Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Is This Book Necessary?

Sharon Wildwind

Recently I read a long interview that Jofie Ferrari-Adler, an editor at Grove/Atlantic, conducted with four young editors. This was published on the web site, Poets and Writers.

Here’s part of the response that Eric Chinski gave to a question about what besides the written page or the author’s skill or her obsession compels an editor to purchase a manuscript. Mr. Chinski is vice-president and editor-in-chief of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, a long-time publisher known for its literary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and children’s literature.

“The word necessary always comes to mind for me. Beyond a good story, beyond good writing, does the novel feel necessary? . . . the ones I tend to be drawn to are the ones that either feel personally necessary or globally necessary in some vague way that’s hard to define. And that should be at the sentence level, too. People who can write really well sometimes get carried away by their own writing and forget what’s actually necessary on the page. . . . Sometimes you feel like an author is just writing for the sake of writing, and that is a big turnoff. It’s got to feel necessary at every level.”

Huckleberry Finn was a necessary book. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Grapes of Wrath. I’m not sure about Moby Dick, though, no doubt, generations of high school English teachers could argue me to a stand-still on that one.

I tried to think of a globally-necessary mystery. The one that came to mind was Tess Gerritsen’s The Apprentice. With apologies to Dr. Gerritsen, it was a book that made me tremendously uncomfortable. I finished it with all of the morbid fascination people display gawking at fatality traffic accidents, which is exactly the point one of the characters makes. I saw qualities in that character’s assessment of people’s relationship to torture and death that I didn’t like recognizing in myself. It cut so close to the bone that I had more than a moment’s pause as to whether I should turn myself in for a bit of psychotherapeutic tune-up.

As writers, we have a standard list of why we read/write/enjoy mysteries. Justice is done. Crime does not pay. Murder will out. The world can be put back into alignment through the actions and sacrifice of the hero/heroine. The bigger the sacrifice, the bigger the wrong that can be righted. These ideas are embedded in culture. In countries where justice—or the lack of it—and the roles of police officers are different from the United States, Canada and Great Britain, mystery “truths” look very different.

I suspect, however, that the majority of us are writing personally-necessary stories. Each of us has a particular mix of stories and characters that won’t let us alone. They intrude during the day when we’re standing at the photocopier or doing dishes. They invade our dreams. They keep coming back until, in desperate self-defense, we have to put those stories on paper. I really hope that is what Mr. Chinski meant by a “personally-necessary” story because I think it's as close as I'm going to come to meeting the necessary criteria.

What makes a mystery necessary to you?
Quote for the week:

I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.
~Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author and aviator (1906-2001)


Paul Lamb said...

Moby Dick is the greatest novel in the English language, bar none. I was recently part of a discussion group that spent two years making our way through each chapter. When we came to the end, I felt it necessary to start reading that novel from the beginning again (but I've put that off for a while).

Lonnie Cruse said...

What makes a book necessary to me is if it takes me out of myself and into the book. Makes me forget my surroundings because I'm no longer there, at least for the moment. I'm sure it's different for everyone.

Sandra Parshall said...

If every book had to be "necessary" few would be published. The great majority of published novels are forgettable. They entertain briefly but have no lasting effect on anyone, including the author.

The "necessary" books are the ones we come to regard as classics. They touch readers emotionally and force people to think about and question the society they live in. Necessary books make a difference.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I've just been assigned to a panel at this year's Malice on "Tackling Social Issues," and the idea of necessary books--personally and beyond--is very relevant to the discussion the panelists-to-be have started having via email. I write what I write because what I have to say about recovery from alcoholism, codependency, and addictions feels necessary to me. I agree about Huck Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird, as well as about Moby Dick with reservations (based more on readability than on theme). And I'd add my choice for unsung Great American Novel, Little Women.

Sandra Parshall said...

Edith Wharton's novels about the lives of women born into a rigid social order can tell us more about that era than any dry history book can. (History books, in any case, contain scant information about the lives of women.) THE HOUSE OF MIRTH is an absolutely terrifying book and should be required reading for modern female students. Wharton's books meet my definition of necessary.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Paul, you have me convinced that Moby Dick is a necessary book.

I think we're all saying that a book needs some meat on its bones, something to make the fiction feel as important as real life.