A Great Book

girl“A great book, a book that adds to self-reflection and understanding, is different from an amusement: an amusement is meant to distract us from ourselves, where a great book is meant to open the honeyed cells of the inner life and freely nourish new thoughts.”
−Jack Gantos, from the 2015 Zena Sutherland Lecture

What is the difference between a story that opens “the honeyed cells of the inner life”—how I love that phrase!—and “freely nourish[es] new thoughts,” and one that is simply “an amusement”?

Part of the distinction lies in a certain gravitas of topic. The story is based in important ideas, on important struggles. But can a serious topic be enough? Every murder mystery is based on a life-and-death struggle. What could be more important than that? But taking on that struggle doesn’t give most murder mysteries the opening, nourishing quality Gantos is talking about.

What more do we need?

First and foremost, I believe characters make the difference. The characters who inhabit us, open and nourish us, are those who resist neat definition. They are characters about whom their creator has managed to keep an open mind . . . all the way to the end of the story.

At the farthest distance from great books we have melodrama, stories peopled with mustache-twirling villains and fair maidens, all purity and helplessness. (Pure maidens are always helpless, aren’t they?) And while it’s great fun to sit in an audience and cry out “Boo!” and “Aw!” to such stereotypes, discovery is no part of the experience.

All stories in which characters fit neat categories, in which they can be clearly labeled as hero or villain, good guy or bad, lean toward melodrama.

On the side of the great book are characters such as Katherine Paterson’s Gilly Hopkins. Gilly is distinct. If she walked out of her book you would recognize her the moment you saw her. And yet she is also a mess of contradictions, contradictions that never fully resolve, even at the end of her story. Readers ache for Gilly as they watch her sabotage herself. And when Gilly has destroyed her chance to return to the foster home where she truly belongs, we care deeply about her loss. We also believe in her ability to survive in the new reality she has created for herself. We put the book down more in touch with our own contradictions, our own tendency to self-destruct, our own barely acknowledged strengths.

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge is one of the least attractive characters I have ever encountered at the heart of a novel . . . or in this case, at the heart of a collection of linked short stories. She is abrasive, always right, cruel to her passive and constantly attentive husband. And yet she can be compassionate, sometimes even wise, and finally, deeply vulnerable. I heard someone say “Olive Kitteridge is the only story I’ve ever read where the character doesn’t change but the reader does.” I don’t quite agree that Olive Kitteridge doesn’t change. I think she does. Or perhaps it could be argued that rather than actually changing, layers get peeled away so that we know her more intimately by the end. But I think it is wholly accurate that the committed reader may well change in encountering Olive. Staying in the company of this fascinating, difficult, hurting woman both challenges and enlarges us.

How can I create such complex, interesting, involving characters in my own stories? First, I suspect, by withholding my own judgment. If I start out with a single characteristic that will serve my story, I’m not going to open “the honeyed cells” of anyone’s inner life. I need to build contradictions into my characters that will challenge my story, not simply move it forward.

Beyond that, I need to love my own characters, whatever their flaws might be. I have a strong prejudice against stories and plays in which the author seems to be doing what I call literary slumming, choosing characters he cares little about and setting them up to duke it out.

A great book. It’s what we’re all striving for every time we sit down to write. Characters who inhabit us and will, in turn, inhabit our readers. And no one achieves such a goal easily. But loving our characters, whoever they may be, and then allowing them to grow into themselves . . . well, that’s a pretty good start.