Saturday, September 19, 2009

What Makes A Reader Care?

A creative writing instructor of mine once stressed how important it was to read books to the very end—even if we didn't like them. He believed writers could learn from work that didn't really appeal to them and/or hold their interests—possibly as much or more than work that did. As a disciplined person—at least in my reading and writing habits (red wine and extra-cheese pizza do not apply)—I’ve tried to hold fast to that rule. When I close a book, I sit with things in order to pin-point what worked and what didn't in order to apply what I’ve learned to my own writing. We bring so much of our own lives to what we read, as well as to our interpretations and the judgments we make about what we read. I've come to the conclusion that it always helps a reader's journey if they care about a character, but what makes a reader care . . . A sense of familiarity? Empathy? Anger? Frustration? A redeeming quality? Hoping the character will transform in a way that will be fulfilling to us by the end of the book? All of which leads me to the larger question of do you really have to "like" a character and agree with his/her choices in order to enjoy and fully appreciate a book?

I recently finished The Film Club by David Gilmour, a Canadian novelist and film critic. This thought-provoking memoir is about a father who allows his troubled, 15 year-old son to drop out of school with the stipulation that he'll watch three movies a week with Dad, and together, they will discuss them, in depth. I really looked forward to this read, as I was raised on a steady diet of movies since I was kid. The premise of Gilmour’s ultimatum to his son was the hook that enticed me. And while the plot appeared to be about a father and son who spend time together watching great movies, the story evolved into one more about a father trying to understand a son (and vice-versa) and parenthood—the challenges, joys, and the tendency to make mistakes.

I am a reader of mostly female-themed domestic fiction and it makes me wonder what kept me engaged through all 240 pages of this memoir. I am not a father or a son, and my own father (or mother, for that matter) would never have proposed such an educational ultimatum to me nor would they have been so liberal about alcohol and drug use and teenage sexual exploits. There were times during the read when I fiercely disagreed with Gilmour’s parenting style and the choices he made. But he did offer me an honest glimpse of an unfamiliar world. In straightforward, deft prose—and through candid, often heart-wrenching, storytelling—Gilmour revealed his foibles, as well as those of his son, as they both grappled with “the experiment” and tried to find their respective places in the world. Flawed characters trying to learn and grow—and do the right thing . . . in that, there is great universality.

The Film Club (a memoir) by David Gilmour
(Twelve, Hardcover, 9780446199292, 256pp.)
Publication Date: May 2008
To purchase this book via INDIEBOUND click HERE