"Cynicism is really the stuff of sophistry. It’s simplistic in nature, it requires no insight and it requires no creativity. Anyone can, in effect, be negative.” - James Lee Burke
In an interview with Christian Science Monitor that was published today, James Lee Burke, one of my favorite writers and, in my opinion, one of the best writers in this country today talked about the appeal of his character Dave Robicheaux, the Cajun cop from New Iberia, Louisiana. Creole Belle, the 19th book in Burke's Robicheaux series, was recently published. I have not yet read it but I downloaded the Audible version and I am looking forward to it. In the interview Burke also said, “Washington Irving said something I never forgot. He said the narrator must establish a familiarity and a sense of trust between himself and the reader. It’s a kind of an intimate relationship that doesn’t exist outside literature.”
I appreciated that because I totally agree with him. I'm tired of obnoxious, unlikable characters which seem so ubiquitous in contemporary fiction. I'm tired of the cynicism of writers who say they write that way because that's how people are, and I'm tired of finishing a book – or not finishing a book – and thinking what a bunch of creeps. If I am going to invest the time it takes to read a full-length novel I want somebody to root for, I want somebody to care about, I want, as the great Sol Stein says, “to fall in love.”
I love what Irving says about building a sense of trust between himself and the reader. I feel genuinely betrayed when I get to the end of the book and there is no climax, no resolution, no sense that the whole story served any purpose at all.
Two recent novels come to mind that illustrate the difference: Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife and Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl. Both start out with characters that are deeply flawed, have made bad choices and led not very admirable lives. While reading both books I was a little uncomfortable with a story in which I didn't much like anyone. But the stories were good, the writing was done well, and I was sufficiently intrigued to stay with them.
With The Reliable Wife I gradually warmed up to the character of Ralph and, though he'd been an unpleasant person in the past, he began to change. He fell in love and through that love he evolved and grew and by the end of the book I was completely in love with him. I loved that book. Gone Girl was a completely different experience. The young couple at the core of the book were annoying, totally self-absorbed and selfish, but the plot was clever and there were twists and turns that were nearly breath-taking. And then the book just ended. I was sitting on the edge of my seat, waiting for the big finish and – nothing. Both people were just as obnoxious at the end, there was no climax, no evolution, nothing. Just two miserable people who, the best you could say about them was that the deserved each other.
To me, as a reader, that is a betrayal of trust. I entered into the story trusting that something would happen, that somehow one or the other of these characters would be transformed, and there would be a sense of satisfaction. It just never happened.
I don't think all endings have to be happy but I do think that all endings have to be resolved – or should be. Maybe I expected too much but I don't think so. The guy married a psychopath who out-maneuvered him on every single move right up to the last sentence of the book. Is it me?
Lately I've been worrying about what is going on in the literary world. Some of the runaway best-sellers puzzle me. I am not saying they are bad, I just wonder if the popularity of certain works says something about our society. Have we become cynical and just given up belief that situations will be resolved? I wonder.
A friend sent me a link to a column written by the ever-detestible Rush Limbaugh about the 50 Shades books. I won't go into detail because the very thought of him makes my skin crawl but the conclusion he drew from their rampant popularity is that it is evidence of the failure of feminism and proof that women really secretly want to be submissive and controlled by a dominant male. Gag. I've written a lot about my inability to comprehend the allure of submissive erotica and I still don't. It's easy to be cynical about this subject and I don't want to do that but I have a lot of understanding to gain.
I love Dave Robicheaux. He is a very flawed man who battles demons on a regular basis and is sometimes a pretty awful person. But he is also a very loving person. He lives in a dark, dark world but he always sees the bits and pieces of beauty in it. For me Dave Robicheaux is a character I trust. I know he will make mistakes but I know he will know that he made them and try to make it right. I trust him.
Thanks for reading.