Tuesday, October 02, 2007

All About

Still Life,
Henry George Todd,
oil on canvas, 1880.

While shuffling through leaves yesterday, came across a blog post by C. S. Harris who writes mysteries, thrillers, and historical romances and who had an interesting essay about -- Aboutness.

(Perhaps I should mention - in the interests of disclosure - that while Harris is an old and noble name, it is legion, and she is no relation to my husband.)

Aboutness is a casually-coined term used to define the appeal of fiction that allows a sneak peek, satisfies a certain curiosity about society and inner systems, or conducts a refined form of expose.

Novels that leave the reader feeling they're learned something.

Best-selling writer Arthur Hailey immediately leaps to mind as an older and obvious example from mainstream fiction: Hotel, Airport, Wheels, The Moneychangers, etc.

As a recent example, Pat Wood's Lottery also educates without coercion.

While we may have an instinctive aversion to a teach 'n preach type of story, it seems we are suckers for indirect and facsimile education.

Pain-free learning. A window we can open and close at will.

And exploitation of this human trait is not restricted necessarily to writers of mainstream or commercial fiction, though it may be more difficult in genre novels, apart from historicals, to isolate and identify the learning appeal .

Consider for a moment the curious lure of Interview With a Vampire.

Something to think about.

Groaner Q & A:
Q: Why do gorillas have big nostrils?
A: Because they have big fingers.


December/Stacia said...

Very true. That's one of my favorite things about historicals.

Bernita said...

Probably part of the initial allure of police proceduarals and other forensic types too, December.

Jaye Wells said...

I heard a professor speak about the "head fake." Distract students by entertaining them and they won't even notice they're learning. Seems applicable to your topic.

Bernita said...

The sugared carrots approach, Jaye.
Close enough.

spyscribbler said...

I learn the coolest little tidbits and facts from novels!

And then we learn so much about humanity, but I don't think that's what you meant, LOL.

Charles Gramlich said...

Maybe it's because I read mostly genre SF, Fantasy, Horror that I don't find any need for "aboutness" in particular. In fact, I am quite probably resistant to any fiction novel that promises to "teach" me about the ways of the world. I tend to pay attention to the world first hand.

Bernita said...

Oh yes, I seriously love and collect those odd bits, Natasha.
The Harris' point - which I piggyback in this post - is that best sellers often include what we perceive as useful information.
Revelations of a sort.

Bernita said...

Are we not partly attracted to SF/F and horror because of our fascination with the What If factor and ways to survive it, Charles?

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I've realized virtually all sci fi and fantasy is a statement about the real world. It does so without naming names, gently enough that you can ignore that bit if you like.

It's my belief all good novels have something to say, often whether the author intended it or not!

Bernita said...

True, SS, though the exploration is not always perceived or appreciated.
Modesitt, for example, explores various facets and impacts of environmentalism.

Church Lady said...

I think it can work the other way too. I recently read a thriller by a well-known author I haven't read (I'm usually a Dean Koontz reader).
There was a scene where he referred to President Truman wrestling/tangling with would-be assasins. Hmmm, I thought. This is quite interesting. I looked it up on the internet (and eventually made a posting about the incident on my blog) and discovered that this was no way near factually true.
What in fact happened was two people tried to break into the residence but didn't get past security. The whole incident lasted less than a minute, and Truman was in a different part of the house taking a nap.
This isn't even close to being urban legend.
I'll never buy a book from that author again. I do enjoy learning bits and pieces as I read, and I need to trust that even in fiction, things presented as fact should be pretty close to true.

Great post, and another LOL groaner!

Lisa said...

I always find some of the most enjoyable novels tend to "teach" me things almost by accident. I love a story where a character has an offbeat job and the author pulls back the curtain and shows us a little something about a world we're unfamiliar with. It could be anything from the guy who works on a highway crew and has to clean up roadkill to a woman who teaches autistic kids to a sculptor, sound engineer or an art appraiser. Interview With the Vampire was classic since it was probably the first real primer on how the whole thing works ;)

Church Lady said...

My post is filled with grammatical and spelling errors (oops!) I'm on cold medication right now. (sniffle, cough)


raine said...

Sorry, still snickering at that joke, lol...

Yes. As long as it's something I'm INTERESTED in learning, which is well-paced, and doesn't inundate me with so many 'facts' that I give up on the storyline...yes. ;-)

Carla said...

Very true. Is it also connected to a strong sense of place (think you've mentioned that here in an earlier post), do you think? One of the things I like about Daphne du Maurier's novels is the feeling of being transported to Cornwall while reading - they are 'about' Cornwall and not somewhere generic.

Bernita said...

Those are such a pleasure, Lisa!
Antique store owner for another, or an archaeologist.
Sometimes I think part of the appeal of the old Mills& Boone "nursey" novels lay in their description of hospital routine.

Thank you, Chris.
You've raised a complication of issues.
But you did say it was fiction and a thriller.
On the other hand, are you sure the internet accounts are true and accurate? Dramatic events have been minimalized in the interests of politics just as often as they have been blown out of proportion.

Im a willing camel too, Raine, but if loaded with too much straw I'll just spit and lie down.

Think it can quite definitely apply to setting and/or culture, Carla.

The Anti-Wife said...

The learning part is interesting, but you can learn from an encyclopedia. What makes it compelling is the way the author brings you into it. It's all about the writing.

Bernita said...

True, AW, and reading a reference resource is a direct and deliberate act.
If by "writing" you mean presentation, I also agree, since I have read beautiful "writing" that says nothing of substance.

moonrat said...

awesome post--that really puts a finger on what i tend to like and remember about books.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Moonrat.
Some books manage to make one feel one is privy to "secret knowledge."

Angie said...

I agree. If the writer can weave the information seamlessly into the story rather than writing it on a rock and bashing me in the head with it, it can definitely add something special to the story.

One of my favorite romances right now (Bad Case of Loving You) is about a doctor and a med student, and the writer's expertise on the subject of doctors and hospitals and the medical establishment (she was a nurse herself for many years) shows through beautifully and is integral to the plot. I learned a lot from that book just by reading for the romance, without ever being side-tracked or feeling like the writer was padding the story with irrelevant info just because. That's the way to do it.


Bernita said...

Very nice illustration, Angie. Thank you.

Gabriele C. said...

I try to sneak the little tidbits in without hitting the reader over the head. But it can be overdone - Diana Gabaldon for example, has crossed the line a few times too often for my taste. I want a plot and action and character development, not a handbook about farm life in late 18th century USA. :)

ORION said...

You Called? Thank you for the nice mention.
And really I love books that take me into the head of the character - which is probably what made me write LOTTERY in first person POV.

Bernita said...

I agree, Gabriele.
When it's a treatise and not a treat.

I think Perry's pov was the most effective technique to engage and expand a reader's understanding of your theme, Pat.

M.E Ellis said...

I haven't delved fully into historicals, but the shorts I've read do have a certain lure. So, that's a genre I'd like to poke at some time, reading-wise. I kind of like the dialogue for some reason.


Bernita said...

They do indeed, Michelle.