Making art isn’t an exact science. So much is down to happenstance and luck, and I always admire authors who attribute their success to a strange marriage of dull slog and serendipity.
I recently read what was, in my eyes, a near perfect novel, but during a conversation with another reader, she pointed out some parts of the story that just didn’t ring true; things that, for her, made the rest of the story difficult to believe. I was surprised, because I had noticed those minor loop-holes too, but chose to ignore them for the sake of the story. The story just worked better if I chose to believe the author rather than question her. Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies is a cliche for a reason! I suppose we all read books differently, but for me, I am saying yes to an unspoken contract as soon as I open the cover: tell me a good story and I will believe.
Even though the reader had a completely valid point, it niggled at me. As a fiction writer, there are many times when you ask your reader to suspend their belief, in order to make the story work. But, are readers willing to do this? It goes without saying we have to ground our stories in reality and make our characters believable, but don’t we also have a bit of artistic license? As readers, are we expecting a perfection that doesn’t exist?
Just to be clear, I’m talking about minor infractions here, not great big bloody plot holes that push the entire story beyond credibility. Such questions are valid, but in this case, it caused merely a moment’s wondering. FYI, the novel was Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and the issue was her supposed ignorance of most modern cultural references. I also questioned if this was possible, but chose to believe that it was. Either way, this is a story. It’s not meant to be real. The writer is trying to create an atmosphere, not a documentary. You’ve got to allow for some artistic license when it comes to the business of show, or else, what are we all doing here? Do writers really set out to write the perfect book, or is the pursuit of creating something greater than we can ever deliver, the art in itself? Critics might expect perfection, but we, as storytellers are more focused on telling a good story.
And what is art for anyway? Why do writers want to express themselves through stories and why do readers love hearing them? I think Matthew Arnold, Professor of Poetry at Oxford (Culture and Anarchy) expressed it perfectly when he said that all great artists possess ‘the noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it‘. I love this quote, because I think everyone who picks up a pen/brush/instrument wants to make something good, something true. We want to add our voice to the collective narrative, our unique take on life, our desires, our hopes and our fears. It might not be perfect, but it’s ours and no-one else can tell our story in quite the same way. If a book speaks to you, makes you think and makes you feel, then that is the perfect book. For you. Regardless of what the critics say.