Tendrils of Emotion

I recently finished reading The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein and thoroughly enjoyed the book.  As a lover of dogs and a doting father, I have a natural predisposition to revel in stories about dogs and fatherhood, both of which are the center of gravity in Racing.  The ending of the book left me in tears even though I knew what would ultimately happen to the Enzo, the protagonist and narrator who happens to be a dog.  The book connected with me on an emotional level that is both difficult and paramount for an author to do if she wants to engage her reader and pull him into the story.  Difficult but necessary.

All of this left me wondering how an author connects with her readers on an intense emotional level.  Some may read Racing and find it’s just another story to them.  They may dislike dogs or refuse to suspend their reality filter long enough to dive into an story narrated by a dog that has achieved a level of intelligence capable enough to construct a story about the world around him.  The truth is an author cannot possibly please all potential readers.  Even great literary classics don’t connect with everyone.  I loved Animal Farm, but could barely read 1984.  I think Of Mice and Men is much better than The Grapes of Wrath.  Orwell and Steinbeck are considered great authors but even they couldn’t please everyone or connect with them at that emotional level.

To give a more recent example, I read The Goldfinch a few weeks ago.  Tartt’s gorgeous prose paints a picture that would leave most capable authors impressed.  She is a masterful writer whose exquisite knowledge of her subjects and careful attention to detail puts the reader right in the middle of whatever scene she’s concocted.  Reading Tartt is like eating a wonderful yet formal meal prepared by a world-renowned chef in an equally enthralling restaurant with a grand panoramic view of a golden sunset over the shimmering Pacific.  At the end I felt fulfilled and content, a satisfaction that comes with a full belly and a full mind, but I didn’t exactly feel emotionally connected to the characters or the story.  Certainly, they were interesting and vividly portrayed, but I shed no tears of their plight despite the fact that the plot was inherently sad.

Contrast that with Stein’s book.  He’s no slouch when it comes to beautiful writing.  I personally took note of many great lines in the book, but his writing is much more efficient and barebones than Tartt’s.  In this case, less is more.  The words on the page had more punch per square inch emotionally than did the seemingly superfluous words in Goldfinch.  Tartt relies on her beautiful prose and meticulous detail to convey her story, while Stein provides just enough structure to build the arc of the story and translate the emotion of it all.  Reading Racing was akin to enjoying a nice, warm cup of coffee next to a warm fire on a cold, winter day, comforting and enjoyable.

So which approach is better?  Tartt’s mastery of the written word or Stein’s engaging emotion?  I can’t say either is the “best” in the true sense of a contest between two contrasting styles, but I can say that it’s important to know your audience and what you hope to achieve with your story.  Do you want to prove the depth of your literary bearing or do you want to appeal to the emotions of your readers?  I don’t think you can do both.  I don’t think you can serve two masters at once.   If anything reading these two books close together has taught me the importance of focusing on my purpose in each of my stories.  Both of these books are good, but they are appealing in different ways and they had a dramatically different effect on me as a reader.  As a student of the written word, I consider it another lesson in the art of writing, and that’s one reason I read so much.  You can never learn enough.

 

Mind the Gap

I recently finished Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the book, it didn’t quite make my Top 10 of all time books.  The book is beautifully written, and Ms. Tartt has proven that she is a master of gorgeous, flowing prose.  Her style reminded me very much of my favorite book of all time, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts.  Both authors employ flourishing language in their stories that put the reader smack in the middle of the action they portray and give the reader such vivid detail that even the least imaginative among us can conjure up the setting of each scene and the nuances of each unique character, but Goldfinch reminded me of one important aspect of storytelling: Mind the Gap.

mindthegap

Great storytellers know the importance of the gap in any story.  The gap is the detail that is not provided, the parts of the story left to the reader’s imagination.  Sometimes the most powerful elements of the story are all in the reader’s mind.  The storyteller simply provides the setting, the characters, and the fuel to the story, and the reader does the rest.

For example, my brother-in-law is a superb storyteller.  He instinctively knows just the right amount of detail to provide in any story he tells to great comedic effect.  He always gets it right, the timing, the details, the pause, etc.  Another person less gifted could tell the same story and it would fall flat because they didn’t mind the gaps.  Too much detail, awkward timing, and nonexistent pauses would surely kill the essence of the story.

The same is true in writing.  I think of writing very much like drawing a picture except when you draw a picture you want it to be complete in every sense of the word – shaded in all the important places or the right colors used.  In writing, you don’t want to shade or color every single part of the story.  You want to leave some areas open for interpretation to allow the reader to fill in the gaps.  That’s what gives the reader the satisfaction of reading the story.  They can make of it what they want.  Getting this right is extremely difficult but very rewarding.

Such gaps are also why two people can read the same story and come away with different perspectives on it.  My wife and I are very different readers.  She loves thrillers and supernatural stories about vampires, while I tend to love stories that focus on the human experience.  We are both voracious readers, and we’ve read the same books on more than one occasion.  Each time we discuss the books, we have different interpretations of the stories and what makes them good or bad because we fill in the gaps differently.  In fact, she didn’t like Shantaram even though it’s my favorite book.  The gaps of that story simply didn’t tickle her imagination like they did mine.

All of this gets me back to The Goldfinch.  Ms. Tartt’s powerful novel, although beautifully written, sometimes tries to fill in all the details.  Theo, the protagonist and narrator of the story, goes into great detail about many things, often to the point of exhaustion.  I love the prose, but even someone who likes to turn words over and enjoy the feel of them and the meaning they convey can get a little exhausted with the endless details.  Sure, the settings and characters described were clearly drawn for me, but I could have gotten the sense of them with fewer details.  That’s what my imagination is for.  Roberts is very similar to Tartt in his love of flowery prose, but he stopped short of going too far and that’s why I loved Shantaram and simply liked Goldfinch very much.  It’s all in the gaps.