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Sunday, January 1, 2012

In Progress: 'A Life in the Dark'

Nearly midway through Brian Kellow's remarkable biography of The New Yorker movie critic Pauline Kael, A Life in the Dark, and completely enthralled by the movies, art and why having honest opinions about both matter.

I'm at the part now where Kellow is summarizing Kael's 1971 The New Yorker essay, "Notes on Heart and Mind". Kael is essentially saying people can mistake the packaging, or the way the story is told, rather than the point of the story itself in their appreciations. Although she pits Pop against The Arts, and there is a significant conversation that needs to take place often about the importance of both, there is another aspect to her thinking that matters as well.

When evaluating how a work has affected me as a reader, and of its value as a work of storytelling, there are two things to consider. What is the point of the story and how was the story told? Each plays a significant role in how well the other works. A story that works on every level -- characterization, a plot that arises naturally from the characters and their situation, whether there are any layers to the story that dwell on the complexity of the human condition -- all the story elements can jell together to make a story that resonates with the mind and the heart. This is true of any genre, whether literary or horror, whether classic Victorian tearjerker or modern hard-boiled tale, whether experimental short story or traditional Regency romance. And, yes, how well the story works while operating within the conventions of its genre is another consideration, but one that is within the broad area of how the story is told.

After all, it is possible to write about the same scenario within many genres. A revenge tale will look different as a mystery, a horror story, a romance or a contemporary literary novel. And each should be considered on its own merits, not whether a mystery, a horror story, a romance or a contemporary literary novel is a more worthy work of fiction based solely on its genre.

The other great aspect of any work of fiction that determines how well it works -- how well it gets its point across and how competely a reader can respond to it -- is the point itself. Sometimes, the point is so  ridiculous the whole work collapses.

This is one reason it took me months to write the review of Reginald Hill's The Woodcutter, which I posted earlier today. I just didn't see what the point of this elaborate, albeit well-written, novel was. Over time, what I have seen as the point doesn't raise my assessment. In fact, the assessment was lowered.

Sometimes the point of the story is a terrific one and most of the story elements sing, they work together so well. But one little aspect becomes larger and larger, until its weight collapses the ability of my disbelief to remain suspended. This is what happened with another extremely well-written crime novel, The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen. This is a very strong story about the strength and power of love, with engaging characters who I would gladly read about in other novels. But the thriller-like ending with more and more improbable acts of violence made me shake my head even while wishing the end could be possible.

Does anyone else look at what they read through similar lenses? I can see where breaking this down could help me view any fiction I would write, in addition to the way I look at what others have written.


  1. I don't know that I have consciously thought in these precise terms, but they do seem an appropriate yardstick to measure a book by.

    If I think of the book I finished today though, I would wish to add another dimension and that is, what effect did the book have on me, because some books I get the point, I see how they put it across, but how to explain the thing that stays with you or makes you care and continue thinking about one book but easily forget another?

  2. How a book affects me is indeed something important to consider. I tend to evaluate that by those other yardsticks.

    As for the explaining part, that's what I'm continually working on.

    Excellent points; thank you so much for posting them.