Sunday, May 27, 2007

Talking About Books

The most recent issue of The Horn Book includes Roger Sutton's Gryphon Lecture, Problems, Paperbacks, and the Printz: Forty Years of YA Books. In it he describes talking about books when he was a teenager. "As mid-adolescents, my freinds and I wanted to grapple with big issues...I don't think I've ever again discussed books with such freedom and passion and unselfconsciousness..."

When I was a teenager, I got into an argument with someone over I Never Promised You A Rose Garden. I insisted it wasn't a true story because it was shelved with the fiction. If you follow this blog at all, you know I like things to be categorized and defined, and this story proves that that desire goes way, way back.

That Rose Garden argument is the only nonclassroom literary discussion I can remember having during my entire teenage years. Reading was something I did totally in isolation. I wasn't even aware of many other people reading. I figured they were all out dating.

So imagine my delight now that there are young people in my own family who read and like to talk about it.

BDT, of course, reads children's fiction and we discuss books we've read by e-mail. But we have another young man in the family who reads and, I swear, calls me up to talk about it. He becomes absolutely passionate about what he's read. Of course, what he reads is nonfiction relating to economics and business. The last call was to discuss an article on subprime lenders, a topic I barely knew existed. It's a little difficult for me to hold my own in these discussions, but it's exciting to hear his excitment. Well, he says it's not excitment, that what he reads often just makes him mad. But he is engaged. He reads and responds. To me, this is what you want to see readers doing.

And then there is The Third Man. The Third Man almost always disagrees with me when we (rarely) happen to have read the same work. Unfortunately, he also almost always has a good reason.

For example, somehow we got into a discussion of footnotes in fiction. I know The Third Man dislikes them, which is why I've given my Bartimeus books to BDT instead of him. Bartimeus uses marvelously witty footnotes.

But The Third Man says that footnotes are a nonfiction device. They don't belong in fiction. In fiction, you do the same thing with parenthetical devices--parentheses, for example, or dashes.

I thought, Okay. That's a good point. But being older and more flexible, I'm willing to see, and even enjoy seeing, "devices" jump from one type of writing to another.

And then The Third Man went on.

He said that people don't think in footnotes. If you have a piece of fiction that is written as if it is a nonfiction report (Oh, that would be interesting, wouldn't it?), then footnotes would be appropriate. But with a piece of fiction the reader is supposed to enter a mind or a world, is supposed to be immersed in that world to such an extent that he's not aware that this created world is any different from the one he really inhabits. And every time a footnote appears, the illusion that you are part of this book world is destroyed because that's not how a first-person narrator (who isn't aware he is writing a book) would think. Same with most true third-person narrators.

I always thought that if I ever had people to talk books with regularly they would always agree with me. Great minds meeting and all that. But when The Third Man explained his footnote argument, I wasn't disappointed. I was proud. Because, damn, that was a good one.


Kelly said...

I actually don't agree with the Third Man...not to complicate matters. I regularly think in footnotes. In fact, when I finally discovered them, I thought FINALLY--a way to express how I talk.

Now I've been writing fiction without them, 'cause my writing groups object, but I wish others thought in footnotes too.

Michele said...

Fiction footnoters of the world unite !! :-D

Kelly, I also think in footnotes - but I thought it was just me so I'm relieved to hear it's not just me (I'm strange enough as it is !) I also haven't used footnotes in my fiction - so far - but who knows whether they'll pop up in my projected Non-Who tale ?!

Terry Pratchett's been using footnotes in his Discworld novels for years, so to me footnotes in fiction are not only normal, but very often very, very funny...

Roger Sutton said...

There's a lot of fourth-wall-breaking going on in children's books these days, footnotes and other excursions from the story that remind readers they're reading a book. It's getting a little tic-like, and they sometimes seem more displays of an author's ego ("I'm here! I'm still here!") than actually a service to the story and/or reader.

Gail Gauthier said...

When the Third Man brought up his second footnote objection, I immediately thought of breaking the fourth wall. It's something I definitely dislike in film (I don't mind narrators, just characters who suddenly look at me and start addressing me directly), and now that I've started thinking about it, I am surprised that as a general rule I've enjoyed footnotes. Probably because to date I've usually seen them in humor books, and I may be willing to make a lot of concessions if something is funny.

Kate said...

I don't agree with either of the Third Man's arguments. Non-fiction forms and devices can add valuable elements to fiction precisely because it rattles our expectations -- just as seeing someone from work cavorting at the beach adds to our understanding of them. For example, in Welcome to the Ark, Stephanie Tolan uses patient intake charts and similar documents to further character development in really engaging ways.

And I'm with Kelly and Michele, I think in footnotes all the time. Just ask my family -- it irritates them to no end when I change topic mid-sentence.

That being said, I also agree with Mr. Sutton -- if not done well, these things can easily become an irritating distraction.