When you read a novel, which aspect of the fiction is more important to you, characterization or plot? This is a common question, yet for a long time now I’ve thought it’s not exactly the right question, or at least not the best way to look at fiction. The key issue isn’t a dichotomy—character vs. plot, one or the other—but rather the interaction between the two elements. People do certain things (plot) for their own personal reasons (character), and individuals (character) react to other people and to occurrences (plot) in their own unique ways. In this article Emily Barton discusses how she thought about plot while writing her latest novel, The Book of Esther. Despite the title of her essay (she chooses plot over character), much of what she says seems to me to involve the interaction between plot and character.
Long-time mystery reader Terrence Rafferty admits:
A number of years ago—well before Gone Girl —I realized that most of the new crime fiction I was enjoying had been written by women. The guys had been all but run off the field by a bunch of very crafty girls, coming at them from everywhere: America (Megan Abbott, Alison Gaylin, Laura Lippman), England (Alex Marwood, Paula Hawkins, Sophie Hannah), Scotland (Val McDermid, Denise Mina), Ireland (Tana French), Norway (Karin Fossum), Japan (Natsuo Kirino).
He summarizes the appeal of such writers this way:
The female writers, for whatever reason (men?), don’t much believe in heroes, which makes their kind of storytelling perhaps a better fit for these cynical times. Their books are light on gunplay, heavy on emotional violence.
The reading of literature, particularly fiction and poetry, as a way to help medical personnel grapple with big questions such as the meaning of life and of death, and their own relationship to their profession, is generally known as medical humanities. In this article Daniel Marchalik, M.D., a urologist and head of the literature and medicine track at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, DC, describes a course he teaches “to foster habits of reflection over four years of medical school”:
On the surface, the assigned books have nothing to do with medicine. We read no patient narratives, doctors’ memoirs or stories about disease.
Our busy jobs on the hospital wards require precision and efficiency, but in literature class we can slow down and explore human lives and thoughts in a different, more complex way. The class is an anatomy lab of the mind. We examine cultural conventions and conflicting perspectives, and reflect on our own preconceived notions about life and work. Reading attentively and well, we hope, will become a sustaining part of our daily lives and practice.
How many people do you know who are working on the Great American Novel? While we wait for them to finish, see which books these 12 authors choose as the essential American book:
- Sherman Alexie
- Julian Barnes
- Teju Cole
- Anne Korkeakivi
- Amitava Kuman
- Karan Mahajan
- Jay McInerney
- Jon Meacham
- Ann Patchett
- Curtis Sittenfeld
- Jesmyn Ward
- Joby Warrick
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown