Tuesday, February 5, 2019

What Makes A Novel Rereadable?

     As I’ve mentioned before, here and elsewhere, I own a lot of books: physical volumes, not eBooks, though my collection of those is growing too. At last count I found over 13,000 of the little buggers on shelves, in boxes, and stacked precipitously on assorted surfaces throughout the Fortress of Crankitude...and that was a lot of years ago.

     You could easily get the idea that I like books. And I do. Not only do I read a great deal, I find it next to impossible to give one away, even if I found it inane, insulting, or otherwise offensive. So they accumulate.

     Yet I read so much, and so swiftly, that I often lack anything to read that I haven’t yet read. Most contemporary fiction bores or otherwise displeases me. I can’t abide unoriginality, bad grammar, lack of fundamental storytelling skills, or a story that lacks moral and ethical standards. (Sarah Hoyt has called that last fault “grey goo.”) I also draw the line at “SJW preaching.” That category comprises all “stories” intended to make the reader feel bad for not being a wholly “converged” social-justice asshole warrior to whom the sole worthy purpose of a life is to harangue other people for not being equally assholian virtuous. So even though the independent-writers movement is producing fiction at a rate to boggle the imagination of a Manhattan publishing magnate, I often find myself rereading.

     Mind you, not all of those 13,000 physical volumes get reread. For one thing, a lot of them are textbooks or reference materials. You can only spend so much time on the 2018 Statistical Abstract of the United States before it’s superseded by the all-new, all-thrilling 2019 edition. The same goes for the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics. So my rereading is almost entirely of novels.

     Not all novels, however much I may have enjoyed them at first acquaintance, are rereadable. I could reel off hundreds of titles of books I enjoyed – and still own – that I wouldn’t reread. So there must be some characteristic that divides the rereadable books from the ones that lack that grace. Indeed, I’d hesitate to say that there’s only one such characteristic. So let’s have a go at it.

     The major elements of a worthy bit of fiction are:

  • Plot,
  • Characterization,
  • Style,
  • Theme.

     Those four elements are the power cells of all worthwhile fiction. There are other aspects to a novel, of course: premises, setting, its balance between narration and dialogue, dark-light pairings, and still others. But those are less likely to install a book inextricably in the reader’s memory.

     I don’t think a novel must have a complex plot to be rereadable. I’ve certainly read enough such fiction – I’ve enjoyed many a Tom Clancy-style techno-thriller, and such a novel normally has a complex plot – but I can’t think of a book I’ve reread specifically to re-experience its plot convolutions. Similarly, a striking character or set of characters isn’t by itself a reason to reread a book. Many books are animated by important themes (“eternal verities,” as Tom Kratman styles them), but once I’ve encountered them they aren’t enough by themselves to move me to reread them.

     However, there are synergies possible among a book’s plot, characterization, and themes, which strike me as evidences of exceptional auctorial insight and skill, that do cause me to come back to it. These might best be summed up under the heading of drama.

     Not many people could give you a definition of drama. Indeed, the dictionary definition raises more questions than it answers:

     drama noun: any situation or series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, or striking interest or results.

     But what sort of “situation or series of events” produces “vivid, emotional, conflicting, or striking interest or results” — ?

     For me this is the question that separates the truly great stories, the ones that can be reread many times over the course of one’s life, from those that are mere transient diversions and entertainments.

     For me, drama has always emerged from a combination of the following:

  1. A well-characterized protagonist with quite definite values;
  2. A morally or ethically challenging situation involving events that clash with the protagonist’s values, whether or not those events were brought about deliberately by a conscious agent;
  3. A high price for the resolution of that clash, which only the protagonist can pay.

     There’s conflict. There’s an emotional coupling between the protagonist and the challenge he faces. And there’s the price to be paid, which should be almost as high as the value the protagonist seeks to defend, on the grounds that nothing valuable can be cheaply purchased.

     Mind you, there’s an under-layer of necessities that shouldn’t be neglected here. They fall into the category of a fiction writer’s tools: valid methods of characterization, viewpoint management, proper use of time and place, and the effective exploitation of Supporting Cast characters. The writer must be proficient with these tools, or his fiction, no matter how potentially dramatic his conception, won’t come off. But that’s a subject for another screed.

     As I type this I’ve been thinking about the stories I’ve found most rereadable. All of them follow the outline I sketched above. Some embellish on it, for example by embedding distinct plot threads that take a whole novel to converge, or by having multiple protagonists who are all good guys but have conflicts with one another. One way or another, the elements I’ve cited are present in all of them – and I’ve returned to them several times each over the years, usually when I was in a “how on Earth can I bring this off?” quandary about one of my own stories.

     I once wrote that drama only exists when men must suffer for being good. It strikes me as a compact encapsulation of the ideas expressed above. It’s also consistent with the books to which I return repeatedly, whether for technical instruction, for characterological insight, or simply for the moral uplift from the stories they tell.

     Such books are the exact opposite of “grey goo.” In a world in which the hero is becoming an endangered species and moral and ethical distinctions are all too often blurred – sometimes by the deliberate action of persons with evil intentions – they make enduring, valued companions. Especially for a writer who repeatedly asks himself “how could I imagine that I might ever equal that achievement?”

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