f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 2 of <em>Mariette in Ecstasy</em>—Reader/Writer Dynamic...Plus Giraffes!

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Day 2 of Mariette in Ecstasy—Reader/Writer Dynamic...Plus Giraffes!

You there. You’re a reader. Your eyes are on this sentence and you’re reading it. Meanwhile, I’m a guy in an office wearing a sweater vest and wishing he hadn’t eaten all of his Hershey’s minis before lunch. I’m also writing this. Each word is a collection of key strokes; each sentence something that spent at least minimal time in my brain before emerging first into a Word document before being Ctrl-C and V’d into Blogger. If you’re with me this far you may have even created a interior voice for these words, made me a bit of a narrator. We’ve established a bit of a relationship, you and I, whoever and wherever you are. You expect the next sentence to have something to do with this one right now and I expect you understand what comes before and I’m guessing you’re now waiting for me to stop with the direct address nonsense to make my point. Hopefully in this very next sentence. Or at least in the one after that. Right after this hard space. Right now.

My daughter really, really likes giraffes.

Yeah, see, now we’re in a bit of a weird spot. I’ve pulled the rug out from you a bit. I’ve decided to take a leap and see if you’ll follow. You were expecting my point and I threw in something about my daughter. Clever, though, I did manage to introduce a new character into our little dialogue. And now, unless you’ve logged off, you probably have two questions: Is he ever going to make his first point? And what’s up with the giraffe stuff?

It started when she wanted us to pay attention to her at the dinner table.

Ah, see, I went back to the giraffe stuff. Now you know that’s not just going to disappear. It’s not just a random one time thing. You assume it’s going to relate to this little entry as a whole, but you’re not quite sure yet. Hopefully it’s quirky or engaging enough to hold your interest and even get you wondering why my daughter likes giraffes. The reason I’m doing this exercise is that Ron Hansen pulls off a bit of this as well in Mariette in Ecstasy. He introduces bits of dialogue, maybe four or five short lines, that are unattributed—he doesn’t tell you who’s saying them. It takes about four of five of these bits for you to begin to piece together what’s going on.

She’s want us to talk to her—and so we’d ask what she wanted to talk about. Her answer was always the same.

You know what the answer is, right? Come on, you know. You’re smart people. Your reading comprehension scores were good when you took standardized tests in high school. That’s not true across the board though. Not every reader is willing to make leaps. Not every reader is able to connect things through implication, hints, and suggestion. (And to be fair, not every writer who tries such things is able to pull them off.) As a writer, you essentially are setting a bar, like in high jumping. How much effort are you asking your readers to make when the pick up your work? We may be all about self-esteem, but in this country people operate on different cognitive levels. (And even very smart people may be untrained, immature readers.) How do you decide where to set that bar and what does it mean to choose a more challenging level?

Giraffes! Giraffes! Giraffes! she’d say.

(See you were right)

And so we’d talk about giraffes.

I think, in the end, (and I’m about to get metaphysical) that the story determines where to set the bar. Hansen is telling a quiet little story of the fine line between the miraculous and the mundane. It’s a topic that really is all about faith. For him, it does little good to explain it to anyone. You have to make up your own mind. Do you believe or don’t you? He acknowledges that what we believe can be influenced. Like in life, little bits of gossip and rumor fly at as through Hansen’s fragments of dialogue. We have a slow unveiling of facts and sway from one choice to another. It’s a delicate process. Quiet, too. And it requires that we work through things on our own as readers without Hansen telling us.

I don’t know that much about giraffes. They’re tall. They live in Africa. What more can you say?

It’s my opinion that the bar, often, is set too low in CBA fiction. We are not challenged. We are led by the nose like steer from plot point A, to spiritual point B, to character trait C. Depending on your viewpoint, it’s either condescending to readers or controlling by authors. Either way, it demands very little interaction by the reader. These are passive reads.

They eat acacia leaves—I found that out. But my daughter didn’t really want to talk about giraffes.

Format and structure of story is just one way we can challenge. We can break up a narrative in provocative ways to underscore a theme or a character’s mindset or any pattern we want to trace. We can retell scenes from different points-of-view. We can tell stories backwards. We can ask our readers to take some high leaps.

She wanted to join in. Be part of the conversation. But she’s only three and doesn’t quite know how to make that happen yet.

In the same way, I think there’s readers out there who want to be part of this conversation. They don’t want a casual read. They want a work-out, something stimulating to keep them on their toes. They don’t know how to ask either.

And thus two threads are tied together. Sort of. I know it wasn’t perfect, far from it, but you can at least see a very, very, very rough example of the little games and tricks and twists and turns we can work into our fiction. Narrative drive MUST make enough sense to keep readers turning the page. It doesn’t need to always make sense, and that which is complicated must also be intriguing.

So set the bar high. Leap, twist, turn, dance, whirl, spin, and let your readers follow you. We editors are the boring, stolid ones who help sure nobody’s lost along the way. Take some risks and readers will thank you. Or if not them, I certainly will. From the bottom of my giraffe-loving heart.