Sunday, June 01, 2008

Another Reason Why S/He's Just Not That Into You

I'm reading Stephen King's The Stand, and my impressions so far are about what you would expect: it's well-written, the characters are empathetic, and the story pulls you along from page to page.

But it's scary, darn it. The faceless man who stares out of the cornfield in people's dreams? Eep.

I don't think this is even supposed to be one of Mr. King's more terrifying books. I'm just a wimp. But this has got me thinking about why certain people won't read certain genres.

One reason people read is for catharsis. We test-drive emotions we often wouldn't want in real life, like the angst and relief of a good romance, the terror and relief of a good horror, or the tension and relief of a good thriller. However, there are certain emotions some of us don't enjoy, even as a voyeur, even if there is relief waiting at the end of the book.

Here's a non-literary example of this effect: I love rock climbing, but only if I trust my rope setup and belay partner. There's something glorious about being balanced on a wall of warm, silver stone and being able to look back over your shoulder at some incredibly view of mountains, sea and sky. You're all alone up there and that view is all for you.

However, if you pair me with a belay partner whose skills I'm not confident in, my pleasure evaporates. Suddenly I have sweaty fingers and I'm too tense, which makes my muscles tire too quickly. I don't pause to enjoy the view because all I want is to get safely back on the ground. I do not climb for the thrill of it, because I don't enjoy fear.

Hence, I'm not enjoying the scary bits of The Stand. Terror is not an emotion I like to dabble in, even for fun.

It's strange that to enjoy a book, we have to be able to suspend our sense of disbelief and really feel the emotions of the story, yet not feel them so intensely that the story becomes too devastating to tolerate. There's a reason why the publishing industry wouldn't touch terrorism stories for a long time after 9/11; most editors and agents live in New York and work in Manhattan. They were there. The subject wasn't something they could enjoy; they didn't have any emotional distance from it.

I think it's best to aim for emotional truth in your writing, because un-involving stories have no chance on the market, but when your subject matter is both dark and intense, that can limit your audience. It's up to you as an artist to decide where the line is drawn, but there is merit to having the really rough stuff happen off the page. To become a hit, a story must resonate with a large number of people, but at the same time, it cannot stir up feelings that the majority of those people can't handle.


What emotional situations do you lap up when you read a book, and does that inform your book choices? Which situations make you hate even a well-written book? I'd love to hear your (darkest, scariest) thoughts!

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: