Why We Read: To Be Convinced

About a dozen years ago, Anthony Doerr went to Rome on a prestigious fellowship to the American Academy. He and his wife packed their six-month-old twin boys to spend a year in the Eternal City. (He received news of the fellowship the day they got home from the hospital!) He had been given the gift every writer dreams of: time. He would be able to devote himself to writing whatever he wanted, no strings attached. His main project was an epic WWII novel with alternating characters: a blind Parisian girl fleeing the Nazi occupation and a German boy whose knack for radio electronics brought him the attention of the Hitler Youth.

Doerr would eventually finish that novel and win the Pulitzer Prize. But that lay years into the future. For now, he was in Italy and recording his thoughts into a memoir called Four Seasons in RomeNote: if you loved the descriptions in All the Light We Cannot See, this book will delight you. I mean, it’s ROME!

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But…it’s also Rome. It’s difficult to convince me that there is something new to uncover. People have been writing about Rome since the Etruscans. How will I not be pummeled with meaningless adjectives and cliches I’ve read a thousand times? How will I not drown in melodrama?

The answer, I’ve come to realize, is that the writer has to change my relationship to the subject in a surprising and convincing way. To do this, she first has to develop a unique relationship to the subject herself. I think Doerr often does a terrific job with this. Rome is, he writes, “an iceberg floating beneath our terrace, all its ballast hidden beneath the surface.”

The next step is to select the right details and put them into the right places in the story. Easier said than done, I know. Later in Four Seasons in Rome, Doerr writes:

Every story seeks, in Emerson’s words, the invisible and imponderable: faith, loss, emotional contact. But to get there, oddly enough, the storyteller must use the visible, the physical, the eminently tangible. The reader, first and foremost, must be convinced.

And details, the right details in the right places are what do the convincing…These details are carefully chosen. They are there to reinforce majesty, divinity, to ensure us that what is said to be happening actually is happening.

[The writer] hunts down the most vivid details and links them in sequences that will let her reader see, smell, and hear a world that seems complete in itself. She builds a stage set and painstakingly hides the struts and wires and nail holes. Then she stands back and hopes that whoever might come to see it will believe.

I come to a novel, short story, memoir or essay because I want to be surprised and convinced. I’m ready to give the writer every benefit of the doubt, so I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. In other words, I’m hoping to make a new discovery, even about a place, a time, an event I know. And, let’s face it, in this Internet age, knowing is a few mouse clicks away. Every story has been told. How can the writer make something commonplace new again? That’s the promise of what lies beneath the cover of every book.

As a reader, what surprises and convinces you?

Have a great weekend, everyone!   

 

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23 comments

  1. “The answer, I’ve come to realize, is that the writer has to change my relationship to the subject in a surprising and convincing way. To do this, she first has to develop a unique relationship to the subject herself.” THAT is good writing advice and gave me something to think about as I work on a few essays.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your comments today made me stop and think about why I love any particular book. I think for me it is the unexpected pull to identify with a character and feel that that character is sitting at my kitchen table with me sharing a cup of tea. If the author can make me feel that close to a character in their story then they have succeeded. Thanks for a thought provoking post.

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  3. Yes, Jackie, I suspect most readers stay with a book or flip the page because they are impacted in a unique and permanent way. As you said, “every story has been told,” but for me, when a writer offers beautiful language, a complicated twist or a breathtaking truth, my compass moves in a direction I didn’t anticipate. That’s the joy in reading.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I love that, Rudri. When I think about my favorite stories, I think about all of those connections that take me in a new direction — something unanticipated but convincing nonetheless. Have a lovely weekend!

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  4. Great post and questions, Jackie. I love that shock when a character says or perceives something that I believed was unique to me or maybe it was something I thought or believed was true and finally someone is acknowledging it. This French word describes it perfectly–frisson–a shiver of recognition, a thrill. It can be a shiver of truth, or a shiver of connection or communication between the reader and writer. It’s something I live for–both as a reader and writer.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I want the characters to be so real I’m sad to let them go. I want an unexpected twist here and there. I want to learn something new, and often.

    Doerr’s book about Rome has been on the pile since I read All the Light We Cannot See. Looking forward to it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really enjoyed Four Seasons in Rome, even more than I anticipated. The beginning is the expected “fish out of water” set-up, but he quickly moves on to a charming and often thought-provoking experience.

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  6. I love when the language is so beautiful that you forget you are even reading. When The writer completely immerses you in their sorry– such a wonderful ride. I didn’t read All The Light… But your quotes from him, intrigue me to read Four Seasons in Rome.

    PS. I’m going to The Strand tomorrow..very excited. Maybe I’ll find it there!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I like to be convinced by what I’m reading; once that conviction is broken, the spell of reading is also broken for me and I’m done! If I don’t believe in the story, it doesn’t matter how beautiful the language is or what surprises the plot has in store.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What you’re describing reminds me of what Anthony Doerr wrote about the author building a stage set. All of the supports and beams and curtains have to be hidden properly so the reader can be convinced the story is real. I thought that was a great analogy.
      Hope you had a nice weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Dude you are eye-opening to today my friend.

    ” … the writer has to change my relationship to the subject in a surprising and convincing way.”

    I was like … whoa! Right on. Way deep and exactly what I was thinking when it comes to subject matter that’s been covered often. I need a twist, a new take, something different or something that just draws me in.

    Characters are something that do it for me, love me some characters.

    Good post my friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I want to be both entertained and informed (as you say, surprised and convinced). I lean nerdy, so I find writing that only entertains to be a waste of time. That’s why I don’t read pulp fiction and prefer mostly nonfiction. When I read fiction, I prefer settings or characters that will take me someplace new or teach me something. My wife, on the other hand, tackles serious books but alternates them with mysteries. Every reader’s tastes will be somewhat different I suppose. For me I want the opportunity to learn something new and interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Like your wife, I find myself alternating between fiction and nonfiction. I’ll go through a series of one genre and then switch it up to a different genre.

      I’m always learning! 🙂

      Like

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