An all to frequent response to my books is, “I don’t usually read that sort of book, but I really got into it.”
So what “sort of book” do I write?
Stories that sweep you into the life of the characters and move you, change your perceptions or your sense of your own life. But that, of course, isn’t the answer such readers are looking for. They want to know what cubbyhole they fit into: mystery, romance, historical, fantasy, science fiction, etc.. I understand the need for labels. They give some guidance in the chaos of books coming off the press these days, and they tell bookstores and libraries where to shelve the books. The problem is, the label likely to be attached to my “sort of book” is “General,” which isn’t very helpful, “Literary”–which means some English teacher scared you off–“Serious,” which means no fun to read and certainly not a book for escape, or “Good” which has a moralistic or judgmental tone. None of which means a story you really get into.
Moreover, readers also label themselves. “Well, I’m a mystery reader,” “I read romances,” or “paranormal is my thing.” I’m not so sure where this need comes from, perhaps from our need to fit in. But I would argue against walling reading habits in. Used this way, labels imprison us. They protect us from chaos, but they make the world beyond our self-made fortress a scary place inhabited by strangers. Worse, the industry urges writers to write into these pigeon-holes, reinforcing them.
And so we move away from each other and become strangers. Polarization is a sad truth of our times, and I think in some way that’s the reason I read and write about characters who refuse to be imprisoned by the forces of their times, who moved beyond boundaries. Move me to a different place, a different understanding of myself.
The interesting thing is, despite reader self-labeling, such books often become best sellers, such as Kahled Hosseini’s Kite Runner or Garth Stein’s Art of Racing in the Rain. Or they are transformed into movies, such as Schindler’s List or The Life of Pi.
Because they sweep the reader into the life of the character. I think the public responds to good stories—and by “good” I mean stories that move them, speak to their own lives in some way. Hosseini’s hero is driven by guilt for betraying a childhood friend. The dog narrator in Racing in the Rain must carry his master through loss and into life again. It’s no fluke its hero is a dog. Schindler’s List is set during WWII but is about unsung hereos faced with huge destructive forces.
We live in a time of huge social, political, and geological upheaval. Life is tough, and too many if not most of us struggle through our personal hard times alone. The growth and success of support groups speak to the unfortunate truth that troubles isolate us. For that, reading of others facing similar crises, regardless of time and place, is a great balm. Reading of others struggling with fear, guilt, shame, anger, and loss relieves that isolation. We are not alone.
I believe it is the source of my own writing, and I think the rewards of writing are not that different from the rewards of reading. My topics focus on conflicts of my own times, stretching from the Depression through the tech revolution. In the following blogs, I will talk about this “sort of book” and my very personal response to them. I invite readers to share more titles, give a brief description of the story’s central conflict and share their effect on you.