Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Wit's End

I just finished reading Karen Joy Fowler's new novel, Wit's End, which I enjoyed very much. Karen's voice is the best thing about the book: sly, witty, capable of combining flippancy with below-the-surface emotion, and full of sharp observations about the absurdity of human behavior.

The reviews of the novel, however, have been mixed, and not in the way of an individual reviewer pointing out what he liked in the book and what he didn't. Rather, these have been all-or-nothing reviews, in which the reviewer either loved the book or hated it. Thinking about why this is so, I came to a definite conclusion about readers.

Wit's End is at the far end of a certain literary spectrum: call it "story." The novel barely has one, and such story as exists tends to disappear for long spells, reappear in the background, disappear again, and resurface with any definiteness only in the last forty pages or so. Meanwhile, Karen Fowler is devoting her considerable talent to her quirky characters (including two Dachshunds), tangential digressions on everything from tea to Trivial Pursuit, and her love affair with the English language. Karen can make the Virginia Woolf of Mrs. Dalloway look positively plot-driven. Readers either like this kind of writing or they don't (I do).

At the other end of the spectrum are writers who harness their prose firmly to the story, put in only those characters and concerns that advance the story, and concentrate on building tension. Examples are Jack McDevitt, John Grisham, Bruce Sterling (all of whom I also like). Most books fall between these dichotomies, but most also tend to one end or the other.

So what does all this add up to? The absurdity of what every writer wants to do: please everybody. Can't be done. If I needed any more proof, the universe underscored these musings on Wit's End by offering up last night's meeting of the Rochester Speculative Fiction Fans. We all discussed the nominated short fiction, and everybody was astonished at everybody else's likes and dislikes. No one story pleased everyone.

So why do we writers keep trying? And why are we so hard on ourselves when we fail?

3 comments:

stephanie said...

I am one of those who likes a "story". That is the problem I had with two of the Hugo nominees, Brasyl and Halting State. Lots of hip language, cultural and Web 2.0 references but not enough character and story for me. I could not finish either of them.

BuffySquirrel said...

Hmm, I dunno. I love a story, but if a book without a story is written well enough (most of them aren't, imo), I am able to enjoy it at that level--provided I know up front that there's no story. If I'm expecting a story and don't get one--I'm looking at you, "Stamping Butterflies"--then it's throw the book at the wall time.

Mike Flynn said...

For non-story stories a close study of the short fiction of William Trevor will be rewarded, esp. "The General's Day," where the lack of story =is= the story.