Is a good novel all about how it makes the reader feel?
When reading a self-help book about writing professionally for Kindle, I came across an interesting piece of advice. The author pointed out that whatever the genre, fiction or non-fiction, what was crucial to a book’s success, was the way it made people feel.
Now, this might seem obvious. Nobody would want to absorb themselves in a piece of work that made them feel bad, would they? Surely it was just a truism and didn’t need to be said.
But the more I thought about it, the more complex the concept appeared to be. I’m certain the advice is correct, but the difficulties arise when we try to analyse the nature of the feelings that we as writers may wish to provoke.
As human beings, we are a complicated bunch. Some of us enjoy being exhilarated or even terrified by a book. Whereas others seek escapism and comfort. With this in mind, it is worth considering the genre in which you are writing. For me, this is crime fiction, and even within this category I don’t believe that all readers are looking for the same thing out of the books they consume.
In my case, I enjoy a puzzle. I gain great satisfaction from a clever and well spun plot. If there are holes in the storyline then it absolutely spoils it as far as I am concerned. I simply can’t overlook the mistake. I like tension and suspense, but not horror or graphically detailed violence. I prefer this aspect to be left to the imagination. Too much violence and I no longer feel good, the experience is ruined. Sometimes, it is the characters that make me feel good. I come to know them and what makes them tick. I want to share their highs and lows and am desperate to discover what happens to them next, whether I like them or not.
I know the self-help book author was trying to be constructive with his advice, but in reality, he has introduced an insoluble conundrum for me. You cannot hope as a writer to deliberately evoke a certain set of emotions from a reader. Where on earth would you start? The only thing we can do is to write the stories that make us feel good. If a book doesn’t enrich the author’s life in some way then frankly, why should we inflict it on others? Our novel may make us cry bitterly with grief in places, but by the end of it you should be able to create a sense of hope and optimism.
I’ve read plenty of novels that left me feeling bad; whether it was disgust, anger or inadequacy, it amounted to a negative experience, which reading should never be. So the advice was sound, but I may just spend the rest of my writing career trying to work out what to do with it.