Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Sweet Spot: literary fiction and back story.

Well, two sweet spots, actually, one for literary fiction and one for backstory, but I suppose the two do collide into one giant sweet spot, but it wasn't really what I was after. I really need to learn some basic punctuation skills.

Anywho. I've done no work for a month. Read some great books and one of them has really been kicking around in my head. The People's Act of Love, by James Meek. (Given to me some time ago by Maureen - what a friend.) It's got it all, cannibalism, castration, Siberia, revolutionary Russia, religious sects. It's awesome. And I mean awesome- go get yourself this book.

But I almost put it down at one point. I know I read literary fiction to learn something, to be challenged, and I don't think I'm alone. I want to feel at times smart and stupid, but there's a point in the smart/stupid continuum that when crossed, makes people hate literary fiction.

In The People's Act of Love, there is so little back story - it's delicious. A man, in the frozen wasteland watches some horses and a man fall from a train. He eats some of the horse, cuts the hand off the dead man and then gets up on the train trellis and starts to follow the tracks. There he finds another man, that man is carrying a bag with a bloody knife, some booze and a picture of a woman.

I mean how freaking AMAZING is this!!?? Every moment is a mystery, a puzzle a delicious tease. Why did he bury that hand? Who is the woman? Why is the equipment bloody? Now, the first man who ate the horse and buried the hand looks at the bloody surgical equipment and doubts the second man's answer about them - which I do to, we're supposed to. But the first man KNOWS what the second man is, but though we're in his POV he doesn't tell us. So, as the reader I'm totally left behind. It seemed, in all of this mystery, like a betrayal and I felt dumber than I wanted to, like if I was smart I could get it.

He edged just past the sweet spot in back story. And I almost put the book down, thank God I didn't, because it only got better. But that one little moment was tough.

You can tell your reader's the bare minimum, but as soon as your POV character understands something that we don't from the information laid out in front of us - oops. Now, further into the book I think you can getaway with a little more slight of hand, but at the beginning when the reader has just turned the light on in the world you've created - help the reader out.


Eileen said...

It is SUCH a delicate balancing act. Give readers too much backstory and you bore them and take them out of the story. Don't give them enough and they can get resentful or, worse yet, not connect with your characters.

Maureen McGowan said...

Molly, Any time you want another novel with cannibalism and dead horses set in Siberia, let me know. :-)

But interesting point... Holding too much back from the reader, things the POV character knows but refuses to tell, can be more annoying than mysterious. But like so many things, if it's done well, and the payoff is huge, you can get away with it. I'm thinking about Water for Elephants, too...

Thing is with that book... we didn't know until the very end that the narrator was holding back a few very important details... Maybe it's different if the reader knows the character's keeping secrets from them... Refusing to think thoughts that would let the reader in on the secret. Being purposefully deceptive. That can grate.

Delicate balancing act, as Eileen says...

Eileen said...

Withholding info can make me feel manipulated, too. I hate it when a detective character finds the clue that makes everything clear and the writer doesn't tell us what it is! It's totally okay with me to describe the clue, but not make the connection obvious. In fact, that's exciting to me as a reader. But when the detective reads the letter and we don't get to know the contents, it feels like a cheat.

Molly O'Keefe said...

You know maybe backstory isn't the right idea here - because what made me angry about the book was the pov character, gleaning from the things in front of us - something I didn't. And he didn't share with me.

that there was no backstory I totally loved.

If a character keeps a secret from the backstory a secret -- delicious. It works for me.
It's just really remarkable that one little thing, a detail that you didn't think of, or worry about can break your reader's leap of faith.

as far as water for elephants or something like being lost - it's a bit of a trick and you like it or you don't.

Sinead M said...

It's a tough balance, because Molly, you're right, keeping a piece of backstory hidden is one thing, not showing something the character has just learned, while in their POV, seems a breaking of the bond between writer and reader, but as we've learned, if the writing is strong enough, anything will work.

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