Yesterday night I was talking to a friend about a book everyone and their parents has been recommending to him, and which he is now, finally, reading. I asked how it was and he said “execution wise, it is quite good, and the reasons it was recommended are all true, but he feels like it’s a big, dark oil slick attaching to his mind, and he has to read it in small doses and shower afterwards.
Now, one of the things recommending this book is the story, and the outlook, as described, should mesh pretty well with my friend’s, so the only thing I can figure out is “something in the book.”
I’d think my friend had gone nuts, I would, except that I’ve experienced this myself. It’s one of the reasons I don’t read horror: because you find the feeling more often there. Though honestly I’ve found it in Urban Fantasy and even in straight Fantasy, too, and no, I’m not giving you any names.
The first time I encountered it incontrovertibly, and I mean at a point I couldn’t imagine it, is when a friend gave me two books by Robert Aickman. Maybe it was because I read the books back to back. Look, there is no particularly evil outlook about the books — they’re… books. Yes, they’re horror, so there’s a dark twist in every story, but there is something more, something almost independent that seems to come off the books and attach to you. The phrase “I want to scrub with steel wool” comes to mind.
Anne Rice didn’t have that effect on me till Queen of the Damned. It was a comulative thing. Maybe I was insulated from it because I was reading her to study description, my mind was on that and perhaps immune from the emotion.
And it’s the emotion that brings it in. And I can’t describe how it gets in.
All I know is that years ago, when I was applying to the American consulate to establish pen pals, I got a sheet of recommendations and they said “Never write when you’re upset, even if you don’t think you’re showing it, it will communicate itself in your word choice.”
I later found out this was true, even if I wasn’t upset at my pen pal, and thought I’d said nothing that could give them a hint. I’d get the “are you upset at me?”
Which brings us to messages in fiction. (Fiction in messages is a completely different topic.)
I don’t look for messages, and I don’t look to put messages in my fiction. Usually, when asked what a book I’m writing is “saying” I say “I have no idea.” Towards the end, I might have a pretty clear idea, but I’m always surprised when readers find things that while entirely consonant with my outlook, I didn’t put in consciously.
Are there messages there? Yeah, pretty sure. Are they consonant with how I see the world? I’d hope so. Otherwise someone else wrote the book.
Have I read books that pretty clearly came from a completely different outlook? Of course I have. For most of my life, if I didn’t I wouldn’t read ANYTHING. The gatekeepers had a different outlook from my own, and that came through in the books they chose. A story can be good while I utterly reject the premises and outlook of the writer, in the same way I can be friends with someone who has completely different views from me, provided we connect on other things. I love Pratchett’s “humanity” which comes through richly in his characters, even if we have/had some philosophical disagreements.
Do I stop reading because the outlook is different from mine? I’ll be honest, a book has to be pretty bad to make me stop reading, and most of those are non-fiction books where I spot where the writer lost track, but he just goes on. Fiction… I only put down if I get that “feeling” like I need to scrub with steel wool. (And I often find myself in the shower midday when reading one of these books.) I’ve thrown three fiction books away over that, I couldn’t see passing them on.
The thing I don’t do either in writing or reading is counting heads or coloring by the numbers. I don’t go into writing a book with some sort of agenda and have to put in five marbles of each color or something.
You see, fiction isn’t “so many of these, so many of that, and message wrapped in a thin veil of story.” Fiction are chunks of raw emotion, torn bleeding from the author’s mind, (or soul, if you believe in those) and flung onto the page still squirming, with everything that made it happen and come into being, some of that subconscious. This is how it can come with a freight of “evil” or “depressed” or even “happy.” (Look, a story in which several people get killed with a hat pin shouldn’t leave me feeling happy and bouncy, but it did.)
Because in the things not fully under our control, in every word choice, in every little thing we highlight or ignore, we’re conveying a bit of that which is the author.
This is both for good and ill, but it is what it is, and it is what makes books different from tv or movies. Someone once said when you read a book, because of the breath necessary for speaking, you’re breathing the same way the author was when he/she wrote it. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true, but it echoes of something.
Most of us go through life prisoners of the space behind our eyes. It’s part of being human. Reading is the closest you get to being in someone else’s head, because other stuff comes with it.
And that means writing isn’t done by “give me two brown ones, two purple ones, and a polkadot one.” People who read (let alone write) like that are denying themselves one of the most glorious experiences of being human, and the closest we can come to telepathy in this life.
And btw, there’s people who do that on both sides of the political divide. “I don’t read x because it has gay characters.” (Ask me where I heard that. Or rather don’t, I’m not even getting into it.)
Unless you know the book has a never ending stretch of stuff that treats you like an idiot or exposes you to stuff you don’t want to see (gay characters in question never even kiss on stage) or unless it gives you that feeling of something black and oily crawling out of the book and all over you (and weirdly this is not as personal as you’d think. I find the books that do this to me usually do it to a significant portion of the population. Maybe to all of it and a large number like it) let it go and get in the story. At the end you can say “oh, that premise was crazy cakes.” BUT refusing to read a book at all, sight unseen because it has the wrong markers? Not only could you be missing out on a great experience, but it is part of the great divide that seems to be cracking the country in two (or more) groups that can’t even talk to each other.
Like the Kaleidoscopes in Clifford D. Simak’s City, which change minds out of habits that otherwise can’t be broken, books, if written by someone who feels them (and is not painting by the numbers) and read for the story and the emotion can change minds that couldn’t be changed otherwise. Because they let you experience being someone else a little while. They can at least allow you to UNDERSTAND the other side.
Writing by the numbers and reading by counting heads? Well, I suppose it’s a good exercise in letter recognition.
But in the end it diminishes your humanity. And although those books don’t rise to the level of “evil miasma” they often DO put me to sleep.
And that’s even sadder than having to give up on a book because there isn’t enough steel wool and no one has invented a soul-scrubber.