie two shoes as the main characters. In A Girl Named Disaster, the MC has nasty thoughts and does things that are definitely not nice. But they are provoked. Not only that, but she feels guilty about it as well. In The Secret Life of Bees, the MC treats her housekeeper like an idiot, is scornful of the woman's lack of culture and rough ways. I was given the argument that she's a product of her times and her culture. I personally believe people have the opportunity when faced with direct interaction that proves them wrong to grow beyond their culture. While it doesn't always happen, I'm not interested in reading books about the people who failed to do so. I see enough people failing to grow and be open to new information and ideas in real life. I don't want to spend my rare reading time with the same narrow-mindedness.

And the same held true for The Kite Runner, where a boy raised by a man who saw beyond the bigotry of his people chose instead to follow the example of his culture, even when it meant lying, stealing and condemning another. This type of behavior is not what I want to hang out with in my friends or in my reading time. With my friends at least, I can point out another perspective. With a book, you have to accept the character as it is written.

Maybe this is why I read so many romances. Though the characters usually start out in opposition because of misinformation, misunderstandings or just unresolved conflicts, as the novel progresses, they grow and change until they can see beyond their prejudice to recognize the other person's value. Now that's something I'd like to see more of in real life as well.

I find my own writing getting darker and harsher as I go along. I am a product of my environment and this is not something that brings me pleasure. Instead, what calls to me are those few souls, both in real life and in fiction, who offer of themselves to make the world a better place. It can be something as simple as my son volunteering to help at the school all on his own or something as huge as Lazette Gifford taking on Forward Motion so writers wouldn't be turned away at the door. I have to wonder how many other people would take these steps if instead of always watching and reading about doom and gloom, their environment reminded them of the good things. Reminded them that sometimes it only takes a smile to make a bad day into a good one, that helping others gives as much if not more than it costs and can cost as little as a moment to help someone figure out a bus schedule. You won't find these self-centered, egotist characters reaching out to help others, but there are enough books out there with people who feel responsible for their failings and who enjoy offering a little bit to others. These leave me with a smile rather than a frown.

Okay, I've given my reasons for my reading choices. How about you? If you like the type of books I'm panning, what draws you to them? (I'm not being facetious. I'm doing market research ;) and trying to understand.) And if not, what kinds of characters do catch your eye?


Deirdre said...

Whether or not the characters in a book are folks I would like to know has little to do with whether or not I'll like a book. It is whether or not what is happening to them is intriuging to me that decides whether or not I read a book. A book I read recently "Kingdoms of Light" has a couple of characters that I might like in my personal life, but most of the others I would either find annoying or cold - yet what they went through kept me turning pages. I guess it's just a totally different approach to reading.

Jennifer said...

For me, I do have problems with stories where they're 'just slogging through normal life'. But yes, I agree, there are far too many books with nasty people doing nasty things to each other... There's a Hammond mystery novel, Grail Quest, I read a couple times...throughout the entire book there are two main characters, sympathetic and interesting (it's a semi-romance) and then at the very end the female MC thinks something that suddenly makes her...just eww...totally not a person I want to know or know about (leaving out what because it's kind of a spoiler). As I said, I read it twice, and both times had the exact same reaction (I'd pretty much forgotten in between). And I find that highly annoying - usually I know whether I like these people quite early on (and will read through just to find out what's going on even if I don't like them). But Hammond fooled me. Twice. Does that make it shame on me?

Margaret said...

Oh now that's interesting, but it makes a lot of sense. Among writers, there are those who start with characters and everything builds from that (me) and those who the world they're writing in is what fascinates and still others where the idea that drives the plot is the most compelling. It never crossed my mind that readers might be the same way.

I can appreciate all those elements in my reading, but it's the characters that really determine the value of the book regardless of how much I might like the handling of the other elements :).


Chanpheng said...

Sometimes it seems like a book has interesting characters and situations and the not-so-nice stuff is kinda stuck in there. I really liked the first half of 'Kiterunner' but the violence at the end was awful and I don't think it contributed to the book. I did not mind the inequality of the relationships in the beginning because I felt that it was probably close to the reality of the author's childhood. There were so many complex issues presented in the beginning of the book - relationship with father, living in a war zone, how being exposed to war warps people, adapting to life in the US - but they were all overshadowed, in my mind, by the fight scene. And the end of the book did not seem to recover. Or maybe that was the point - that extreme violence wipes out one's sense of identity and attempting to make sense of one's life.

PS I really enjoy reading your book reviews.

No more stalling. I need to get back to NaNoing.

Margaret said...

Tut tut, get back to those words right now! :D.

I'm glad you like the book reviews. They really make me think about just what caught or jarred me in what I read, especially since I try to cull it down to the element rather than exposing the plot for possible spoilage.

On Kiterunner, I actually spent part of my childhood in the Middle East, some of that in Afghanistan. Though my memories are colored by my age, I had a lot in common with that background. Yes, violence and war changes how you perceive things, but this goes to the reality verses fiction for me. I'm not interested in reading about the failures, I guess. I want to see the people who can rise above it and provide examples for all of us to follow.

That said, for Kiterunner, I did something I have almost never done. I had to return it to the library before I was done and I never bothered to request it again.