For the last month or so, I've been reading Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." It's about a whale, you know. Two weeks ago, when I was at about the 150-page mark, I decided that I'd had enough of Mr. Melville and his constant digressions about whaling, sailing, the color white and the nature of the soul. I put the book back on the shelf and read Barry Hughart's "Bridge of Birds," a fine romp of a fantasy novel set in a mythical medieval China. When I finished that book I took down the Melville again to give it another try, and after pressing on through a chapter about god-knows-what, the book is suddenly marvelous. The chapter I read last night was amazing; I was on the edge of my seat with excitement and everything about the writing was perfect. Which got me thinking.
We had a discussion not long ago about when, in the course of reading a book, we decide we don't want to keep reading it. It doesn't grab us, or we hit a dull patch and we say "life is short and there are loads of other books" and we move on to something else. I wonder if that isn't sometimes a mistake. Certainly I am glad I returned to the Melville, and I can think of plenty other books where I felt bogged down in the middle only to press on and find myself delightfully exhilarated in the last 150 pages.
A friend of mine subscribes to an audiobooks listserve. A week or so back, there was a discussion on this list about abridging novels when recording them as audio. A couple of people suggested that it would be easy enough to "cut out all the boring parts" and so not tire the listeners or waste their time with the author's ruminations that are tangential to the story. That's a foolish idea, of course, because what's "boring" to one of us might fascinate the next person. And, you know, when you read an author, you are reading that author's prose, immersed in that author's style and mindset. A good book will reveal that the supposedly boring and meaningless tangents are actually important to the setting or character or theme of the book later on. The bits about whaling and sailing in "Moby Dick" are coming in handy during the dramatic parts, I must admit.
There is also the idea that an author has the right to inform and think aloud, as it were, as well as tell a story. An essay on the nature of cloudwatching in the middle of an adventure tale isn't necessarily a bad thing. Should we eliminate all writing that's not overtly entertaining?
Which gets me, inevitably, to me because my immense ego won't let me talk about anything else, no matter how I try to disguise it. I'm working on revisions right now, and I am sort of streamlining the narrative and either removing or pushing into the background a whole lot of stuff about religious conflict and wars of faith and class structure. While there's no doubt that this streamlining is making the dramatic story stronger and putting the focus very clearly on the characters, I worry that a lot of the ideas that made me want to write this book are getting drained out of it. I worry that, as Davin talked about in his post yesterday, I am letting myself be too strongly guided by some sort of idea about commercial acceptability.
So there's this dilemma. Do we, as writers, tell ourselves that our job is to Stick to the Point in our story telling, or do we allow ourselves some elbow room in our narratives and pause to say, "oh, and by the way, I was thinking that..." to our readers? And do we, as readers, abandon books as soon as the writer strays from the story even if the remains of the book, once we sit through something not quite interesting to us, is absolutely wonderful? Do we risk boring our readers? Do we have the patience to be occasionally bored? What do readers and writers owe each other? What do they owe themselves?