is the title of an interesting article Auntie M read recently in the Wall St. Journal. It was an essay written by one of my favorite authors, Alexander McCall Smith of the 44 Scotland St series and the Sunday Philosophy Club series, plus two others. (His No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency is currently being shown on HBO with Anthony Mingella directing Jill Scott as the protagonist. Too bad I don’t get HBO–it sounds delightful.)
He described the circumstance of finding himself in Australia at a book signing, and running into a ‘fan’ who thought he’d erred in having one of his main characters become involved with (and have a child with) a man 14 years her junior. Here’s an excerpt:
I defended Isabel’s choice. “Why shouldn’t they be together?”
The answer came quickly. “Because it’s not going to go anywhere.”
“But I thought it was going rather well,” I protested.
Again my reader lost no time in replying. “No, it isn’t,” she said emphatically.
That was my put in my place. After all, I was merely the author.
Nonplussed, McCall Smith has pondered on this issue of the novelist’s freedom–and responsibility–and he concludes that the real world is not quite as separate from the fictional world as he’d originally thought when it comes to reader expectations.
Auden is one of the critics who noticed this pattern of reader expectations, which is one writers of crime or mystery fiction have long understood. After a peaceful beginning, the peace is shattered by an event, usually a crime or murder, which leads to a search for the evildoer. His apprehension and punishment provide a return to peace. Auden noted the reader needs to see a moral balance restored.
This view is also held by my favorite crime writer, P D James, who feel the traditional detective novel “reassures us that we live in a moral universe” where the detective is the agent of justice. She suggests that in this respect the detective novel replaces the old-fashioned morality play.
So why is the writer of mysteries or detective fiction, as I am, pressured to deal out justice to the bad guys? It goes beyond the conventions of the genre to a point where Mc Call says: “. . . fiction is in some sense real, and that what happens to fictional people is, in a curious way, happening in the real world.” It takes a special writer to NOT have the bad guy apprehended and still maintain an audience. (McCall Smith mentions Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley as one who gets away with murder and continued to be read.)
There is no question that when I am writing, I am hoping my reader will suspend his disbelief and enter the world I create and treat it as real. I spend a lot of time creating a fictional world that exists within the boundaries of reality so that it will be recognizable to my readers. But if I create a character who is a murderer and say, also happens to be a lesbian, does that mean I feel lesbians are more capable of murder than others? Absolutely not. As matter of history, in the first draft of the particular novel where that happens, the murderer was someone else entirely! It was during revision that I realized a different character had a much better, and more interesting, motive to be behind the evil acts.
I do go along with the idea of wanting justice restored. I am known to hate unfairness of any kind. I am a Libra, after all, and the scales of justice should be equally aligned for me to be happy. I just don’t want to meet a reader who objects to a particular viewpoint I give to a character, assuming that to be my own personal belief.
I will have to protest firmly, as McCall Smith suggests: “Remember, it’s just a story.”