Monday, February 26, 2007

Personal Habits and Reader Sympathy

I’m reading a book right now, one that has a publication date of 2007, in which one of the main characters smokes, and it’s clear that the author has some working (although perhaps secondary) experience with cigarettes because a lot of the details are so accurate they cause my lip to curl. Admittedly, I’m a pretty vehement anti-smoker. I don’t smoke and I really have a hard time dealing with people who do, partly, I think, because my mother smoked the entire time I lived at home. I hated the smell, the ashes, and the ashtrays. This being said, I have no problem with the IDEA of someone being a smoker, particularly when I don’t have to smell the smoke or deal with the mess. I most certainly believe a person can be a noble and wonderful human being and smoker.

Yet, I still have a weird unconscious reaction when someone lights up in fiction. It’s especially strange because when I see someone smoking in a film (or on the street), I don’t have this kind of visceral reaction at all. Maybe Hollywood has over all this time actually convinced me that smoking “looks” cool. Conversely, it “reads” completely differently – at least for me.

I wonder if some part of my stronger reaction to reading about a personal habit I don’t much care for is that in a way that is experienced differently (I might even postulate opposite) for film, a reader becomes the characters they read. In other words, my lizard brain puts me in the room – possibly in the body – with the smoker that I read; as opposed to observing from the outside, the smoker that I see on film.

Plus, the way in which the art form of writing works, i.e. causing pictures to form in my head from abstract marks on paper, means that I’m drawing directly from my own personal experience. When the author writes about an overflowing ashtray, the one that most stuck in my mind from my own real-life interaction with a real-life version of said ashtray is what pops into my head. The things *I* remember about it (the texture and appearance of the butts, the residue smell) are what the author draws forth in me. It becomes personal, even if s/he never described those particular details.

It’s this magic – the way a few sparse words can evoke an entire image in the reader’s brain – is why writers are cautioned away from purple prose. Too much detail clogs the brain’s capacity to reach for the picture it already has stored in its own memory vaults. Of course, the converse is true also. If you don’t give enough detail, the brain fills it in anyway, and sometimes factors that may be important to your storyline like gender or race get muddled by the reader’s overcompensating (of course, every writer knows that this happens sometimes anyway, despite best efforts. It’s also been used to great effect and/or to prove a particular point by master writers like James Tiptree, Jr.)

Beyond all that, I’m still wondering how to deal with my reaction to this particular character in this particular book. Can I still like her, even though she makes me smoke with her? Does my own lizard brain’s reaction to the gory details knock me out of the story so much that I’ll have to give up on the book entirely? And, if that’s the case, then shouldn’t I wonder what odious personal habits I’ve written into my own characters that outside readers might react to negatively?

Plus, smoking has so fallen out of “fashion” as to seem almost anachronistic. As science fiction writers, we also have that aspect to consider. Will my characters tendency to drink copious amounts of organic, trade-free, shade-grown, bicycle-delivered coffee seem completely bizarre to readers reading that book twenty years from now?

Goddess knows, there are some stories where I’ve run into that time warp – there’s a Robert Silverberg story that I have in one of my Nebula Award anthologies from the Sixties, where we’re supposed to imagine we’re at a cocktail party in the future (who even has cocktail parties any more?), and the more you read the story the more its clear that the social interactions are very, very dated. The way the men treat the women, their smoking, recreational drug use, drinking, and “swinging,” all mark it as not-the-future-at-all, but a product of a particular time. I should say, however, in Mr. Silverburg’s defense, that the SF aspects of the story are still interesting and compelling, though the what-read-as-anachronisms made my reading of the story a very bumpy ride. At least with that story, I was able to remind myself that this story was written at a time when those things were the norm at parties (or possibly, the norm at parties Mr. Silverburg was invited to.) Also, it was easier for me to deal with behavior I found odd and slightly off-putting in the quick span of a short story.

Am I still reading this book? For now, yes. Am I sympathetic to the character? Less so, though I haven’t (and don’t intend to) written her off completely. Thankfully, the smoker is only one character out of five, so only a fifth of my novel “time” will be spent sharing her body and her odious personal habits. I can cope with that.... I think.

I’ll let you know.


Kelly Swails said...

The same thing happens with me and smokers, but only in real life. I especially hate seeing a picture of a celebrity with a cigarette. I'm immediately disappointed and think less of them. Both my parents smoked when I lived at home and I hated it. My mother continued to smoke after my dad had a heart attack and quit.
The interesting thing is, I don't have that reaction when I read about a smoker or watch a smoking character in a movie or TV. Maybe it's because when I watch a movie or read a book I know it's fictional and I can accept that the characters will have what I consider to be character flaws. In real life it annoys me a whole lot more.

Zoe said...

For me it's the other way around - I don't have a problem reading about someone smoking, but it bugs me when I see it on TV or in a movie. I think it's because when I read, I imagine the general idea of the scene rather than specific details, whereas if I'm watching TV I actually see the cigarette in detail, which makes it easier to imagine the smell (which I hate).

Michele said...

I once read (or started) a romance with a heroine who smoked. A lot. I realize that smokers can have romance in their lives. (Though, it makes me wonder that perhaps they could only attract another smoker into their lives, because it is so...yuck.) But if that's your thing, fine. I couldn't finish the story though, because every time the heroine lit up it just became so unromantic to me. Sigh...