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Tears As A Guide To Literature

 

I thank Dr. Moore [2], the new head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, for his generous remark.

I continue to be surprised by the intense emotional reaction Little Way [3] evokes from readers. At a dinner I went to last night, a woman told me that a friend of hers in Alabama read the book on a car trip, and sobbed for hours. Every couple of days, I get an e-mail from someone who said they read it on a plane, and cried so hard people around them stared.

That’s hardly a recommendation for a book! But they mean these comments as praise. Nobody complains that it’s an emotionally intense book; in fact, they all say how much it means to them to have read a book that was so important, affecting, and memorable. A friend from my own town told me someone here read the book, and commented, “I didn’t know this was my own town.” In other words, the reader didn’t realize until she read Little Way that so many things that meant the world were going on here in her own village. I love that comment, because it encapsulates one of the main themes of the book: that we so often overlook the goodness and the greatness in ordinary life, and the opportunity all of us have to participate in it. Everybody who reads this book, whether they live in a tiny town, in a suburb, or a big city, has the same opportunities open to them. I hope Little Way opens their eyes.

I heard also last night that at a medical school graduation last week, they read from a Little Way passage about Dr. Tim Lindsey, Ruthie’s amazing hometown physician, and his philosophy of being a doctor in a small town. It pleases me to think that new doctors are learning from Tim’s example.

At the dinner, a couple of people said the thing they hear from their friends who have read Little Way is an appreciation for how “raw” it is, and for how I didn’t sugar-coat anything for the sake of a sentimental happy ending. This accounts for the emotional intensity the book brings about in its readers. The thing is, I would figure normally that this kind of thing would be good for sales, because it signals to people that this book will take them to an unusual place, though a beautiful one. On the other hand, maybe it’s not good for sales, because most readers want something narcotic. I don’t know.

What do you think? If you’ve read Little Way, do you think its rawness and emotional intensity help or hurt the book? More generally, do you think emotional intensity, period, helps or hurts books. I would think it would help, but then, when I consider whether or not to invest my time into a book or movie, its reputation as a tearjerker puts me off. It’s not that I mind stories that engage my emotions, even to the point of weeping, but that if I’m going to take the risk of going to that place, of involving myself emotionally in the lives of its characters, I want to feel like I’m going to get something deeper out of it philosophically, beyond stirred emotions. You?

Little Way does that, I believe, because it raises profound questions about place, family, faith, and what it means to lead a good life, and embeds them in the lives of real people, and actual events. Your mileage may vary.

When are tears a guide to worthwhile reading, and when are they a signal that the work in question is sentimental dreck? Serious question, readers.

20 Comments (Open | Close)

20 Comments To "Tears As A Guide To Literature"

#1 Comment By Pete S On July 8, 2013 @ 2:44 pm

I found the book very challenging – in many ways it reflected similar events in my own life. I cannot say I cried, as that is not my way, but I certainly felt connected to the book and considered it a very rewarding read.

I think there are two answers to your questions Rod. The emotional intensity and rawness definitely help the book, in terms of the quality of the writing. At the same time these characteristics may hurt sales. People who have been reading your columns and blog for a while, and who knew somewhat the content of the book, may have been overwhelmed when they started reading of the very intense reactions some readers were having.

This may not be what an author wants to hear, but there is a very real chance that you could have put out a worse book which would then get more commercial success.

#2 Comment By anne quinn On July 8, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

Rod, your book reminds me very much of Alice Taylor’s books about rural Ireland in the 1940’s and the close-knit community that has been nourished there for generations.

This book was special to me, because even though I am a native Californian, my mother’s family is from the South (her mamma hailed from Claiborne Parish, LA) and the older I get, the more I identify as a Southerner and wished I had the opportunity to raise my kids there. Someone once said that the South isn’t just a different part of the country – it IS a different country. And that is so true.
This book caused me to reflect on the brokenness of all of us, and I believe one of God’s ways of helping us heal that brokenness is instilling the desire in us to build and nourish our community.
I never once thought the account you gave of your life and your sister’s was in any way sentimental dreck. Your honesty about your relationship within your family went straight to my heart. I can remember thinking while reading it, ‘that has got to be a hard book to write’ and not just because of the account of your sister’s illness and death, but because you revealed the painful, stormy relationship you had with your sister and your daddy and how bitterness had found it’s way into that relationship and never quite left.
It was exhausting to read your book and I almost dreaded doing so, but I would not ever wish that I hadn’t read it.
I don’t believe in coincidences much anymore – this book fell into my lap just when I needed to hear these things and ponder them a bit.

Anne Quinn

Quinn

#3 Comment By Samantha On July 8, 2013 @ 3:15 pm

I have read the book and subsequently passed it along to friends and family members with the highest of recommendations. Being a cancer survivor, the emotional rawness of the book seemed right on par. It’s real life…real family issues, real health issues, and it hurts to the core. In my opinion, there is no other way to write her story. The book is good…not in a feel-good way, but in a truthful way.

#4 Comment By RB On July 8, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

It’s not an intellectual distinction I make. Sentimental stuff doesn’t make me cry, it makes me giggle, a la the death of Little Nell. I have always disliked manipulative books and movies. I got mad as a kid when my parents took me to Disney movies that based their plots on parental abandonment. I dislike being in a barrel and swimming to avoid being shot.

I cried a great deal when I read your book, to the point I hid from my kids. Your book surprised me, because I have little patience for recreational sadness and have no compunctions about giving away a book that’s written to provoke tears. I hate feeling manipulated, and reading bathos makes me squirm. Tear-jerking stuff feels like it comes from the same place self-pity and self-aggrandizing fantasy, and it’s all emotional masturbation.

But I think the tears from your book were different because your book isn’t cloying or self-pitying, the opposite, in fact. You’re very clear about people’s failings and messy loose ends. The emotions run high, especially near the end, but it is because you simply report what these people you love did in a hard time. It was a clean cry.

That’s partly why I agree that this is a word-of-mouth book. The people who like emotional masturbation are busy reading Jodi Picoult. People who avoid it, may avoid your book until someone they trust recommends it to them, as I am now recommending it to the people I know. LWofRL isn’t emotional booty call.

#5 Comment By KSS On July 8, 2013 @ 4:16 pm

The fundamental problem, perhaps the fundamental lie, in any narrative is that is has to end. The author can’t write forever, and has to wrap up the story somehow. But stories don’t really end; the people or characters in them go on with their lives, the settings change, and time moves on.

Falsely sentimental books try to make the ending far too simple. They conclude with some “happily ever after” fairy tale, or try to package the rest of the work with a single, obvious conclusion. Narratives that are worth reading do not do this. They admit the story is incomplete, and leave the conclusions open to interpretation.

From Ruth Franklin’s review of Jonathan Franzen’s novel “Freedom”:

Who would not wish to be moved by this vision of reconciliation [in the novel’s final sentence], by the suggestion that the bitterness of the past could be gutted and carted off like the innards of an old house, the toxic waste of the marriage magically redeemed as a nature sanctuary? But beware such tears. When we cry at a book or a film, it is often not because it is genuinely moving, in the sense that it has succeeded in shaking and even altering our previous understanding of life, but because its sentimentality is uncomfortably at odds with our own knowledge of what life is really like, and we are being offered a swift transit back to our sweet dreams. It is wish fulfillment, and also self-pity, that makes us weep.”

#6 Comment By Pat On July 8, 2013 @ 4:51 pm

I don’t have an opinion about tears, nor did your book make me cry. But I do wonder — in several posts you seem to be asking for insight into why it isn’t selling as much as you’d like, but you keep asking about content. Before a person gets to any of this content, won’t they have bought the book?

Perhaps the place to look for cues that are warning readers away is in the reviews, not in the book itself. Some ideas:

— are reviews from religious figures making readers think this will be a toe-the-line conservative christian story?

— are reviews from weepers making readers think the book is only for those who like a two-handkerchief movie?

— are reviews that focus on the homecoming story making people think the book will just scold them for not moving back home?

— are reviews by conservative figures making liberals think the book’s not for them?

I haven’t read all the reviews, but the snippets you’ve posted gave me the impression that many people were praising the book in ways that emphasized how much they agreed with its themes and how much it supported their positions. That will narrow your audience, it seems to me. But don’t ask me what (if anything) to do about it… after all, some people seem to sell very well to a solely conservative audience.

I’d give a lot for the amount of attention and number of good reviews you’ve received for this book. But I’m sure it looks much different to someone whose livelihood is writing.

[NFR: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Please forgive me if it sounds like I’m whining; it’s just mysterious to me why a book that has such strong praise has done only okay commercially. I’m trying to understand how this stuff works, which is why I ask. Of the endorsers on the back, Eric Metaxas is a conservative figure, but I’m not aware that Anne Voskamp is, or the author of ‘The Shack’ is. Elizabeth Gilbert certainly is not a conservative figure, or a Christian one. Otherwise, your questions make sense. As I indicated in this blog post, I’ve been thinking that people talking about the strong emotions the book evokes are to the good, but I’m starting to wonder if they scare people off, in part by making people think it is a conventional tearjerker. I myself am unlikely to pick up a book that everybody says makes them cry, because I’m conditioned by my own preferences to think that means “sentimental.” — RD]

#7 Comment By Juliana On July 8, 2013 @ 4:57 pm

I actually just finished your excellent book (after enjoying Crunchy Cons several years ago), and wrote a post about it on my own blog. I found the book quite affecting on many levels, and I found our struggles with finding and being happy with place echoed in your book. I was glad not to have a happy ending, in a way, because I find the tension of the non-happy ending more satisfying (the alternative ending of the movie Stigmata is a great example of this). But I’m a broody sort of person who appreciates Danish films.

I also liked that your own role in the narrative was neither sugar-coated, nor self-effacing, but rather just honest and real. The whole narrative was a nice balance between Ruthie’s view of the world and yours, and as someone who thinks more like you do, but is longing for home and place as I get older, I appreciated the mental perigrinations you went through in the move back to the South. I wish I had such a place to go back to, but alas, I’m one of those rootless wanderers of the post modern world, and my family the same.

But to address your question about deep emotion in literature: I think it has a place, but like you, I want to be sure it is worth it for me to invest the sort of emotional energy it takes to have tears over people or characters I don’t personally know. I don’t like being emotionally manipulated, and I like having to work for the meaning beneath the words. I think when a book or movie brings tears that are of the sort to signal a work of worth, they should be accompanied by the deep sorts of questions occasioned in your book.

#8 Comment By Rod Dreher On July 8, 2013 @ 5:29 pm

KSS, the conclusion of “Freedom” made me wish I had never invested all that time in the book. I thought it was a very strong book, with lots of insights, but Franzen didn’t know how to end it. The conclusion was so false and infuriating that it filled me with regret about the entire project.

#9 Comment By Cannoneo On July 8, 2013 @ 7:04 pm

William James thought crying in response to art gives us a glimpse into (maybe even a nudge towards) the transcendence of self felt in the dramatic religious conversion. From *Varieties of Religious Experience*:

“The stone wall inside of him has fallen, the hardness in his heart has broken down. The rest of us can, I think, imagine this by recalling our state of feeling in those temporary ‘melting moods’ into which either the trials of real life, or the theatre, or a novel sometimes throws us. Especially if we weep! For it is then as if our tears broke through an inveterate inner dam, and let all sorts of ancient peccancies and moral stagnancies drain away, leaving us now washed and soft of heart and open to every nobler leading.”

#10 Comment By texasaggiemom On July 8, 2013 @ 7:41 pm

I enjoyed the book and cried like a baby, although I usually avoid books that would cause me to do so. Your target market for this was largely a Christian one, although there were certainly themes that would touch all people. Your wife pointed out to you that evangelicals would take issue with the references to saints. I think you underestimate the significance of that. That and not having an agent going after Lifeway and Mardel’s kept this wonderful story out of the hands of a large group of people who would have otherwise purchased it.

#11 Comment By Charles Cosimano On July 8, 2013 @ 7:59 pm

I think the reviewers and the folks on these comboxes who have praised the book do so because either it touched them in a certain way, or they are simply used to Rod’s style of writing and not put off by it. I think Rod writes best when he writes from the heart. It does not come off as cloying, or manipulative, which are terms that immediately come to mind when the word “sentimental” appears.

But for those who do not have the pleasure of being exposed to Rod’s writing, there are any number of reason why the book does not sell better.

First it is about someone who died of cancer. Now let’s be honest, that is not something people really want to read about. That is the first impression. Then you get into the family nuances and the casual reader thinks it is going to be some sort of soap opera.

Ok, getting past that, the religion thing. Religious books do sell, but they sell primarily to a sectarian audience that wants something they can agree with. (Books by Popes are always best sellers but grace the shelves of few Baptists.) That is the problem with the reviewers. Once you get outside of the niche, people have either never heard of the folks reviewing it or dismiss them as loons and anything they like as loony. This book has too many religious subthemes for a general audience.

But in the end I think the problem with marketing is that the book is too complex, a memoir by someone terribly complex and that makes hard to find the one-liner that will get past the mute button. The sales issue may simply be, as already stated, that it is too well written.

#12 Comment By brians On July 8, 2013 @ 8:24 pm

Maybe there’s lots of folks out there who simply haven’t gotten around to reading it. I haven’t, & I’ve been a fan of your writing for a long time (in spite of the food snobbery:). A book light this one, as opposed to your daily blog, takes some time commitment, though, and I’ve gotta be pretty choosy. C.S. Lewis says 2 or 3 old books for every new one, & I’ve only got so much time, so if I’ve got a choice between Dostoyevsky, Dickens, or Dreher, well…sorry, bro. But take the long view: maybe your kids will still be getting royalty checks 50 years from now, from folks like me finally git-n-r-dun.

#13 Comment By brians On July 8, 2013 @ 8:25 pm

“book like this one”, rather. Need an editor for blog comments.

#14 Comment By KSS On July 8, 2013 @ 10:02 pm

I agree about the ending of “Freedom,” Rod. I got a little teary-eyed as I read it, but when I looked back and thought about the book as a whole, I realized it was just a cheap way to make readers happy, and failed to live up to the grandiose aspirations of the rest of the novel. It was an unfortunate waste of a book with enormous potential. (Though I did read a theory somewhere that the last chapter wasn’t “true,” but made up in Patty’s head. I’m not sure I believe that was the intent, but it would work much better if it were.)

More to the point, though, this post made me wonder…were there other narratives you looked to as a model while writing “Little Way”? That is, are there narratives out there that have sold a lot of copies that can match its depth? Or is “Little Way” breaking new ground, and is that perhaps the cause of the modest sales figures? I don’t know the genre well enough to answer that question.

[NFR: That’s a good question. I read memoirs by Edmund de Waal and Tony Judt in preparation for doing this book, but I can’t say they influenced me much. I just wrote it as it happened, and as I saw it, and, of course, as the story was told to me by Ruthie’s friends and family. I did extensive interviews, which were sometimes painful for those being interviewed, and gave the principals the opportunity to review the rough drafts as we went along. I wanted to make sure I was faithful to their recollections, as well as to verify that they were okay with me revealing so much that they told me. I mean, everything was on the record in the interviews, but people sometimes say things they wish later that they hadn’t. I wasn’t playing “gotcha” with this project, and I didn’t want people who trusted me with this story to be surprised. I recall getting only one request to remove a section as too personal — and it didn’t have anything to do with the person who asked me to do that. Rather, this person thought it was too raw, and on second thought, I agreed. From the vantage point of today, I’m very, very glad I followed that person’s advice. Anyway, I’m told that Jeannette Walls’s memoir of her abusive childhood was extremely raw; it, as you know, became a massive bestseller. You never really know what will work and what won’t. — RD]

#15 Comment By cecelia On July 9, 2013 @ 1:05 am

I have read a lot of stunningly well written books that do not sell well. Example – Peter Brown – literate cultured elegant writer – every book rich and rewarding -compelling storyteller – a renowned historian – but how many have read his books outside “intellectuals” and historians?

Maybe a lot of readers just want something that allows them to escape from the troubles of the world.

I mentioned I am about to read your book and I have avoided it because it did seem like it might be emotionally distressing to me – my mom died a year ago a few days before my sister was having surgery for uterine cancer- so I have had some emotional turmoil which made me reticent about reading your emotional turmoil. But I always planned to read it – just needed some time. It may be that because the book is complex and doesn’t easily lend itself to a label it is harder to market. But – it may also be that this book will just take a bit longer to have great sales – word of mouth may move it ‘s sales more slowly.

#16 Comment By MargaretE On July 9, 2013 @ 7:00 am

“Little Way” most certainly made me cry, and I’d have been disappointed if it hadn’t. I like Cannoneo’s quote from William James, above; it perfectly describes the feeling of catharsis – almost “conversion” – that a good cry over a good book brings about. It’s not “sentimentality”– it’s honest emotion . . . and “compassion,” in the truest sense of the word – to “suffer together.” A book like yours gives the reader a chance to suffer with you, your family, your town, and the whole human race… and to be redeemed with them, too. (Which is not to say I “suffered” through the book! Not at all!)

My guess about sales would be this: The book is an odd bird. A hybrid. They’re probably not sure how to market it. As some have pointed out, there are religious themes running through it, which would normally make it a shoe-in for the “Christian” market – but it’s not “evangelical” or (forgive me) as simplistic as the books those readers are accustomed to. You’re a small town Christian boy writing about small town Christians, but you’re also a well-traveled, sophisticated intellectual, pondering “big ideas,” dabbling in atheism, hopping religions, etc. etc. Who’s your audience? (Well, people like the ones on this blog, of course! But we’re different! We’re special!)

“The Shack” did great with evangelicals because it was written in language they could understand and relate to. (The first 1/3 of that book was so full of mega-church style “Christian-ese,” I almost put it down before getting to the interesting part at the shack… ) “Eat, Pray, Love” by Liz Gilbert is a book that’s written by a “serious” fiction writer/intellectual, who makes no bones about that fact that she’s not a Christian. It literally screams “this book is for seekers, anti-establishment, New Agey, spiritual-not-religious types.” (Did you notice how she starts her “search for God” in Rome… and never enters a church? Spends her whole time eating pasta? Has to wait for India to “find God.”) Gilbert’s is a big, easily-defined market. Yours? Well… I think many, many people would love your book; but they just don’t know what it is or who it’s for. That’s your challenge.

#17 Comment By Joe Magarac On July 9, 2013 @ 8:48 am

Finally read “Little Way” over the weekend. Didn’t cry at all. Three possible reasons:

1. I had read so many reviews, posted here, in which the reviewer went on at length about how he/she is not the sort of person who cries while reading most books, but how she/he nevertheless sobbed uncontrollably while reading this one, to be on my guard and thus not able to open myself to the full emotional experience of it.

2. A similar form of cancer took my dad when he was 50; he left behind my mom, the four of us, and no insurance. Having cried then, I didn’t need to cry now.

3. The Meyers-Briggs type indicator says that I have no feelings. A pure type T.

Having said all that, I do want to say that it was a fine book: I enjoyed reading it, learned a bit from it (in that I was reminded to focus on people and not on things or experiences), and really appreciated the candid and honest tone of the prose and the tale.

To answer your two questions:

When are tears a guide to worthwhile reading, and when are they a signal that the work in question is sentimental dreck?

I’m not sure that tears are a reliable guide to a book’s merits. Some people cry at almost anything; other people (myself included) cry once a decade, or maybe less.

I’ve been thinking that people talking about the strong emotions the book evokes are to the good, but I’m starting to wonder if they scare people off, in part by making people think it is a conventional tearjerker.

This is a real possibility. When I brought your book home, my wife mocked me for reading a book with a cover like that – she said it looked like the kind of book that her mom (who is weepily sentimental and whose reading consists almost solely of highly wrought memoirs) would read. If I didn’t read your blog, I don’t think I would have ever picked the book up – the cover alone would have suggested that it was a “conventional tearjerker” and dissuaded me from reading it.

#18 Comment By Mark Brown On July 9, 2013 @ 10:28 am

You’ve got a paradoxical and mystical bent. These are necessary to get to deeper truths of life. And when you find yourself in the middle of a paradox, either having to resolve it or tasked with living it out, that is a place of true tears, raw emotional power and at the same time truth. Little Way puts you the reader in such a place. But now you know. How are you going to change on the basis of such knowledge?

Eat, Pray, Love does not place you in that place, but assures upper middle class ennui-ed women that yes, they too can have meaningful lives doing cruel and meaningless things.

The Shack is unreal. The Shack reads like all the “Acts of Peter” or “Childhood of Jesus” things that were highly popular, but when compared to the Gospels. It gets its point across in a safe way that never really puts the burden (Who do you say I am?) on the reader.

Just my guess, if you wanted mass popularity, you would have had to degrade the work in some way. Make it less real and less personal. Ann Voskamp was a powerful book, but I’d say sneaked through because of writing style. You got the drift without a clear picture of the personality and narrative, hence it never put the burden on the reader in quite the same way.

Good news, I’ll be recommending and using your book for decades. Bad news, not everyone is ready or willing to be placed in such a situation. Just a reader’s two-cents.

#19 Comment By Darth Thulhu On July 10, 2013 @ 6:07 am

I finally finished Little Way, and while I deeply appreciate it, I feel that the reviews of it suffer in large part because it does not have one single, coherent narrative line. This is completely understandable: you aren’t trying to impose a false coherence, and the history of you and your family moving back to Louisiana is far from over, but the lack of a clear throughline lingers for me.

To your question about “too much emotion” … I am not fully T (Thinker) on the Thinking-Feeling axis of Myers-Briggs, but I am sufficiently Thinker that I always strongly question why something is having an intense emotional effect. Sometimes it is because the subject is truly intensely affecting, but most often “sentimentality” is a polite way of saying “crudely emotionally manipulative”. Dickens was skilled enough to make the anvil-rain of emotional wrenching worthy of the real-world situations he was adapting, but for most creators the “tear-jerking” is as crude and false as watching a video composed of nothing but swelling music over puppies dying of rare diseases … it’s laughably bad the instant you reflect upon it.

(I’ve avoided reading Freedom after hearing a coworker whose opinion I respect call the ending “manipulative and unbelievable” and the commentary above seems to be fleshing out and confirming that opinion.)

I don’t think the sentimentality of Little Way hurts, in and of itself, because it is honestly earned sentiment. The only part that got me close to tears was Ruthie’s simple insistence that “we aren’t going to be angry at God” … because that it the kind of promise that no gathering of people can universally keep, and yet Ruthie fully intends to successfully keep it herself. That’s just … wrenching to envision.

The only “problem” I see with the intense sentiment is that it is the only thing about the book reviewers consistently seem to “get”. The paradoxical return of the prodigal son is nowhere on the cover or the reviews I’ve read. The ambiguous virtue of Ruthie, the complicated strength and narrow-mindedness of small-town life, the wisdom and ignorance of Paw … none of these clearly conclude by story’s end, and so reviewers all latch onto the one thing that does conclude: Ruthie’s sad illness and tenacious hope and terrified last moment. The sentimentality “hurts” only in that it really isn’t the center of the work, but it is the one single message consistently broadcast by Voskamp and Gilbert and Young and no end of other reviewers, and that masks the other threads of the story.

As to the question of “how to make this sell better?” … I have two responses.

First, the runaway bestseller on my shelves this past year has been a badly written erotica trilogy fanfiction about Bella and Edward from Twilight, passed through a thin lens of making the elder stalker a superwealthy, hypersexy experienced kinkster rather than a superwealthy, hypersexy predatory vampire. Runaway financial success is emphatically not an indication of quality … but if you wanted nothing more than for Little Way to sell like gangbusters, you could have included a few groan-worthy scenes where she made Mike build her a Red Room of Pain 😉

Secondly, addressing the question more seriously … “what could be done to make this work reach a wider audience?” … I think it really needs a coherent, narrative throughline more tightly focused on you, rather than Ruthie. I’ll try to unpack that a little.

There are two primary narratives in Little Way: the very tight and short theodicy story of Ruthie’s virtuous life and death, and the very ambiguous and complicated story of Ruthie and Paw’s judgments and opinions about you. These two tales orbit one another like a double planet, but for the mirroring to fully work, there really needs to be a tight narrative arc to the second tale, and right now there just isn’t. Without that tightness, reviewers don’t focus on juxtaposition of those two narratives, but rather on the sentiment of Ruthie’s vigil and the details of Ruthie’s work in making her place in life a holier place.

As raw and rich as the details of Ruthie’s life and Ruthie’s girls and Ruthie’s influence is … I don’t really know what ultimate judgment it will hold for Rod’s brood. If times get tough, will Rod’s brood scatter away again, and will negative judgment greet that? If Rod instead stays and settles but challenges some of the “good ol’ boy” aspects of local life, will there be negative judgment forthcoming about that? Is there any way for Rod to settle long-term that is met with approval, short of complete surrender and submission?

That narrative isn’t written. We know how Ruthie’s story goes, but we really don’t know how Rod’s story goes. Maybe a miracle happens and the next generation isn’t poisoned and the small town becomes less oppressive and provincial … or maybe intolerance rules the day and the darker aspects of the town slowly smother the guttering memory of Ruthie’s light … or maybe the entire community goes through a crucible of God’s will and the final result is completely unpredictable to those of us contemplating now.

Regardless, the Narrative of Rod is simply not coherent by the end of the book. He can envy what Ruthie had, but that isn’t his path. He can try to emulate the virtue he saw in her, but he can’t live the way she did. He can be clear-eyed about the chasm between them, but will he ever understand it or reconcile himself to it? There’s not yet a mirror-narrative to complete the story, just a sense of roles being assumed by the younger generations and many forces beyond control swirling around.

That lack of narrative closure, I believe, is the thing most hurting sales. There are no final assessments, there is no final meaning, there is no final triumph or defeat. There is just Rod’s Brood nestling into the small town that both wants to possessively swallow them whole and xenophobically drive them away.

Much easier for a reviewer to focus on the sentimentality than to grapple with a narrative unsure of its destination. Much easier for a casual customer to see a book jacket with praise by a hedonist and a hyperevangelical and not know what to make of it.

If the second narrative ever has a clear result, the artistic work of making the two stories dance around one another will be much easier to coordinate in a second edition. For now, though, the two stories are still estranged from one another, that makes for an ambiguous reading, and one thing American mass culture simply despises is ambiguity.

[NFR: I really, really appreciate your comments. They’re very helpful to me. You’re right — I wrote things as they happened, without trying to impose a false narrative on them. Which is not to say I didn’t shape the narrative. The first third of the book is back story, sort of, to prepare people for the main action, which is Ruthie’s diagnosis and cancer struggle, and then my epiphany and return. Given space constraints, I had to race through the first third, and some readers have complained about that. Plus, my main source for who Ruthie was and what she did in those days was Mike, who is a taciturn man by nature, and who was having a hell of a time talking about Ruthie, because he was so emotional. I finished the book a year ago this summer. Since then, I’ve had a lot more time to think about the story, and a lot more has happened — or failed to happen — which would have made for a sharper narrative thread and conclusion. The perspective of time has helped me see the themes in the story, and how they relate, more clearly. A good friend told me at the outset of this project that he worried about it because I was still trying to resolve a lot of this internally, even though I had to write about it. I saw his point — and I especially see his point now — but I had a deadline to meet. Having just finished “The Moviegoer,” I have a lot more insight into the nature of my alienation from my dad and sister, and theirs from me. I’d write a different book today. Maybe, though, I’ll try my hand at a novel. Anyway, thanks again for your thought here. — RD]

#20 Comment By Amy On July 11, 2013 @ 10:57 pm

I just stumbled on your blog from a friend’s Facebook post referencing one of your recent posts about storytelling and culture. I have never heard of you before but am very interested in reading your book/memoir. The little that I have read about your memoir reminds me of “Hannah Coulter” –which made me reflect a lot on family and community. It made me so sad to consider that one day my children might not live close to me and not know each other well enough to know what to get as presents for each other. And I realized that my mom must feel that sadness. I grew up in Michigan and live in Pittsburgh now. My brother lives in Kansas. In addition to that I grew up Baptist but right after college I became Orthodox. My family didn’t understand my decision. I feel like my pre and post college years are so different and I have a hard time reconciling them. I am interested to read about your experience of returning home and reconnecting.