Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Don’t be Evil

Why Fiction Authors Must Choose What Kind of Dictator They Will Be
by Rayme Waters

For years when I said I was writing a book, people asked me which authors I
admired and I’d tell them in one breath: Dickens, Bronte, King, Egan. But I’d trip over the follow up question—I couldn’t articulate what these four authors had in common or how they influenced my more spare style of writing. I devoured what they wrote because I found it challenging and joyful. Conversely, Franzen’s "The Corrections" left me feeling ill. Updike’s "Rabbit is Rich" frustrated me so thoroughly that I threw the novel across the room. Novels that inspire physical reactions require a level of reader involvement that only a writer at the top of his or her game can summon. How could I hate two books—and many others not singled out here--that were so solidly crafted?

Recently, while promoting my own debut novel, The Angels’ Share, I was asked by author and book blogger Kelly O’Connor McNees if I weren’t a writer what my dream occupation would be. My first thought was “starting right tackle for the San Francisco 49ers”, but this small white girl is trying to tame the beast of sarcasm so I came up with another answer: benevolent dictator. In this dream job, I get to tell 16 year olds they aren’t allowed to get pregnant and I can chemically castrate rapists and child molesters. I wipe out student loan debt and tell casinos they can’t build on beaches. I fund the kind of rehabs where addicts can take time to recover and create opportunities where people who are fated to fall in love get second, third, fourth chances.

As I answered Ms. McNees, I realized that all fiction writers are rulers of worlds
they create and the authors I loved best were benevolent ones.

There are finely crafted, prize-winning books that leave you frustrated and
despairing, about how men hurt women, how families damage each other,
how the vulnerable will always be exploited and left to suffer. An evil dictator
will sacrifice the good nature of any character, debase any level of trust he or
she has gained with the reader, to parse their truth: that the world is a chaotic
place and human decency, if there ever was such a thing, is long lost. While
a benevolent writer doesn’t deny that the battles are bloody and sometimes
hopeless, he or she believes the war against What’s Wrong in the mind and on
the page is worth fighting earnestly, and the occasional triumph of good over evil, often near the resolution of the story, is not simplistic or outmoded.

(This doesn’t mean I endorse a third type of writer: the puppet dictator. Writers
of novels that that only scratch the surface of truth because the marketing
department wants everything to be pretty, comfortable and formulaic or because
the author is under the gun of time, putting what might have evolved into a strong novel into the straightjacket of a book-a-year cycle. A novel by a Puppet might start out with an amazing premise or a mind-blowingly good prologue, but leaves you feeling like you just ate a cheap package of sweet rolls [Jane Austen flirts with Puppet status, but ends always, firmly, on the side of a benevolence]. The Puppet delivers the whole story so prettily wrapped, yet so full of holes, once you close the cover you rarely think of it again.)

Despite many evil dictators superior writing skills, it is tougher to write the
Benevolent story than the Evil story because it is easy to be heavy, hard to be
light. To have characters meet our lowest expectations: walking out on their
families, choosing the drugs, trafficking the human, and then not facing the task
of unwinding that downward spiral, letting the characters, the story redeem itself means the author has only done half the work. The Benevolent, navigating the trickier artistic path, lays out the complications of a novel, lets the reader admire their beauty, their treachery, allows his or her characters to get into deep, painful trouble, and then backward navigates the reader with a thin beam of light, one that in the hands of a Benevolent will illuminate something you’d always thought but never put into words, something that fills your depleted tank such that you feel like the book you just read changed the way you think about life in ways both gentle and profound. Like Dickens and Bronte are able to give hope to those with wretched beginnings. How King’s Lisey’s Story explains that the bonds of a dedicated marriage are stronger than those of premature death. How Egan reminds us that time is ruthless and our behavior during our stay on earth matters. And if you finish those books or any book loving humanity more than hating it, feeling less empty, less alone, your author has been kind to you.

Born in San Francisco, Rayme Waters grew up in Northern California and the city of Linköping, Sweden. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Dzanc Best of the Web Award. Most recently, her work has appeared in The Summerset Review, The Rumpus and The Meadowland Review. The Angels’ Share is Rayme’s debut novel.

1 comment:

  1. I love this post! It's so thought-provoking. It makes me want to spend the rest of the evening mulling over my favorite novels. I suspect that unlike Rayme I'm often drawn to Cruel Dictators ("Evil" is a little harsh in some cases). The beginnings of a new literary parlor game?

    Thank you!