Friday, June 12, 2015

Smart Novels

Not everyone wants to read them. Not everyone wants to write them. But for certain readers and writers, unless a novel stretches your mind—at least a trifle—it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. It doesn’t have quite enough substance. Whether you wrote it or read it, you’re pretty much who you were when you started. Where’s the fun in that?

But “smart” has another meaning. Somewhat ironically, as a verb, “to smart” becomes the action of irritating or wounding. It’s easy to inflict that on readers: just sound like a smarty-pants.

How do you offer the heft that leaves one changed when the book ends—without depriving readers of the entertainment they seek? And without being a smarty-pants?

*** Mystery.

In Andrew Winer’s The Marriage Artist, readers learn about the richly illuminated Jewish marriage contract called a “ketubah.”  Murders to solve and sex to savor keep us turning pages while delving into not only Jewish tradition but the meaning of art—especially when it stops being representational.

*** Humanity.

On a panel at the recent AWP conference in Minneapolis, Joan Silber remarked that historical fiction comes alive when readers grasp what “the characters would know and feel.” That “makes the history yours.” This explains the popularity of Hilary Mantel. We’re certainly being educated. But it doesn’t “smart” to wade through all those royals and edicts and Thomases—because they’re as real as a Piggly Wiggly clerk.

*** Voice.

In The Gold Bug Variations (pun intended) by Richard Powers, once you acclimate to the dazzling array of verbal gymnastics, poeticisms, and intellectual prowess, you’ll earn honorary degrees in history, classical music, genetics, and more. Rhythm and metaphor sweeten a scientist’s musings about the search to crack the DNA/RNA/amino acid code:

“We knew a little; enough to know that further extrapolation would require a whole new zoo of relational models. Certain things we already suspected: a long, linear informational string wound around its complement, like a photo pinned to its own negative, for further unlimited printing.”

*** Plot.

“She was like a fossil that’s been cleaned and set so everyone can see what it is.”

In Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, the history of fossil-hunting gets magnetically intertwined with the fates of the fossil hunters.

Tip: Smart novels are fun novels. But they have to feel like novels. That’s plot and character.

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