[In her role as a teacher Leah Stewart (Husband and Wife, The Myth of You and Me, Body of a Girl) emphasizes and discusses the craft of a novel, while as a reader (and writer) she is drawn to the emotional impact of a book. So here, in today’s guest post, she wonders why or what is most important in reading?]
One of my graduate students emailed me a few weeks ago to say he’d heard me mention Margot Livesey’s novel Eva Moves the Furniture so often in class he thought he should read it. Why, he wanted to know, did I so often use it as an example? Was it because of the way Livesey handles the magical element of the novel, keeping the question of what’s real a mystery until the end?
The answer that immediately came to mind was: it’s because I love it. But that wasn’t what he was looking for. He wanted me to say something about the craft of the book, the way Livesey structures her story. As a teacher I emphasize the use of models, telling students to seek out the books that resemble the ones they want to write and figure out how they work. It struck me as funny, then, that I had to think so hard to give him that kind of answer. When I read that book, it had such a profound emotional effect on me that that response overrode my usual thinking about a novel—how it’s put together, what the writing style is like, what points it might be making about our culture and the world.
Not long after this exchange a writer friend mentioned to me that a book should have more than emotional impact. I’ve been thinking about this comment ever since. For him, I have no doubt that this is true. For me, I’m not so sure it is. I can appreciate a novel that deliberately examines intellectual questions, but if it doesn’t engage me emotionally I’m left disappointed. What I want from stories is primal: I want to be transported, caught up, unable to stop reading even if it’s past midnight and I know my children will be up early. What I’m reading might be Harry Potter or the odd, language-driven stories of Barry Hannah—as long as it makes me feel profoundly, I’m in love.
It’s probably no surprise, then, that in my own work I do my best to create an intense emotional response in the reader. But in some ways that’s been a surprise to me. After all, I went to graduate school for writing. I spend much of my time in academia, where we encourage students to discuss what stories mean rather than what they make you feel. I hear all the time from readers that they were moved by one of my books, that they couldn’t put it down, and I love hearing that I’ve achieved that kind of effect. But the good-student part of me still wants to be told I’m smart. Recently another grad student praised a reading I’d given by saying she could hear my intelligence in it. She added, “In your novels, your intelligence is obscured by the narrative.” She didn’t mean to be insulting, and the comment amused rather than upset me, but it did offer a window on a particular perception of fiction writing, one that suggests emotion and story are not intelligent. I feel like it’s my job to remind both myself and my students that they are—that, in fact, they’re vital. Two of the many sad things about the literary/genre divide in book culture are the way it keeps readers from books they might love on either side, and the way it makes writers who want to be considered artists devalue the pleasures of plot. No matter what we’ve learned in school about how we’re supposed to read, some of our most profound reading experiences came when we were uncritical children, staying up with a flashlight under the covers to finish A Wrinkle in Time.
I wrote back to my student that he was right: I recommend the book because of my admiration for Livesey’s handling of mystery, as well as the way she finds a tone that’s both matter of fact and mystical, and achieves what she herself calls “a certain intensity about the ordinary.” And also, I said, because I love it.
Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away two copies of Tanya Egan Gibson’s How to Buy a Love of Reading in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post, Tanya Egan Gibson and How to Buy a Love of Reading. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is tonight at 7:00 p.m. EDT with the winners to be announced here in tomorrow’s post. If you enter, please return tomorrow to see if you’re a winner.