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Thursday, 2 February 2012

Are All Writers Liars?

Jacob Jordaens - The Fall of Man - WGA12014
Image via Wikipedia

All writers are liars, you know. They all construct their own fictional version of the world in which they exist. But honesty's actually essential for an author. Readers are clever folk and very quickly spot inconsistencies, inaccuracies and attempts to fool them into believing something that just isn't true, so trying is a bit daft.

But, how do authors grab the attention of readers and convince them that the world they're about to drag them into is something they can accept? How do they take them on a journey into whatever fantasy they've devised? For, except in the case of straightforward journalism (assuming such a thing exists), all writing contains an element of fantasy. Whether or not the reader perceives it that way often depends more on the reader's experiences of life than the writer's presentation of events. Some people are more gullible than others, that's all.

There are clear works of fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, 1984, Maia, where the story unfolds in a land or society that's clearly invented. And these are lumped together by publishers under the genre of Fantasy as a way of enticing readers who enjoy such imaginative works. But other works, both fictional and factual, contain elements of fantasy in that they're always the creation of the mind of another human being. None of us experiences the world in exactly the same way, after all. We overlay our view of events and people with our personal sets of values and judgements, which are based on the combination of those things we've experienced and those we've been taught to believe.

Even a simple situation seen through the eyes of different people will contain elements in common but will also be a different experience for each viewer. The man brought up a Roman Catholic will have an entirely different world view from the woman raised in a strict Muslim tradition. This is perhaps an obvious example, but even siblings of the same age and gender will view life differently, filtered through their individual experiences and their responses to those things they've been involved in. Every interaction, every influence, every event impacts on each of us in slightly different ways to make us into the people we are. Yet each of us, presented with a simple event, will be sure that what we see is what the others will also see, or, worse, that we're the only ones to perceive the reality; when, in fact, of course, none of us sees the reality, even the person creating it.

An example? How do you portray what's actually experienced by another human being in such a way as to provide something that's likely to be seen by most people in a similar way? Here's an apple. A simple enough statement. But what do you see in your mind's eye? Do you see a French Golden Delicious, an orchard apple plucked fresh from the branch, a bruised and worm-eaten windfall, a golden representation as presented by Paris, a whole red fruit, or a crisp green apple with a bite already taken from it? If you're imbued with Abrahamic fundamentalism, you may be incapable of separating the image of the apple from the representation of the Garden of Eden and the fall of man, blaming Eve for her consumption of the apple. Even though you know, because it's been said many times, that no apple is ever mentioned in your sacred texts and that the story is, in any case, simply a myth created to explain the inexplicable, you'll be plagued by that image and it will skew your world view. Another obvious and well-known example of how we're formed by our own worlds. But, hopefully, you get the point. None of us exists without outside influence on our view of the world, but for each of us that perspective is unique.

So, to return to the original question: how do authors grab the attention of readers, convince them that the world they're about to enter is something they can accept, and then take them on a journey into whatever fantasy they have devised?

First; they accept that there are limits to their ability. There will be whole cultures that will stumble at the first mention of electricity, having never experienced this energy. There will be groups that will have difficulty accepting equality of the sexes, others that will baulk at the mention of bare skin, some for whom the idea that money is the only worthwhile pursuit, others who will insist that ghosts exist, and yet others who are incapable of accepting that a man may love a man, a woman a woman in a sexual way.

Because of these varied and sometimes opposing viewpoints, authors are often driven into writing for certain portions only of the population, levered into expressing their ideas only to a limited few.

The writer of horror, accepting the conventions of that genre, takes the reader into places that seem superficially ordinary, even mundane, and then introduces elements designed to raise anxiety, fear, distress, disgust, loathing and many other emotions that can be described as negative. Often, it's the contrast between the everyday and the unusual that feeds these emotions, the partially anticipated crisis arising from a foundation of apparent normality. Because the reader is familiar with the method, a slow beginning is often accepted on the promise of the horror to come.

The crime writer either pins attention with the nature of the crime in the opening scenes, relying on curiosity and fellow-feeling to make the reader need to discover what's happened and why, or sets a puzzle the reader wishes to solve, persuading them into believing they can reach the right answer before the detective and therefore pandering to their ego. Again, convention allows the author to use a form of creative shorthand, since the reader knows what to expect, certain aspects of the story can be held as being self-explanatory and therefore not worthy of description.

In romance, that wide and much-sub-divided genre, the emphasis is on the emotional bond between the loving protagonists. The reader expects to find a happy, or at least, a satisfying ending, where the conclusion to the contest is driven by the perception that justice will inevitably be visited on those who love and are loved.

The one area where the genre is less likely to determine the readership is what is loosely called 'literary fiction'. It's a field of creation in which language is often the primary concern, sometimes to the detriment of story and character. Because of this cerebral emphasis, the emotional content is frequently less easily assimilated by the reader, though, of course, there are exceptions. Indeed, when the best of the other genres meets the best of the literary, it generally results in something that either is or will become a classic. The melding of story, character, language and emotion creating something which is greater than its component parts.

And, finally, the writer for whom the challenge of portraying real emotion to a diverse readership is seen as too difficult can always turn to the thriller. Yes, I know, there are thrillers which are full of emotional content, of course there are. I've written one myself. But, as a genre, it's generally accepted by its readership that the story is what matters. It's this basic simplicity that brings readers to authors such as Dan Brown and that most inexplicably successful of writers, Jeffrey Archer.

So, to conclude; if you're hoping to capture the hearts of most of your readers, you're going to have to decide which genre to use to convey your ideas. If you're exceptionally brilliant, you can risk the literary route, accepting that your readership may be smaller. If, on the other hand, you want numbers and uncritical acclaim, you can write something mostly devoid of emotional content and label it a thriller. Up to you.

A silly question for you to ponder: Why is 'bra' singular, but 'panties' plural?

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