I heard an author speak, got to know her a little, and thought she had a delightful sense of humor, so I bought her literary book. Though it’s not what I usually read, too many people have espoused the virtues of reading outside your genre for me to ignore—so I was doing a new friend a favor in buying her book and doing the writer in me a favor by broadening my reading horizons.
When I heard the author then confess that anybody picking up her book and looking for a plot will likely be bitterly disappointed. I felt a twinge of unease—I am a plotter. I LOVE plots. In fact, characters only exist so I can move them through wonderful complex plots. But I’ve always maintained that I can learn something from any book. So I began reading my literary novel. And I learned something.
Five nights later, I’d covered sixty some pages and while being mildly amused by the characters and impressed with the author’s easy way with similes, the book had no real story. I decided to give myself a break and picked up David Baldacci’s Simple Truth and in under an hour, I was surprised to note that I’d read fifty pages!
So why? Why did Simple Truth grab me in a way the other hadn’t? The book opens with an ex-secret-service woman in a supremely pissed-off mood, trolling seedy areas of a big city looking for the most precarious, biggest dive she can find. When she entered the bar, she sat alone and ordered several drinks, which served to fuel her anger further. What she’s angry at, we don’t exactly know, but my curiosity was deeply aroused.
Our protagonist picked the most dangerous hulking badass in the place, went over, tapped him on the shoulder and when he turned around, proceeded to coldly and methodically beat the crap out of him. Her POV let us know that she’s fought men many times before, and she always won. Is she a male hater? If so, why?
After she weakened him a bit, rather than finishing him off, she threw a light kick and let him get a hold of her. In her POV, she dispassionately noted when he began to dominate the fight, slamming her body over the bar, punching her, bashing her head into the bar mirror, knocking a tooth out, and does more physical damage before she blacked out. The police arrive in time to save her life and arrest her.
While the protagonist was wining, she was almost disappointed that her target didn’t put up more of a fight, then once he takes the upper hand, there’s curiously no feelings of fear or anything from her. She’s not a particularly sympathetic character. So why did I even care if she lived or died? I can’t say that I did. What kept me turning the pages was the entire setup.
Why? Why would anybody go and deliberately get themselves beat up? Clearly she had a suicide wish, but there are better—easier ways to kill yourself. Less painful, less punitive ways to die. Apparently she wanted to, needed to, be physically punished. But why?
The woman had had been an Olympic medalist in rowing. That required great physical strength, talent, drive, and discipline. She’d been a secret service agent protecting the president. Clearly she was skilled with weapons, an observant, highly trained woman with a desire to serve her country. She was a protector. She had well-honed survival skills. She had an amazing partner she was fond of. What happened to her to make her want to die in such a physically punishing way at the hands of a degenerate? And so I read on.
With my literary story, I was mildly entertained—okay, I was mostly bored. With this commercial book I had to keep turning the pages, and two hundred and fifty pages later, I still have to keep reading ‘cause although I’ve learned more about her and her situation, I still can’t fathom a good guess as to why. And I’m a good guesser. But I’m stumped, so I keep reading and enjoying the unfolding journey.
With the literary story, I didn’t feel as if I was moving anywhere significant. There was no journey for me, and I guess that makes all the difference in the world in my enjoyment of a story. For me. I want to emphasize that this is my self analysis--no real reflection on the works, simply this reader's experience with them. To this reader, I don’t really care too terribly much about wonderful characters if they aren’t moving forward in an exciting journey that raises my curiosity or resonates with my spirit.
What about you? What does it for you in a book?