Monday, July 19, 2010

Missing Zeitgeist


L.G.C. Smith

The Grousing Reader is in the house this week, and it's all about zeitgeist. In my over-educated, persnickety and old- fashioned opinion novels need a strong zeitgeist to be truly satisfying. This is zeitgeist as Juliet defined it for us last week, The Ghost of the Times -- where setting, culture and moment breath in and around character and conflict as an independent presence without which the story would be utterly different.

It's impossible to imagine Juliet's Lily Ivory without her transplanted-Texan-witch-in-San-Francisco vibe in the Witchcraft Mystery Series. Or Rachael's Abigail and Cade without Eliza Carpenter -- who is, literally, the zeitgeist in the Cypress Hollow Yarns. Or Sophie's Stella without rural Missouri and the ghosts of violence and expedient self-interest that haunt it.

We can imagine Jane Austen's novels without Regency England thanks to Hollywood and various enterprising storytellers, but the originals are better. Change the setting and the spirit of the times and you may reveal the universality of emotion, but it's not the same. Good writers will replace the original zeitgeist with something dynamic, which can be provocative. At the least, it can be fun and refreshing. A great deal of creative storytelling is about manipulating the stock of standard human stories into a distinctive zeitgeist.

It occurs to me that one of the elusive differences between literary and popular fiction may lie in the handling of zeitgeist. Literary fiction can float on a sea of it without bothering much about plot. I don't get that. On the other hand, popular fiction can view zeitgeist development as more of an optional sort of thing. And this is my grouse. Why? I'm sick of it. I can't be the only one.

I lay the lion's share of blame for this at the feet of publishers. This means you, marketing folks. You are entitled to pursue the book-as-commodity model. It's a free market. Fine. Go for it When I look at my royalty statements, I have very much appreciated this. I'm sure many authors do. We may also appreciate that publishers can get out three, four, five, or even more books a year if we can write them that fast.

But as a reader, I'm weary of generic settings, books that would be vastly better had they had another month or six of work, and the lack of any geist in the zeit. Because I read more romance than anything else, I'll take my examples from that genre. First up: category publishers. There are many, many fine category novels. There are more bland ones that look like the writers have opted for a corporate zeitgeist that's about as interesting as library paste. I can't remember the last time I bought a category novel. I know there are excellent books there, but I've been disappointed too many times.

Lest anyone think I'm picking on category publishers, the publishers of historical romances are a bigger disappointment. A proper historical romance should ooze zeitgeist. I want to feel as though I'm in the world at a different place and time from now. Different. Not like now. Not like here, wherever here is. I want a total immersion experience in something else AND I want a well-crafted story. Madeline Hunter offers this, particularly in her medievals. LaVyrle Spencer's historicals give it up in bushels. Laura Kinsale can be the best. "For My Lady's Heart" does this spectacularly well.

I don't want to read about contemporary people dressed in costumes zipping through places with values and mores just like the ones I see everyday even though it's supposed to be two hundred years ago in England. That's not what I mean when I look for "identifiable characters." If that means an author has to work a little harder, and possibly use a few more words to tell the story better, fine. I would be thrilled to read more 150K historical romances redolent of the zeitgeist of another time and place.

In the past month, I've read perhaps a dozen genre novels. Maybe more, but I'm reading less fiction than I used to partly because none of those novels were all that great. They weren't necessarily bad. But they were lackluster. Then I picked up Suzanne Brockmann's "Infamous."
At first, I was that unimaginative reader the marketing departments claim we all are: I sneered. "What, no Navy SEALS? No terrorists? No Troubleshooters? Bah." I was looking for the usual Brockmann zeitgeist and I didn't see it. "Infamous" is a contemporary ghost story in a western setting. I resisted. But then I reminded myself that Brockmann knows how to tell a story, and she knows how to develop a world. So I started reading, and for the first time in a long time, I couldn't put a book down.

It's more than the characters, and more than the setting that make "Infamous" a wonderful read. Zeitgeist is more than the sum of the parts of a novel. Yes, there's a ghost, so maybe I'm way too literal, but Brockmann pulled me in, and I didn't want to leave. That indefinable something, the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist -- it made all the difference.

10 comments:

Sophie Littlefield said...

wonderful and apt discussion...wish I'd read your post before trying to write mine, Smartie! :) I can't wait for people to read *your* book because it is the definitive answer to that particular grouse.

Juliet Blackwell said...

You put your finger on why I stopped reading certain genre fiction at all, until I knew a bunch of wise women who could point me in the right direction. I find it terribly disappointing not to feel a connection of the story to the zeitgeist, whatever the time and setting. Like so many readers, I love to lose myself in the novel I'm reading, in the sensations and dialogue and worldview.
Thanks, LGC for a great post, as always!

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

Is there a silent "bad" at the beginning of this sentence?

"Literary fiction can float on a sea of it without bothering much about plot."

They did try to teach us the same cause-and-effect structure as other types of fiction, honest!

Martha Flynn said...

I'm allowed to just copy and paste this for my blog, right?

L.G.C. Smith said...

Uh, kind of, Mysti. Originally, I was going to add, "and still be considered decent," but then that needed qualifying, too, so I went for the streamlined version that left a lot unsaid on several points. Today's grouse being about popular fiction, I meant the 'can' in that sentence to carry the sense of 'sometimes this happens' rather than 'is allowed to happen.'

L.G.C. Smith said...

Martha, you crack me up. Like you need anyone else's words. NOT! But thanks. :)

AJ Larrieu said...

This is such a great post! And now I'm really looking forward to reading Infamous...

Rachael Herron said...

Now I really want to read Infamous, too! And oh, my goodness, Eliza Carpenter IS a zeitgeist, isn't she? That gave me goosebumps....

Lisa Hughey said...

LGC-you are, as always, brilliant (and explained my dissatisfaction with a lot of genre fiction much more eloquently than I could :) )

M-I can't read anyone's posts until I have at least a draft of my own, otherwise I am paralyzed with what to write. ugh.

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