Don’t forget to include a plot …

Last night, we watched To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) – Restored Anniversary Edition on Blu-ray. I bought it a while ago and we’ve been planning to watch it, but we just hadn’t gotten around to it. Last night, we settled in and remembered why it’s such a great movie, such a wonderful story. It is close to the top of our favorite movie list for a bunch of reasons. The brilliant acting, the story. Gregory Peck in his defining role, a role he chose for himself because in many way, he was Atticus Finch.

This is one of those rare movies where the pieces fit, the story flows. It never hits a false note. It takes its time. It’s about justice and injustice, racism, the legal system. It’s also about family and love, relationships, coming of age and learning the world is a bigger, better and worse place than you imagined.

Front CoverCoincidentally, my granddaughter has been assigned by her high school’s freshman English teacher to read the book. She thinks it’s boring, and although I don’t agree with her, I understand that her world is very far removed from the world of Mockingbirdso far that she can’t relate to it. She’s coming into adulthood in a world where the President is black, where very white grandma is married to a brown man, her brother is engaged to a woman of color and moreover, no one thinks there’s anything odd about any of this.

She’s the generation in which everything has been instant. You don’t have to read to research. You just Google it. There’s no time for books that move slowly in a less hurried world. Harper Lee wrote about a world without cell phones or email. People walked as often as they drove, maybe more. Food grows as often in a garden, as a grocery. The world was segregated and sharply separated by class, religion, ethnicity. Compared to the world in Mockingbird, our sleepy little town is a metropolitan hub. KK cannot relate to that world and has no patience to discover it.

I understand why she feels the way she does, but I wish it were different.

At the same time, I’m involved in a project that requires I read 27 books that are considered among the best fiction of 2012. I’m not sure on what basis these choices are made, what the criteria are. The books are all fiction, but genres vary from historical mystery to science fiction, to feel-good Hallmark Channel romance. Most, however, are detailed descriptions of miserable people living wretched lives while treating each other badly. Out of 27 books, I have so far slogged my way through 20 of them. I’m becoming alarmed. If this is the best of American fiction, what’s the worst?

All the books in this group that would be considered “serious literature.” The stories don’t seem to contain any special meaning or any lessons. Nothing much happens except that everyone is unhappy and as the book goes on, they all become even unhappier.

The books are written well, if by “well” you mean good grammar and properly constructed sentences. They offer slices of lives we are glad we don’t live. They lack plots, action, or any reason I — or you — would want to read them. The authors appear to be trying to do what Harper Lee did … recreate a world, a time, a place. But Harper Lee also had a story to tell. Things happened, actual events occurred. There were bad people, but good people, too. The story includes ugliness, but also characters worthy of admiration. Atticus Finch is a great man, a fighter for truth and justice. The world is a better place because he is in it.to-kill-a-mockingbird2_9855

But these new authors don’t get it. They have forgotten a book is more than description. It needs to tell a story, to involve readers, to draw them in. If my granddaughter is finding To Kill A Mockingbird dull, it’s hard to imagine her enjoying any of these new books. They may describe a world she recognizes, but they are unlikely to lure her into wanting to partake of them.

It’s no wonder that the fastest growing segments of fiction are fantasy, mysteries, thrillers and so on. We have lost touch with the entertainment function of serious literature. If a book makes us think, teaches us, provides moral guidance, delves into serious issues, it should also make us laugh and cry, take us out of our ordinary lives. The magic of any good book is that it lets us become part of other lives and see the world through their eyes.

Call me old-fashioned, but I have my standards. I don’t read books that don’t meet them.

First and foremost, I want a story. I want a plot I can follow and I want something to happen. I don’t want to just hear what people are thinking. I want them to also do something. I want to meet characters who develop and grow. I can cope with bad guys, but I need heroes too. I am glad to learn, I’m glad to be enlightened, but I also want to be absorbed and entertained. Otherwise, it isn’t a novel: it’s a textbook or maybe a sermon.

I bet there are great authors out there writing terrific books who can’t get them published. For anyone who has tried to get a book published … or even read … you know what a battle it is. Manuscripts are submitted electronically and screened  by software looking for keywords. If you can’t write a proposal containing the right words, your manuscript will never be read by a human being. Using software to judge literature is probably why so many of these books are so dreadful. Human beings should judge literature, not computers. Computers don’t read books. People read books.

Faulkner, Wolfe, Hemingway … or for that matter, Harper Lee … none of them would get their books read much less published today. Unless we want all our literature to consist of science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, and mysteries — if we want any other kind of literature worth reading — it’s time to take a few chances and publish books that people will enjoy. I love science fiction and fantasy, but I grew up reading all kinds of books. I miss books that take place on this planet, in this world, in my lifetime and don’t necessarily involve magic, time travel, cops, serial killers, courts, vampires, or terrorists. Surely there are stories about our world worth publishing.

Publish more interesting books and I bet we’ll have more interested readers.

4 thoughts on “Don’t forget to include a plot …

  1. Writing and then getting that first book .. that first really GOOD book…published seems to me like scaling Mt. Everest. I’m awed by those who succeed. So, when well-meaning folks suggest I write “my book”, I just nod and smile. As for “To Kill A Mockingbird”, I read the book first, then saw the movie in first run. Both memorable experiences. And, it’s the same emotional experience with each subsequent viewing. It’s timeless and, yes, I can relate to Tom Robinson’s tragic dilemma. I interviewed Gregory Peck in 1963. It was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my professional life. In the span of two days last week, we saw Spielberg’s “Lincoln” in a rare theatre outing for us, and then watched “Mockingbird” in its pristine 50th anniversary edition. Reminds me of why I love movies!!

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    • And reminds me of how few good books get published … and wondering how many great ones are gathering dust somewhere because the author can’t find anyone to so much as read it.

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  2. When reading your post, I was reminded of J.K. Rowling and how it took about nine publishers until somebody finally agreed to publish her first Harry Potter book. I think you’re right; books need to appeal to people first of all.

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    • Nine is nothing! James Lee Burke spent ten years trying to get his first book published. Now, he’s really popular, famous, etc., but he believes he holds the world record for rejections of a manuscript. It makes you wonder how many really good authors never even get read by an editor. I never did. I submitted Lord knows how many times and it never was read. I’m not exactly Faulkner … but I wasn’t rejected for not being good enough. I was rejected for not writing a good enough proposal letter. Forget about the quality of the book: it’s the proposal that counts!

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