Monday, August 15, 2011

Novels, Weeping, Romance, Catharsis, & The Crucible

It occurred to me tonight, seeing my bloodshot eyes in the mirror after putting down the book I had just finished reading, that I had never seen my husband cry while or after reading a novel. Yet I do it quite regularly. Indeed, it's almost a benchmark for me of a novel's quality, if it moves me to tears.

Of course, this rarely applies when reading poetry or what I would call 'straight' literary fiction. I'm talking largely about genre fiction here, and mainly romance. With poetry, if it's good, I do feel moved emotionally - perhaps 'thrilled' or 'disturbed' would be a better description - and frequently also moved to write something myself. But only a few poems have brought me to tears.

With literary fiction, it's more a sense of having some truth revealed. Not usually a truth which pertains to matters of the heart, but one about human nature in general, the momentary lifting of some veil covering one of the mysteries of life and death. Something important and significant, but not necessarily emotional in quality. The kind of quasi-mystical, revelatory impression one receives from reading almost anything by E.M. Forster, for instance. Or perhaps James Joyce, before he erroneously decided longer was better.

So is it normal to cry after reading a novel? Is it because men don't tend to read romances that we don't associate them with snuffling into tissues as they reach the last page? Or because they go to fiction for other things than that cathartic moment when the Darkest Moment passes and you finally remember that everything is going to be all right, because this is fiction and not reality?

I'm probably asking the wrong questions here. Perhaps the real issue for me is, why is something that can elicit such a powerful emotional and even physical response so often considered second-rate by those who value literary fiction above genre? Or science-fiction above romance? Is it because they only work on the emotional level and don't necessarily uncover the mysteries of existence?

If only they could do both.

This continues to be a problem for me, both as a reader and a writer. With my head, I know that certain kinds of writing touch me deeply but intellectually, and that these are considered by the literary establishment - and often common consent - to be more 'worthy' than the novels which touch me deeply but emotionally. With my heart though, I admit to loving the latter and returning to them more often than the former.

Here's something else though. A few years after quitting a professional sport following an unpleasant and bloody run-in with my governing body, I went to an amateur production of Miller's The Crucible. And I wept openly in the theatre because, at the time, that play spoke to me on such a deep level about betrayal of trust, about the bullying and persecution of individuals by group consent, and about the importance of standing up for one's principles, whatever the cost. Emotion came together with intellect at that moment and metaphorically crushed me, forced me to suffer and remade me, sent me out new and somehow changed - precisely what you would expect to happen in a crucible.

I think of Shakespeare, and the same is true of his great plays. 

So is theatre the only place where both emotion and intellect can be invoked in equal measure? Can film ever have the same effect, or do we need to be there in person, witnessing it live, becoming complicit in the event, for a full and rounded catharsis to occur?

Catharsis. Perhaps if we had more of that, more bread and circuses, and less emotional starvation of the masses, we wouldn't have riots. Does literature ever make a difference? Is 'acting-out' the most effective form of literature we have? Why did I cry and, more importantly, why did I want to and welcome it?

1 comment:

alisonmay said...

I think emotional release can be a really positive thing. I do sometimes cry at books, but very often afterwards I realise that it was 50% crying at the story and 50% release of pent up emotion about other stuff in real life. I also know that there are certain stories that are more likely to push my weeping button - usually stories about bereavements, perhaps that taps into some deep underlying issue in my own psyche.

I'm not sure whether I cry more at genre romance or at more "literary" fiction. To be honest, I've sort of made an executive decision not to think about the distinction in my reading. Just seek out good stuff, regardless of genre or hype. Not sure that works as a writer though - indeed I've been told directly by a publisher that genre matters and that writers need to know exactly where they sit in genre terms. Not having to worry about that is just one of the pleasures of turning writing brain down and focussing on reading!