What ya readin’ for?
The best explanation of the difference between non-fiction and fiction, I feel, is that non-fiction's primary purpose is to convey information, whereas the purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotion in the reader.
I think great books work on an emotional level. Fear is an emotion, a very powerful emotion. Perhaps people read thrillers and horror novels because it is a way of experiencing emotions that you ordinarily don’t experience in life, but without putting yourself directly in harm’s way. I think, also, that it is an effort to try and better understand the aspects of the human psyche that we don’t have answers for. The more we ourselves understand about human nature, the better we will survive. I know we operate that way, so all reading – of whatever genre or subject – has to also come down to the fact that we are trying to understand more of ourselves and others to better our own comprehension of life, and thus improve the quality of our existence.
Someone once said to me that there were two types of novels. There were those that you read simply because some mystery was created and you had to find out what happened. A puzzle or an unresolved questioned was presented in the opening, and there you followed a tortuous maze of clues, mis-directors and red herrings until the denouement. The denouement was satisfying or not, but still this was not the type of book you read for the lyrical prose, the scintillating turn of phrase, the stunningly descriptive passages. It was airport literature, and that term is not applied derogatorily. Such novels are compelling, and the urgency with which you have to reach the end is remarkable. You need to know what happened! Having read such a book, however, perhaps you would be asked some weeks later whether it was a title you had encountered. You would pause for moment. ‘Remind me again what it was about?’ you would say, and that simple question would say all that needed to be said about the level of emotional engagement inherent in such a book. Wonderful plots, clever twists, but not a book to change your preconceptions about life.
The second kind of novel was one where you read the book simply for the language itself, the way the author used words, the atmosphere and description. Janette Winterson once said that there were some books she read simply ‘because of the way the words tasted in her mouth’. That makes sense to me. I understand precisely what she means. Annie Proulx does that to me, as does Cormac McCarthy, as does Daniel Woodrell.
The truly great books – however – are the ones that accomplish both.
I was asked one time how I would define a ‘classic’.
I paused for a moment, and then replied, ‘A classic is a book that presents you with a narrative so compelling you can’t read it fast enough, and yet is written so beautifully you can’t read it slowly enough’.
We all know such books. Even as we are reading them we are forcing ourselves to slow down. Why? Because if we don’t slow down we will finish it, and if we finish it there will be none to read tomorrow.
So what is it that these books do to us? They become friends. They become anchors. Perhaps they read us, just as much as we read them.
And that raises the question, how do writers choose what to write about? Do they in fact choose their subjects and genres, or do the subjects and genres choose the writer?
I am so often asked why all of my books are set in the USA, despite that fact that I am British. To be honest, I think I was weaned out of infancy on American culture. I grew up watching Starsky and Hutch, Hawaii Five-O, Kojak, The Streets of San Francisco, all those kinds of things. As a musician, I was always so involved with the origins of the blues and country music, both of these American in origin. I loved the atmosphere, the diversity of culture. The politics fascinated me. America is a new country compared to England, and it just seems to me that there was so much color and life inherent in its society. I have visited many times now, and I honestly feel like I’m going home. At some point in the future, I believe I will move there permanently. And I believe that as a non-American there are many things about American culture that I can look at as a spectator. The difficulty with writing about an area with which you are very familiar with is that you tend to stop noticing things. You take things for granted. The odd or interesting things about the people and the area cease to be odd and interesting. As an outsider you never lose that viewpoint of seeing things for the first time, and for me that is very important. A great many writers are told ‘Write what you know’, and though I don’t think this is wrong, I do think it is very limiting. I believe you should also write about the things that fascinate you. I think in that way you have a chance to let your passion and enthusiasm for the subject come through in your prose. I also believe that you should challenge yourself with each new book. Take on different and varied subjects. Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of writing things to a formula. So here we come back to the same message. Emotion. It’s all about emotional engagement. We love those books that engage us emotionally. They become part of us. In a way our favorite books define us. It is the same with writing. Great writing comes out of a passion for the subject, out of emotional engagement. We read books, and we write books, for the same reason perhaps.
So, as the old joke goes, a waitress in a diner someplace sees someone with a book, and instead of asking, ‘What ya readin’?’, she asks ‘What ya readin’ for?’. If ever asked such a question, your response should encompass and communicate nothing more than the message conveyed by those four words above the doorway at the Library of Thebes: Medicine For The Soul.