3.09.2017

From On High

A novel uses seduction to lure its readers within its pages. Most authors realize that such wiles are necessary because the reader has many competing interests—i.e., books on her shelf (or in her Kindle). In order to make the reader stay with your book, new enticements must continue to be offered. Even if the material is dense, the reader must participate or the game is over.

Despite this commonsensical baseline, I occasionally receive submissions that spurn such notions. Within the first few pages it becomes obvious that the author has a mission, usually philosophical. He is employing the novel as a ruse of a grander sort: to educate the masses. Pages upon pages roll on, in which talmudic ethics or the like are explored. I am left to wonder how madness can reside within the same skull as profundity.

From an editorial standpoint, I don’t know why any author would believe that readers will be entranced by such a bombardment. It takes me only a moment’s reflection to realize that readers by and large are highly intelligent. If they want to read a philosophical tract, they will go to the Philosophy section in the bookstore. I have an abiding interest in Jean-Paul Sartre, but I would be disappointed if Nausea set out to instruct me. If I want existentialism straight up, I’ll read his Being and Nothingness.

Plenty of novels contain philosophy within their pages. Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain and Herman Hesse’s Glass Bead Game come to mind immediately. Yet these ideas are embedded within interesting stories. The characters face obstacles that create tension. The reader is enthralled by the characters, and that’s why we’ll stick through the heavier passages. That’s because such authors know that a shaman is also a trickster. When they put on a performance for us, they know we expect to be entertained.

Exercise: If you have philosophical concerns before writing a book, look first at how your characters can embody such ideals. Choose them accordingly. Then lay out a series of obstacles that challenge their makeup. When they reach the other side, how did they use your philosophy to get there? That’s what a novel does best.

“For there is in mankind an unfortunate propensity to make themselves, their views and their works, the measure of excellence in every thing whatsoever.”
― Edmund Burke

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine



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