25 July 2022

What’s It All About, Reader?

A couple of posts on DorothyL, the mystery lovers’ e-list, got me thinking the other day. DLers read widely and voraciously, and are a great source of recommendations for both reading and watching that I might otherwise have missed. One topic under discussion on this particular occasion was how certain independently published authors attract a huge following. Someone mentioned an “independently published author with a large fan base” whose "series about ... art crimes consistently gets high ratings and apparently good enough sales to keep [the author] turning them out. I do not find the main character credible but I seem to be in the minority.” A disappointed reader who’d enjoyed a traditionally published author’s previous books commented that they have “written some really good mysteries,” but this book “is less about good character development and in depth stories and more about jumping from one thrill to the next.”

The first thought that sprang to my mind on reading these two comments was, “For me, it’s all about the voice.” And “voice,” while it’s not a new word, not a trendy 21st-century word in the way that “curated” is the new word for “selected” and “canceled” is the new word for “shunned,” is more or less what we used to call “the writing.” Amazon’s algorithms can’t detect voice, which is why they constantly make book recommendations I have no interest in buying for my Kindle. As I said last month, Lois McMaster Bujold takes space opera to the stratosphere of high art, marrying it with political thriller, comedy of manners, and other beautifully nuanced genres. Those algorithms can recommend ordinary space operas until the extragalactic cows come without piquing my interest. It’s not about what the book’s about at all. So slap all the “gripping” and “riveting” you want into the blurb, or worse, these days, the subtitle. When I start to read—for economy’s sake, the free sample if it’s not a known and beloved author—I want the voice to sweep me away.

My second thought was, “I can’t say it’s all about voice without mentioning character development, which is crucial to my enjoyment of a read. As a writer, I use character to convey voice in a variety of forms: dialogue, first person narrative, and more subtly in the third person narrative, ie where “voice” meets “writing.” I put down a book I was reading recently because I realized I was reading dutifully, which is my signal that it’s okay not to finish it. It was a Jewish historical novel, and those are of interest to me, because I write Jewish historical novels and stories myself. It wasn’t exactly in my period (18th century vs my 15th and 16th centuries), but it was about secret Jews still living in Spain (as my Mendoza family did until 1492) who had to flee with the Inquisition at their heels.

It could have been an exciting story. When I asked myself why it wasn’t, I decided the characters weren’t well developed. The wife is young and has a baby. The husband is older. She’s Jewish, he’s not. She puts the family in danger by not buying pork at the market on Friday. (That’s right, how could she not realize how stupid that is, just like the damsel going down the cellar alone without a flashlight or a cell phone when the serial killer’s on the loose.) She feels appropriate emotions: dread, fear, uncertainty, hope, love for her baby, determination to practice her religion, which she learned at her mother’s knee. But who is she as a person? The reader has no idea. The author tells us it’s a love match, and that the husband persisted until she said yes. Why did she fall for an older man? What did he think when he found out she was a secret Jew? We’re told he was okay with it because he loved her—stock emotions for a supportive husband, not character development. They flee to America. They meet a slave-holding relative. The situations are interesting, but somehow, the characters were not, at least to me.

Then I asked myself whether as a writer, I’ve done better at making my Jewish historical characters true individuals. Let’s take a look.

We first meet Rachel Mendoza in my novel, Voyage of Strangers, in 1493, escaping from the stuffy convent school where she’s been hidden. She plans to seek out her brother Diego, who is at King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s Court, having just returned with Columbus from the voyage of discovery. The first line from her point of view is in close third person narrative:

How hard could it be to be a boy?

After various adventures, Rachel finds herself in enough danger that Diego is forced to abet her escape from the guardianship of their strict converso aunt, temporarily abandoning his post guarding the half dozen Taino Columbus has brought from the Caribbean along with gold and brightly colored parrots to show the King and Queen. Diego says:

“I must contrive to leave the Taino in good hands. I don’t want them to suffer because of my absence. I believe my friend Fernando will be willing to take my place. He doesn’t care for the Indians as I do, but he has a good heart.”

I glanced over at the Taino, who still slumbered in their poppy-induced stupor. “You can’t imagine how robust and comely they were,” I said, “when we first came upon them.”

“Perhaps,” Rachel said, “being slaves in Spain doesn’t agree with them.”

1 comment:

  1. She puts the family in danger by "not buying pork on Friday" which somehow exposes her as Jewish in a Catholic country? Huh? Catholics didn't eat meat on Fridays during that time period (and still don't during Lent), and there was no refrigeration so one would be buying meat on Friday. I'd have had trouble with the book right there.
    I do see your point though, if the characters are flat, the book is flat.


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