Making art isn’t an exact science. So much is down to happenstance and luck, and I always admire authors who attribute their success to a strange marriage of dull slog and serendipity.
I recently read what was, in my eyes, a near perfect novel, but during a conversation with another reader, she pointed out some parts of the story that just didn’t ring true; things that, for her, made the rest of the story difficult to believe. I was surprised, because I had noticed those minor loop-holes too, but chose to ignore them for the sake of the story. The story just worked better if I chose to believe the author rather than question her. Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies is a cliche for a reason! I suppose we all read books differently, but for me, I am saying yes to an unspoken contract as soon as I open the cover: tell me a good story and I will believe.
Even though the reader had a completely valid point, it niggled at me. As a fiction writer, there are many times when you ask your reader to suspend their belief, in order to make the story work. But, are readers willing to do this? It goes without saying we have to ground our stories in reality and make our characters believable, but don’t we also have a bit of artistic license? As readers, are we expecting a perfection that doesn’t exist?
Just to be clear, I’m talking about minor infractions here, not great big bloody plot holes that push the entire story beyond credibility. Such questions are valid, but in this case, it caused merely a moment’s wondering. FYI, the novel was Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and the issue was her supposed ignorance of most modern cultural references. I also questioned if this was possible, but chose to believe that it was. Either way, this is a story. It’s not meant to be real. The writer is trying to create an atmosphere, not a documentary. You’ve got to allow for some artistic license when it comes to the business of show, or else, what are we all doing here? Do writers really set out to write the perfect book, or is the pursuit of creating something greater than we can ever deliver, the art in itself? Critics might expect perfection, but we, as storytellers are more focused on telling a good story.
And what is art for anyway? Why do writers want to express themselves through stories and why do readers love hearing them? I think Matthew Arnold, Professor of Poetry at Oxford (Culture and Anarchy) expressed it perfectly when he said that all great artists possess ‘the noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it‘. I love this quote, because I think everyone who picks up a pen/brush/instrument wants to make something good, something true. We want to add our voice to the collective narrative, our unique take on life, our desires, our hopes and our fears. It might not be perfect, but it’s ours and no-one else can tell our story in quite the same way. If a book speaks to you, makes you think and makes you feel, then that is the perfect book. For you. Regardless of what the critics say.
10 thoughts on “The Perfect Book”
Interesting points Evie, I’ve just finished Eleanor Oliphant and I chose to interpret her ignorance of cultural references as emphasising her isolation. I also presumed she was autistic (Asberger’s?) and the not knowing kind of emphasised her inability to keep some thoughts to herself or not know that when going for a drink, it was customary to share rounds, that kind of thing.
I’ve often read a book I thought was brilliant when reading it, I was so caught up in the story and it was afterwards that I saw the flaws (e.g. I am Pilgrim & A Little Life) but to me, a perfect book is one that you can’t put down and it just sweeps you along. In fact, it makes you feel outside the real world but inside the book.
I love that Lorna, a book makes you feel outside the real world but inside the book. I think that’s what every writer is trying to achieve – to build a world that the reader can inhabit for a while. There are all sorts of reasons (usually plot related) why things might not stand up in the harsh light of reality, but so what?! As you say, if the story is sweeping you along, what does it really matter? As writers, we have to make certain decisions and compromises in order to make the story work. As for Eleanor, I felt the same, it just highlighted her role as an outsider and I have to say, made for some comedy gold (the bikini wax was priceless!!) I also liked the fact that she didn’t try to label her, just let the reader take her as she is.
Really enjoyed your post Evie! I guess you writers and us readers just want to know the story is going to be worthwhile. And I agree, the language of fiction is different to other contexts in which it might be used and it’s one of the features of literature that immediate intelligibility be suspended – like you inferred, you’re writing/reading a story not a transcript for a political speech. The purpose of art or objects of art, which the novel also is, is pleasure. Pleasure in the writing, pleasure in the reading. I can’t verbalize the pleasure I received from reading John Williams ‘Stoner’. It was the first book that made me cry …. again and again. I cried for him, I cried for me, I cried at the beauty of his linguistic expression. It was my perfect book.
Pleasure, precisely! Why would someone forego pleasure for pedantry? Must get a copy of Stoner, sounds so intriguing and that’s a great recommendation from you x
a. perfection is in the eye of the beholder
b. there’s no such thing as a perfect novel IMO – though imperfect ones come in many shapes and sizes 🙂
Eloquent as always, Jennie 🙂 And so right, perfection IS in the eye of the beholder – I’m going to remember that the next time I get a bad review!
I really enjoyed reading your post, Evie – for reasons that are probably quite obvious to you! 😉
Haha, yes it was quite timely for some of us! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂
Very good article “it’s a story, not a docunentary” being my favorite
Ah, thank you, appreciate the feedback 🙂