Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Emotional experiences in books

Let's think of ourselves as readers, which we were before we were writers. We're still going to learn most about writing from the authors we love. So let's talk about books that have affected you emotionally.

For example, there's a great Patrick O'Brian book, Reverse of the Medal, where the hero, a storied sea captain of great courage but not great intellect, has invested his war booty with someone who turns out to be a crook, and Jack gets charged with stock market fraud. He is sentenced to pillory (this is 1811) and forced to be shackled in a public square in London in the midst of a crowd which is going to pelt him with rocks and
rotten fruit.  But seamen (his fellow Royal Navy guys) show up from every corner of the kingdom and surround him and doff their caps in respect for him-- and of course, keep the rabble from humiliating him.

Reading this really did show me the separation that can occur between the reader's experience and the main character's experience. Jack feels overwhelming gratitude and humility, to be protected so well. The reader
feels pride mostly-- the opposite of humility-- because of the actions not of the hero, but of all these anonymous seamen. Centuries before Facebook, they manage to learn of this travesty and figure out how to
deal with it together, and they do it with a characteristically British blend of self-deprecation and bristling arrogance.

That is, in the final moments, and throughout the book, I as the reader of course identify with Jack, the protagonist. But every character, every scene, every setting, every value in this book contributes to the reader experience. I really learned from that book that the emotion comes from the entirety of the story, everything that builds up to the final scenes, and everything that comes from the interaction of all the characters with the events of the story and the settings.

So I learned it's really important to get the reader to identify with the protagonist. But that's not enough. The reader has to be able simultaneously identify deeply with the main character, but also have a fuller experience that comes from reading the whole book (which the hero can't do :).

Let's start with the totality of the book experience, the change from start to end, and then break it all down:

Theme: I'm just pointing to the title here-- this book is all about "reversal"-- of fortune, of expectations, of focus.

Change from start to end, the "praxis": Jack starts out at the top, a real war hero, a bit conceited about his new glory. Because of his gullibility and desire for wealth and status, he trusts the wrong person. So the change for him is from pride to shame, really from "moving up" to "falling down". This descent is paralleled in the war's progress. In the beginning, it seems that France (Napoleon) will be surrendering soon, that Britain will finally triumph (which it does, but not for another long year and not in this book). In fact, this misconception is what is used to trap Jack into the stock swindle. Point is, the nation's fortunes seem at the top to start, and that turns out to be wrong.

Situation change: But all of O'Brian's stories are more than the story of the main characters (Stephen, the other major character, has his own downfall). The situation is the Royal Navy at war, a war that the Navy won years ago (at Trafalgar), and at this point is more about acquiring wealth in ships and influence. The purity of purpose has been lost, along with the camaraderie that makes months at sea bearable. The powerful simplicity of the military at the beginning is corrupted into the deceptive, dangerous world of the City of London and Westminster (finance and politics).

Setting change: The setting starts out in that "wooden world" of the ship at sea, with its familiar traditions and simple loyalties. But half the book, the latter half, is mostly on land and in the sophisticated, deceptive world of London politics and finance. The ending takes place at Cornhill, in the City of London, the finance center, so very different than the ships and the sea. But that pillory scene brings the two worlds together as all the seamen "from Land's End to John o' Groats" arrive to protect Jack.

The fulfillment in the end: The end really does have to fulfill the promise of the rest of the book. The conflicts are intensified and then resolved, if not in the obvious fashion. The Reverse of the Medal's ending is particularly emotional because the verities are restored. Jack has, to some degree, abandoned his crew by associating with the men of finance and politics who destroy him. As a consequence, he loses his ship and his position in the Navy. (This is extremely affecting, btw.) That loss makes him remember what really counts. I know it sounds trite (it's not in the book), but he learns who his real friends are when every seamen in the kingdom shows up to honor him in his moment of greatest shame. (And then Stephen buys the old ship and gives it to him to be a merchant ship.)

The distinction between the protagonist's emotion at the end and the reader's: Jack's shame and loss are so entire, and the reader participates in that. But when the seamen come to protect him, Jack's response is appropriately (for him) gratitude and humility. He knows how badly he screwed it up, and how fortunate he is to be restored to the camaraderie and friendship he had moved beyond. But for the reader? We don't have to be confined to his experience. I know what I felt as I closed the book was pride-- pride in the Navy and these simple seamen who were able to forgive so generously-- and also admiration not just for the courage of Jack, but for the unstinting love of his wife and his best friend. I know I had a sense of the power of forgiveness, as everyone was able to forgive Jack and gather him back into the family of the Navy. That is, the reader response moves beyond Jack's to a greater understanding of the meaning of the story, and part of the emotional reaction (to me, at least) was a renewed hope in the goodness of humans. (A final reversal-- at the lowest, most humiliating moment in the 20-book series, we have the greatest joy.)

So how about you? What's a book that you can remember really experiencing emotionally-- the book, not just the character?  And how in the end did you feel and why?



Anonymous said...

I as the reader
of course identify with Jack, the protagonist.

Can I stop you right there?

Because *I*, as reader, don't identify with anyone in a story. If they are written well, I _emphasize_ with them, but it's always a 'reading with' rather than 'reading as'.

I will emphasize more with the main character(s) because we spend more time inside their heads and know better what makes them tick - but I don't necessarily read a book for its main character - particularly in a multi-strand novel I might be most interested in someone else because I dislike the main character. So for me, 'experiencing the book rather than the character' is the default for me.


Edittorrent said...

Depends on the reader and the character, I suspect! And the book-- as you say, multi-strand novels might be quite different.

But with the O'Brian books, readers really do tend to identify either with Jack or Stephen, the two main characters. Just that type of book which attract that type of reader.

I gather you're more comprehensive!


Wes said...

Hmmm...........this is a wide and deep topic, he says tritely.

I'll refer to a book by an author active in the 1950s, A. B. Guthrie, Jr. He won a Pulitzer for his second book, THE WAY WEST, and he wrote the screenplay for Shane, but his best book was his debut novel THE BIG SKY. The reader empathizes with the protag Boone Caudill who suffers several unjust actions against him, as he become a mountain man in the 1830s (this is not a western). He becomes the white savage and directly or indirectly destroys what is dear to him: the west, his wife, and best friend Jim. The beaver trade dies, he ends up scouting for railroads which bring settlers to change his land, his child is born blind because he gave the clap to his Blackfoot wife, he can't accept that and thinks his best friend Jim was fooling around with his wife, and he kills Jim. Everything that matters to him is lost including his mentor Dick Summers. So the reader, or at least I, became involved with all these characters and the wild, free life they lived, then poof, all is destroyed. The book is not for everyone, but for those who like historical fiction set in the west, it will hit hard.

David Y.B. Kaufmann said...

A thought-provoking and insightful post. A little bit of perspective, like a good cup of coffee, gets the writer going - in the morning, or any time. Thanks.

Edittorrent said...

I think we could debate the psychology of that point, GK.


joanleacott said...

Robyn Carr's "Virgin River", the first book in the series of the same name, did this for me. The theme of "life goes on regardless of trauma" struck a deep chord with me. Even though I haven't been to war or buried my husband, I learned what that felt like through Robyn's words. "Virgin River" is a go-to book for me when I want to cheer myself up.