Mentor of the Month: Toni Morrison: Knocking Narrators

“To make the story appear oral, meandering, effortless, spoken–to have the reader feel the narrator without identifying that narrator, or hearing him or her knock about, to have the reader work with the author in the construction of the book–is what’s important.”
-Toni Morrison, “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation”
from What Moves in the Margin

The reader brings something to the table in the reading of a book. Their experiences, values, even their training as readers (classes, etc.) inform what they get out of the book.

As authors, our job is to create a piece that helps the reader set aside their disbelief and enter the story itself, bringing all those experiences, values, and trainings to bear on the story.

But let’s face it: sometimes that’s really tricky.

The following are my own, personal observations as a reader where the author and I didn’t jive, where, as a reader, I felt the narrator ‘knocking about’:

  • Sometimes the words themselves get in the way of the reader–for me, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (while I acknowledge the brilliance and creativity), is difficult. Just the magnitude of the words in One Hundred Year of Solitude in particular, makes me read a sentence two or three times. That’s a lot of work for me and I can’t get into the story. Other books that struck me as wordy: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (though, in all fairness, the structure of that book, with the narration within the narration kind of forces the reader to hear the narrator).
  • The Twilight series–I think I’m too old, or too unromantic for these books to work for me. I hated high school and the idea of winding up as an 17/18 year old forever horrifies me. Meyer sort of redeems herself with Bella’s truck (I loved the truck!) and the other vampires’ experiences. But I also felt the narration whined a little too much (does he love me or will he eat me?) Whiny repetitiveness gets under my skin. Other books that struck me as whiny and/or repetitive: His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
  • I have to say the structure of a novel will get in the way sometimes. Right now I’m reading Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis. This novel is about a man living backwards…it literally starts with him ‘coming back alive’. Even the conversations are told in reverse. I’m spending so much time getting my head around what’s going on that I feel I’m missing some important elements. I’m thanking heaven for studying literature. Also, I’m too busy thinking, “This author is brilliant!” but that doesn’t really serve the story. It’s more a reading experience…now, is that a bad thing? I don’t know, I just hear the knocking narrator. Other books with structure wildness: Nothing I’ve really read and finished…uh-oh.

And, if I’m being completely honest, I really felt the narrator trying push buttons in Beloved by our very own mentor! Augh! The humanity. But I didn’t hear it in Sula, which I really, really enjoyed (well, as much as enjoy can be termed…).

So, it’s hard as an author to try to get that sensation of invisible narration. To get the feel rather than the identification.

As I was going through that list, though, it occured to me that who the reader hears is kind of up to the reader. The talent and observation of a reader combined with the talent and observation of a writer. I think when the skill levels are on par, then there’s a better meshing–and you don’t feel the narrator.

This isn’t to say that the writer is excused from doing the work. Far from it. Nathaniel Hawthorne said easy reading is damned hard writing. I think that’s kind of what Morrison is getting at too. You have to make it appear seamless. You have to do your best to make sure that the reader’s suspension of disbelief is not shaken…that’s your job (same as an actor’s…if an audience can see the ‘act’ then you’ve bombed).

When it works, and the author and reader are working in tandem, when they meet in the middle–the author building enough of a reality where the reader can relate–that’s when the goosebumps happen. When the reader goes “Cool” and can bring it back into their real life…that’s just awesome.
Any ideas on how to make that happen? Any books where you just went: ‘Cool’?

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