Monday, October 01, 2007

Aboutness

No, it’s not a word. It’s a concept developed by our Monday night writers group to describe a certain kind of book’s appeal. Probably the best way to explain it is to talk about the novel I’ve just finished reading.

Since I’m still luxuriating in my recent delayed discovery of Martin Cruz Smith, that book was WOLVES EAT DOGS. In this installment of the trials and tribulations of Moscow investigator Arkady Renko, Arkady ends up in the Ukraine—in Chernobyl, to be exact.

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t read or heard much about Chernobyl since the big bang. So one of the (many) aspects of reading the novel that made it so enjoyable was the incredible wealth of information I acquired in the process. Chernobyl today is a strange, frightening place, and it was fascinating reading about it. This background—life in the area around Chernobyl after the accident and all the implications that has for a future many others will doubtless someday face—gave the book “aboutness.” So in addition to experiencing a great novel, I also learned about something that interested me.

This is a tendency surveys have disclosed before: readers like to feel they’re learning something from the fiction they read or the movies they watch. THE GODFATHER helps us to understand the Mafia, SHOGUN teaches us about ancient Japan, Clancy thrillers tell us everything we could want to know about modern weapons technology and techniques, THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA gives us an inside peak at the fashion industry.

The trick to “aboutness” is finding something that interests readers/viewers and then making them think you know what you’re talking about even if you don’t. It isn’t enough to take readers someplace they haven’t been before—it has to be someplace they want to go. Americans in the Cold War wanted to learn about life in Moscow, hence the huge (and well-deserved) success of GORKY PARK. Were readers as eager to learn about life on a floating arctic fish factory? Probably not. I personally found POLAR STAR an even better book than GORKY PARK, but PS never touched GP’s sales.

Of course, all too often what we “learn” is wrong. Martin Cruz Smith is fanatical about his research, which is why his books take so long to write. Others are considerably more careless. The infamous DVC, while touted far and wide as an “intelligent” book, made so many mistakes about everything from art to history that I was laughing by about the third chapter. And since I’d already read HOLY BLOOD, HOLY GRAIL and JESUS THE MAN, that theory was yesterday’s news and I could see exactly where the story was going. The “aboutness” didn’t work for me. But boy did it work for millions upon millions of other people around the world. Likewise, I quit reading Patricia Cornwell when, in the space of about twenty pages, she called Iranians Arabs and introduced a Navy general. If she made such simple, careless errors, how could I trust anything she said about forensics? After all, it wasn’t even her field. But again, her sales figures tell us that most readers are more trusting.

Where am I going with all this? No place, really. It’s just a useful concept to keep in mind when the stray wisps of a book idea start forming in our minds. If you can take your readers someplace they want to go, teach them something they want to know, give them a glimpse at a way of life that is normally hidden from them—in other words, give your book Aboutness—you will only up its appeal.

9 comments:

Angie said...

I like books like that too. Authenticity based on direct knowledge or research is great, but a well done fake can be just as satisfying, especially if I don't know a lot about the subject myself. But the feeling that the writer went to the trouble of coming up with that wealth of detail, whether researched or invented, and then wove it into the story with enough skill that it feels seamless, adds a lot to the reading experience.

Then of course, there's the writer who's not quite so skilled at it, who seems to be saying "I spent three years looking all this stuff up and by God you're going to see every bit of it 'cause I refuse to waste any!" Missing the point, there, unfortunately.

I remember a Regency romance I read back when, where a group of characters was travelling through the countryside and one of them had a guide book. She read out of the guide book to her fellow travellers (and the reader) informing them about the landscape, villages and buildings they passed -- descriptions and history and architecture and whatever all else. It wouldn't have been a problem if the information had been at all relevant to the story, but they never even stopped; they just drove on through and the actual story picked up once more at their destination. [facepalm] How Not to Use Your Reasearch. :P

That book definitely did not have "aboutness." [wry smile] Great word, by the way!

Angie

Sherry Smyth said...

"Aboutness" is a great word and a fascinating concept.

I just found your blog which I have enjoyed reading through...as much as I enjoy your Sebastian St. Cyr books. I hadn't realized that this was you until I went up to read about you at the top of the blog! This is a character I completely enjoy and read from cover to cover as quickly as I can. Thanks for thinking him up!!

Lisa said...

I completely agree and read all the books you mentioned up front that "have it". Even books with bizarre, non-technical "aboutness" fascinate me. I loved perfume and I'm sure I'd love a book where cheese making was discussed in depth. I loved the details about artists making pigments for oil paints in The Girl With the Pearl Earring. I suppose it explains why fiction based on everyday suburban living is always a hard sell -- unless the main character is building a nuclear weapon in the house at the end of the cul-de-sac ;)

Payton L. Inkletter said...

Thank you for your excellent observations and advice regarding that 'aboutness' quality, Candice.

And what a great plug Sherry just gave you for your 'Sebastian St. Cyr' books.

cs harris said...

Good point, Angie; it does need to be done well! Sherry, thanks for stopping by, and I'm so glad to hear you like Sebastian! And Lisa, I suspect you're right about the suburbs.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'm glad you posted on this because I'm still not completely clear on Aboutness even though we've talked about it in the group. Sometimes I think I much prefer books with zero aboutness. I liked "Gorky Park" but didn't read it until many years after the USSR had fallen. I would never have read DVC if my son hadn't bought a copy and gave it to me. I have yet to read a single book about terrorism.

My latest reads include a story set in East Texas in the 1940s, although it did have some points about racism to make. Other than that I finished a couple of post-apocolyptic adventure novels and an old Andre Norton space adventure.

Sherry Smyth said...

Lisa, your comment about the pigments in "Girl..." jumped out at me. A great image and very much an "aboutness".

Sherry Smyth said...

Happy to give the "plug" about Sebastian St. Cyr. A character I find very appealing and believable. New one coming, I know that..hope there are more!

Steve Malley said...

Great post.

I just wanted to say I'm not dead, only writing...

Cheers