Tuesday, January 23, 2007
You don't have to like it
Now, I'm not saying this as a grumble, but as a genuine question. Obviously I ran into this because I read too many of my own reviews, so it's entirely my fault, but in the process, I think I've hit a deeply embedded habit of thought among a fair proportion of readers, and it's, well, strange.
The question is this: why do some readers assume that a world that doesn't get destroyed by the end of a book, or a character that doesn't get punished, must be a world or character you're supposed to like? Why, in fact, is presenting something straight seen as endorsing it?
I ran into it with my book, you see. Not with you guys, because you're much too clever. (Either that or you're reading my blog and you still haven't read my book. A gypsy's curse will be arriving to those people via e-mail shortly; the only way to avert it will be to buy at least one copy and read it immediately. Otherwise, things will happen to you. You know who you are.) My heroine lives in a world that's badly run. Its institutions are unfair to just about everybody; society is divided in a lose-lose schism, and it doesn't even work that efficiently. Having grown up in this mess, my heroine is something of a mess herself. She's not a particularly nice person: she's self-righteous, emotionally unstable, complains a lot and not infrequently treats people badly. The narrative is first-person, so what we hear are her thought processes, but if you look at what she actually does, you can see where those thought processes are unreasonable. She's an unreliable narrator, living in a dystopia.
Yet a lot of people assume that they're supposed to like her. Or that the world is presented as a reasonable way to run society. I wondered why for a while, and I've come to a conclusion: my narrator doesn't rise up and smash the state at the end of the story.
If you want to be absolutely sure that you're not saying a society is good, apparently, you can't just depict a society and its citizens and let the readers come to their own conclusions about it all. You have to have someone destroy it at the end. Alternatively, it has to destroy your protagonist, a la 1984 or Brazil.
Of the two, I prefer the latter alternative, because the fact is, one person never smashes a state. Sometimes you have revolutions, but often you don't. A bad society is incredibly hard to dislodge; that's in its nature. After all, if it wasn't entrenched, nobody would put up with it being bad. Maoism and Stalinism carried on until the dictators died. The same is true on a smaller, less fatal scale, as anyone who's travelled on the London Underground will be aware. It's a lousy system. The service never improves, it's dirty, noisy, crowded, uncomfortable, and it breaks down every single day. Yet every year, the price goes up - and we pay it, because they have a monopoly on fast transport around the capital. Thinking of an alternative is difficult, and would take more money, invention and freedom to be late for work than most people have. Or, when it comes to dislodging a dictator, it would take more money, weapons, manpower and willingness to risk being tortured to death than most people have. Or even, if you're trying to change a bad democracy, more money, powerful friends and talent for being convincing than most people have. If something is bad, and has been for a while, it carries a lot of momentum with it. I mean, for heaven's sake, America re-elected Bush.
Hence, it's far more likely that the state will break you than that you'll break the state. And that's another way of proving a state to be bad: get the readers fond of a character, then put him through the grinder. Sorrow at the fate of the hero leads to anger at the society that destroyed him.
But what if the society isn't outright evil? What if it's just deeply flawed? There are, after all, more ways of breaking a citizen than killing them. Bareback, put simply, is a book about someone who's already broken. Not dead, not insane, but with an ingrained bad attitude and sense of despair that wouldn't have existed in a healthier world; low-key broken, in a way that happened well before the story began. I aimed, not to tell the story of a society and its changes, but to peek under the lid of a society that was going to go on regardless, because that was in its nature, and look at the effect it had on the people who lived in it, and how you carry on living after society's done its work on you.
This, by the lights of some readers, is tantamount to endorsing said society. It's very odd. What's going on, I wonder?
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