On Edge

My fellow critics at Writer's Cramp are constantly carping about what they see as a certain passivity in my fiction. Where's the tension? they keep asking. Where's the conflict? Why does she keep stopping to eat? Why doesn't she kick some ass?

I have begun responding (rather sulkily, I must admit), "Isn't there enough tension in the world? Don't we have enough conflict?"

Oddly enough, most of the readers of The Year of the Crow seem to be swimming right through it. Several of them have called it a "secret pleasure," drawing out the reading itself so that they can live with my characters a little while longer. A few say they kept opening the book after finishing it, hoping they had missed something, that there were still some scenes left that they hadn't read yet. Others have said they "couldn't put it down."

I'm not saying all of this for self-aggrandizement (well, yes, I am, because I am inordinately proud of this first novel and, thanks to readers like these I feel more and more comfortable recommending it), but to point out that, even without page-turning tension, edgy conflict, or constant ass-kicking, there is an audience out there that loved it anyway.

There isn't much edginess to Jane Austen, either. Oh, there's a little tension, some conflict. But do any of us really think Elizabeth's not going to marry Mr. Darcy? The fun is in finding out how they get there. The tension is pleasant, the conflict is subliminal, and the ass-kicking is verbal and rare. We don't read Pride and Prejudice (Bantam Classics) to find out what happens next. We read it like a vacation. Another place and time to be. We're not on the edge of our seats. We're settled back into an easy chair with a bit of toast and a cup of tea. If we can't put it down, it's not because we're worried about the characters. It's because we just don't want to come back yet.

Agatha Christie? Same thing. Oh, there's a mystery. But do we really care whodunit? Do we sorrow over the subsequent deaths? Are we ever on the edge of our seats? I don't think so. Instead, we are listening to Miss Marple talk about the attributes of questionable villagers, Hercule Poirot fuss over the little detail. We are delighting in the rose garden, the veal cutlet, the little tisane, the crème de cassis.

It's likely that my stories will never rise to the heights of a Sense and Sensibility (Penguin Classics) or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Hercule Poirot Mysteries) . But they have something of the people and places I love, my characters stop for lunch, they see the land around them, they worry and love and - yes - feel conflicted. They have tense moments. They kick a little verbal ass. Sometimes they - well, no spoilers here. I haven't written that part yet. And I don't even know if she actually will. Ghosts of the Heart (was) still a Work in Progress.

There are books we read for the action. They're great. We devour them. Gone with the Wind , The Godfather (Signet) , The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium Series) . We can't put them down because we have to see what happens next. But I don't think most of us want to live there.

The great books, I think, are those that combine all of those qualities. They are a wild ride embedded in a rich context of landscape, lunch and cocktails, through the mind of a character who captures us whether we like it or not and tells us things about ourselves we weren't sure we wanted to know.

I don't write great books. But I do write pretty good books, I think. All one and a half of them so far. They might not keep you on the edge of your seat, but they might take you to a place you've never been, feed you a little fry bread in one, a cheese toastie in another, and with any luck introduce you to a few people you can enjoy hanging with for a while. A few people with a story to tell.

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