Headers versus Hearters

*Scene: the classroom in the Peanuts cartoons. At the front, the ever-incoherent teacher. Facing her, a column of kids at desks: Lucy, Patty, Charlie B, and at the back, wearing a dunce hat, a bemused looking kid, slightly older than the rest, who we learn is called Neil. The deployment of dunce hats is not standard educational practice in this state. The hat has a home-made look. The D is back to front.*

Neil (interrupting the teacher’s drone):  Please, Miss: I have a question.

Teacher:  Buh-buh-bwuh-buh-BWUH-buh-BUH?

Neil:  No, Miss. It’s not about Edgar Allan Poe.

Teacher:  Buh-BWUH-buh-buh?

Neil:  Well, I was wondering: what makes a book a good book?

Teacher:  Bwuh?

Neil:  No, Miss, I don’t have a degree in English Literature from Princeton University or, indeed, similar from an overseas education provider of equivalent standing. I was just wondering what makes a good book.

Teacher: Bwuh-BWUH-buh. Bu-BUH-buh.

Neil: Well, I suppose that’s why I keep having to retake this Critical Theory class, but I still want to know. What, for instance, makes an awards jury pick one book out of a bunch of others and say: “This is the one I enjoyed the most”? What? No, okay. Not enjoyed. Enjoyment is subjective and wholly unquantifiable. We covered that in the first term, I know. And I don’t suppose awards juries are supposed to enjoy books anyway.

But look, there are a whole bunch of skills required to write a novel, so let’s assume that an author has to be at least proficient at all of them if we are to consider their book, by an objective standard, good. The prose has to be correctly deployed in a style that complements the purpose to which it is being put. The story told well and with drama and not confuse the plot which has to be both logical and satisfying. The form should be the best one for conveying both the story and any intended additional meaning. The setting should be evocatively conjured, and the characters, as the reader’s points of access to the story, must have actions, conversations and intentions that are believable within the context of the story’s world and the trappings of the plot.

So, an author has to achieve a baseline proficiency in all of these elements  before anyone is likely to give their book a second look. But beyond that ability to write a cogent sentence, to render a believable character, to carry a logical story all the way to the end, authors tend to boost some these elements more strongly than others, demonstrating excellence in some skills, while others remain at the proficient level. This is natural–you can’t turn everything up to eleven. You choose what works for your story. Horses for courses, and all that. If your intention is to write a thriller, you rein the descriptions right the hell back in favour of action and pace, for example. Additionally, many writers actually excel at one or two of the core skills, but rarely at all of them. They show off what they’re good at. If they write great characters with fantastic dialogue, then its natural that their books feature those above, say, intricate plotting or nuanced, politically relevant subtext.

Teacher:  buh-buh-BWUH-buh-BUH-buh

Neil:  Really? Penn’s little buddy, Teller, said that?

Teacher:   BUH-buh.

Neil:  Well, perhaps he wrote it down. It’s still good though: “Art is what what we do once the chores are done.” I like it. But, of course, this is where is does get subjective, isn’t it? This is where, when we talk about good and best, we tend to start using words like innovation of form and authorial ambition and insight and allegorical and conversation with the genre. At least, the we who claim to be scholars and authors and possibly award jurors do. But what about the readers? Not the academics–the readers who buy books in quantity because they live for stories? Live through stories. What’s their interpretation of good and best?

People sometimes like to bring in terms like High Art and Low Art round about this point, so that we can judge by different standards:  artistic ambition versus entertainment. So we can give prizes to the former and indulge good examples of the latter as “guilty pleasures”. But, see, that’s where I have a problem. It’s in the tone used when making that distinction. When we say: I loved it but it was just a supernatural horror or it was brilliant but it was just a THE fantasy adventure, it’s dismissive, and it’s kind of insulting both to the authors who choose to write those kinds of books and to the people who buy them, often in significantly greater quantities than books with higher ambitions.

I don’t like the terms High Art versus Low Art. I prefer Those Who Read With The Head versus Those Who Read With The Heart. I admit that I tend to be in the former category. I value newness in novels–new ideas or new settings or new ways of telling stories–over familiar tales, even when told well, but I’m still susceptible to the latter from time to time. To achieving complete immersion in a great piece of entertainment, to falling under the spell of a masterfully told story. As an author who is slowly assembling and honing my own set of novelist’s tools, I find that I eye the skills and techniques deployed by great storytellers whose books are bought by Those Who Read With The Heart with at least, if not more, an envious eye than those of their Header counterparts.

Teacher:  buh-bwuh-BUH?

Neil:  Of course, I’m serious. Look I admire a ball-crushing new idea or an exquisite sentence as much as the next man and am happy to acknowledge that it would not be appropriate to pollute or dilute such a story with exploding stuff and spies and a dragon. But I read a lot of Header type books, a lot of big ideas, a lot of beautiful prose, and rarely when I do so do I also get transported by the story telling. We’re back to horses for courses again. I’m convinced that there is  room for overlap, and sometimes (as with last year’s Zoo City) it does happen. But in general it seems that a large percentage of Header authors either aren’t interested in ever telling a story that way or they don’t have the chops with that skill set to the degree that the best of the Hearters do.

Put it this way, Miss. You know that trunked novel sitting on your hard drive? Flour For Algernon, the beautiful, spare and unflinching quasi-sequel to an acknowledged classic, part memoir, part baker’s recipe book, which examines the diminishment of mental faculty considered as mille feuille? I’ve read it.  It’s truly an amazing work, but it’s dry. Really, dry. It needs, I don’t know, butter or honey, or, yes, cream. Gloopy, unctuous, bad-for-you cream. You know what I’m s–

Teacher:  BWUH-BWUH-BUH-BUH-buh-BWUH-buh-BUH!

Neil:  Well, if you feel that way, fine! But answer me this honestly: if you were asked to write an engrossing, immersive fantasy adventure, a genuine can’t-put-it-down page-turner with characters that the readers will be heartbroken to part with at book end and, indeed, will feel compelled to hassle your publisher for more, and when you finally decide to kill them off, they/you/everyone will cry for days at the bereavement, could you do it? Honestly?  Because, I say these skills are genuinely rare, that they’re as difficult to master as any others in the writer’s tool box, and that we don’t reward them enough.

Teacher:  Buh! Buh-bwuh-buh-buh. Bwuh.

Neil:  Yes, Miss. Yes, I know. Yes, it does. No. Yes, the D is the wrong way round for a reason… oh, very well: Edgar Allan, American Poet, born in eighteen hundred and nine. Published Tamerlane in eighteen twenty seven…

Heaven help me.

4 thoughts on “Headers versus Hearters

  1. If I am reading you right, you’re saying that populist novels don’t get the rewards recognition that say “quaility” does.

    Which is what I thought the point of most literary awards was…

    Daft questions:

    Don’t the Hugos more-or-less reward the writing you suggest doesn’t get recognised? Ok, only a limited population can cast votes but it’s a fairly populist list.

    Or there’s the TOR stuff which seem to me to reward fanbase.(or the ability to motivate voters…).

    I’m stepping out my comfort zone asking these questions because, outside of my own reading preferences, I’ve never sat in and awarded prizes to books.

    Like the Charlie Brown effect. Made this quite an interesting read.

  2. Cheers, Gavin

    I don’t disagree with what you say, but I didn’t want this to become a post about juried awards=awards for “quality” versus voter awards=simple popularity contests. I’m actually not *that* interested in that debate–it’s an old one, and it can be reduced down to: “you can’t please all of the people”.

    What I was hoping to get across was, as a result of some of the comments I picked up during the “recent events”, to question why it is that when we *are* talking about juried awards and “quality”, the tendency is to be automatically dismissive of a book for reasons of demonstrating the elements attributed to populism (eg, “a quest fantasy”, “a talking horse”). The point was to tease out the feeling I have that when our genre talks about good or best it now seems to value a set of attributes that are closer to those demonstrated by ‘literary fiction’ than the ones that have traditionally been genre’s strengths. Baby and bathwater.

    Again, I say I have no issue with valuing any and all techniques in terms of telling a story the best way possible. I find those sorts of innovations exciting. But I don’t like the dismissive attitude aimed at writers who excel at equally hard-learned but less-valued skills when we say that we shouldn’t be seeing “books like this” or “books like that” on such and such a shortlist.

    That’s clearly, not just bollocks, but it’s insulting bollocks too.

  3. I wonder if appealing to those who read with the heart isn’t the quality that eventually results in a classic? I haven’t read Treasure Island, but I have read Sense and Sensibility and neither of them strike me as being particularly ambitious or clever or in any way pyrotechnic in their prose, but they both are well-loved. Dumas wrote adventure yarns. Dickens wrote potboilers for serial publication. Or if you look at the Great American Novel, Melville set out deliberately to write it and created a turgid monster, while Twain just wrote a yarn about a boy and an escaped slave on a raft on the big river.

    And Peter S Beagle’s acclaimed genre classic, which I have in fortieth-anniversary re-issue, is a quest fantasy with a talking horse in it. Okay, a horse with a horn, but still …

    1. Hmm. Not sure that argument holds true, at least with those examples. Dumas, Stevenson, Dickens, Austen, Twain were all writing at a relatively early time in the history of widely available novel length stories. So, to a large extent their stories must have come across as fresh. Part of the reaction against novels that are predominantly examples of classic-form good storytelling is undoubtedly because it is long past being innovative. We see so many stories that have been written before – in some cases many times with little changed but the names and serial numbers. For Headers who think and care deeply about the development of the novel, it’s understandable to yearn for something new. Hearters may prefer something that echoes the classics, that gives them that story-telling buzz, but it must be very difficult to write a modern “classic” of that form now. The Last Unicorn might be one, but what other classics of pure storytelling have been written during the seventies, eighties, nineties, naughties?

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