Sunday, January 31, 2010


In preparation for my appearance at Kepler's next week on Thursday, February 11th, where I will be discussing my novel True Confections with the wonderful Susan Karl, President and CEO of the Annabelle Candy Company (makers of Big Hunk, Look, U-No, Rocky Road, and Abba-Zaba), I want to talk here about aspects of reading and writing fiction, and I invite you to respond with your own thoughts. So this is the first of three guest posts this week.

I would also like to encourage visits to a website where the fiction of True Confections continues beyond the page,, where a musical contest with prizes for all entries awaits. There will be candy for all and prizes for the bold on the 11th, too, so do visit the Zip's Candies website, view the original 1960 commercial, download the sheet music, and start practicing your renditions of the vintage Little Sammies jingle, "Say, Dat's Tasty!"

How to Read a Novel, Apparently

At a panel discussion about book groups at last year’s BEA, I was not surprised to hear each of the panelists agree that the most successful way to lead a book group discussion is to research the author’s biography in order to discuss it and make connections between the author’s life and the chosen novel. I wasn’t surprised, because this focus has been part of my experience in the q & a at library talks, in bookstores, and in book group meetings each time I publish a novel, but perhaps it has become especially noticeable in recent years, when I was on the road for my last novel, Triangle, which came out in 2006, and now with True Confections, which has just been published. I recognize that this discussion strategy has become the default assumption about the best way to understand a novel, just as it has become the default assumption about optimal questions for the author. And whether or not the author is present, finding the links between the author’s experience and history and the novel’s characters, setting, and events has in many instances become the core of any conversation about the novel.

Why has identifying and checking off a factual basis for each significant element in the fiction somehow become the goal of many readers? Why do readers feel compelled to read through the fiction looking for the actual underlying facts, as if a novel is an autobiographical puzzle created by the author to challenge every reader? Why do so many readers approach a novel as if there is supposed to be a goal in reading, and that goal is solving this puzzle? This is not how people used to read novels, I am pretty sure.

We all know people (or perhaps we are those people) who can only go on a walk in the woods with binoculars, a bird guide, and a copy of their life list. We all know people who cannot simply gaze at the stars. They automatically begin identifying constellations. I do understand this impulse to organize the chaotic information the world throws at us in a skillful way that is reassuring to us because it makes us feel authoritative and competent and in control. But the Sudoko approach to reading a novel deprives the reader of the deepest and most satisfactory form of true engagement that fiction can offer us. What do you gain from knowing that the author of a novel about horses grew up on a ranch, or grew up in a city and never saw a horse until he was 27? What difference does it make to you as a reader? Why does it matter? Does it enhance your reading of the novel, or does it impair your chances at any sustained flight into the willing suspension of disbelief? If you need facts and facts and reality and more reality, why are you reading a novel?

Why do we read novels?


  1. I like to read about authors because I am a writer, and want to know why they can have the perserverance and fabulous plots and dialog and get published, and why I have stack of paper to the ceiling all around the chair at my computer. Was it something about the way they grew up? Also, I like to understand where the writer is coming from -- horse ranch or pig farm or Cornell or the beach on the Big Island. Sometimes I think writers use their own experiences in their stories, too, or what they learn along the gravelly road of life. I can't wait to read your book. It sounds fascinating. -- Anne

  2. I think it's not just an organizational process, but a connect-the-dots one. Especially in this age of interconnectedness, but possibly even before that, I think that's been a way "in" to fiction for a lot of people. If they can find something about the author that they understand or relate to -- that they get on an explicit or implicit level -- it's a step toward connection with the work itself. Not necessarily the only step, but for a lot of people it's a very tangible one.

    Plus it's always interesting, that glimpse behind the scenes. Like seeing your third grade teacher in the supermarket in jeans.

  3. I think it's also part of the memoir craze, Katharine. People seem desperate for a kind of intimacy, a feeling that they "know" the author, or have hidden access to what is going on in the novel.

  4. I think that when an author moves us, it's often because they have expressed something we have felt but that the reading of their book has helped us better understand. Maybe feeling so well understood by the author leads us to look for connections between ourselves and them, so we can see how they have come to understand what we feel?

    I think also, for writers, what Anne said is true - and not just for unpublished writers, either, but for any writer who is trying to make their writing stronger.

  5. Because a novel can move and sometimes change us in the most private and personal aspects of our lives, even a very skilled reader--knowing perfectly well that the characters and events that have such impact are not "real"--might want some sense of a personal connection to the source of that novel, who is indeed real. This urge to complete the circle seems natural to me, though I do agree that today the boundaries are blurred and the notion of privacy seems almost quaint. Add to this the fact that authors are now meant to promote their books in person--a responsibility that used to belong to the publisher while the writer wrote--and it seems almost reasonable to regard an author as public property. I wonder, if "Catcher in the Rye" were published to sensational response today, whether Salinger would be granted even a degree of his chosen reclusiveness.

  6. Thank you for these great comments.

    I agree that reading a novel can give one a sense (whether or not it is genuine) of deep and intimate knowledge of the author's life and mind. This can certainly make one eager for information about the author's life and writing process.

    But I am not saying I think there is anything wrong with that interest. I am talking about the default assumption that this is the way to read a novel: that sufficient connecting of the dots and following of the breadcrumbs will result in a puzzle-solving matching up of the lived with the invented. And I think that's a very limited way to read a novel.

    I am also talking about the assumption that this is desirable information to put in front of readers before they read the first sentence of a novel.

  7. Often times I read to simply escape.

    However, everytime I get lost within the pages of a powerful book, I always find my way out with the knnowledge that I have learned something new.