The Dangers of Reading – Gerry McCullough

Books. Without them we’d be nothing.

Yet sometimes we writers spend far too much time writing them, and not enough time reading them. Which is very sad, for the books we read define us as writers. Indeed, they define us as people. They define our childhood, define our adolescence and define our adult lives.

Gerry Mcculough

I’ve blogged here in the past about role models in books, as has Gerry McCullough and our very own teen star co-author Charley R.

And this week I’ve invited them both back to take up the debate once again.

Today, Gerry leads off with what she calls The Dangers of Reading.

Later in the week Charley will be here with part two of her essay on Mary Sues and Gary Stus.

Enjoy!

The Dangers of Reading.

Dorothy L Sayers

I think I was in my very early teens when I first fell for a character in a book. This was Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy L. Sayers’ detective series. I don’t expect any male readers to empathise with this, but almost certainly lots of female readers around my age will.

Lord Peter Wimsey

Wimsey is so clever, so witty, so sophisticated, so well read – irresistible. I particularly liked his quotes. After a while I was able to place most of them. When I was in my later teens, my Latin master, also a Sayers fan, used to use Wimsey’s quotes from time to time, and I would chirp up with the reference, earning Brownie points.

Then there was Dominic, Lord Vidal, in Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub. I was mad about him, even before I’d read my first Sayers’ book. But I think rather than falling for him, I wanted to be like him.

Lord Vidal

He was a romantic, Byronic, wicked hero, needing redeemed – and the heroine, Mary, succeeded in redeeming him.  ‘There was a laughing demon in his eyes,’ is the Byron quote. Heyer, always adding realism to romance, says. ‘She had an odd fancy, unusual in one so matter-of -fact, that little devils danced in his eyes.’  Vidal had killed men in duals.  Aged ten, I used to arrange fights with rulers, in the absence of swords, at lunchtime in my primary school, and in these fights, I was always Vidal.

Archie Goodwin

A couple of years later there was Archie Goodwin, the narrator in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books. Cool, sophisticated, a man who consistently attracted women, Archie was, to me, the central character – okay, Nero Wolfe was clever, but it was Archie who fascinated me.

Much later, I thought that Spenser, in the Robert B. Parker novels, witty, daring and intelligent, was a highly interesting man – Philip Marlowe brought up-to-date.

Tatiana - From Russia With Love

So, falling for characters from books, who aren’t actually real people, even if they seem so – where does it get you?  I’d guess many males have fallen for female characters – Tatiana in the James Bond book From Russia with Love, with her black silk stockings – Modesty Blaise – male readers, you can certainly suggest others!

But there are two major problems about all this. Firstly, when you meet real people, is it good or bad to have preconceived ideal standards, heroes or heroines, which you expect people to live up to? Romances have always been criticised for this. Women, it’s said, read about strong, brave men and are miserably disappointed in their real-life boyfriends/husbands, and so marriages break up or at least are unhappy. I don’t see why romances, and women, should get all the stick for this. It applies equally to men who expect their wife/girlfriend to be slim and beautiful forever, like the girls on TV or in films.

The second major problem is that generations of girls have read and adored Wuthering Heights, to take an obvious example, and have placed Heathcliff and others like him on a pedestal.  Now, Heathcliff, as anyone with a grain of sense can see, once you disentangle him from the beautiful, romantic love affair with Cathy, is in fact a cruel, hateful person who ought to be locked up. His treatment of his wife Isabella, and particularly of her dog, would earn him a reputation as a villain rather than a hero with anyone who really reads the book properly. And in fact the first reviews of Wuthering Heights focused on his revolting, brutal character and thought that it was immoral of Emily Bronte to write about someone like this.  So how good is it for girls to grow up thinking someone like Heathcliff is to be admired?

Olivier's Heathcliff

Films and songs have transformed his character, so perhaps the person they think of as Heathcliff is far enough away from the actual character to be harmless. Or perhaps not.

And again it’s not just women who are influenced by books. In a slightly different way, men tend to read about tough he-men of one sort or another, and possibly to try to imitate them, and this may affect their attitude to women (the ‘macho’, ‘do-as-I-tell-you’ sort of approach). And what a bad thing this can be.

So we can read about characters who make us raise our standards too high; or on the other side of the coin, we can read about, admire and even copy characters who are very far from admirable.

I suppose the point I’m making here is that books have power, not just when they are over violent or pornographic, but in the reality of the characters they present us with, and the affect which reading about these characters, admirable or not, may have on our attitudes and behaviour in real life. 

Every writer sets their own standards as to what they feel happy including in their work and what they definitely exclude. But it isn’t always the obvious things  – violence, sex, etc – which might need monitoring. And when it comes to creating characters which live in our readers’ imaginations, and influence their thoughts and actions thereafter, there isn’t much, in fact, that we can do about it. We have to write what we write. We need to make our characters as real as possible. And we have, in the end, to rely on our readers’ commonsense as they grow into maturity to react to our writing in the best possible way, and not be influenced for the worst.

Hopefully this isn’t too impossible a thing to expect.

Thanks for that, Gerry. So much there to think about.

As writers we carry a great responsibility, knowing our words may well influence our readers, intentionally or otherwise. But how many of us consciously have that in mind when we are writing?

Our debut novel Sugar & Spice was written with the deliberate intent of challenging knee-jerk reactions to those who harm children, in the hope the reader might think more carefully about a real and serious social issue. But for it to be read we had to dress up the message in a tight-knit crime thriller storyline. It was a huge risk, that could have backfired had the storyline been misinterpreted.

As it was we received a few negative comments from readers who evidently feel the bad guys should all be two dimensional characters with steel claws and face masks. Their loss.

Gerry’s own book, the wonderful Belfast Girls, is different in every respect. Yet Gerry also took a risk, in setting a story in a city that for many in mainland Britain is forever tainted with the images of violence and mayhem that were broadcast daily into our living rooms in the latter half of the last century.

I’m not sure how much Gerry deliberately set out to challenge that perspective, but her book does so wonderfully, with its tale of Sheila’s, Mary’s and Phil’s journey through life.  Highly recommended!

Gerry’s book Belfast Girls has reviews to die for, and is available on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Gerry blogs regularly about her passion for books at her blog Gerry’s Books. It’s one of my must-read blogs, and my only complaint is she doesn’t post often enough.

But back to the issue of role meodels and influencing our readers. How about you? Do you write with a message in mind, or are you just out to entertain?

Is it really possible to write a neutral story? Can a novel be dangerous?

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  1. I only write to entertain. If it was found that my male and female protagonists cast an unconscious message of negative behaviour to the reader, I should be disappointed.
    I was surprised the other day when writing a post called the Twilit Triumvirate (mesmered.wordpress.com) which was a loose discussion of the Twilight saga, to be told by an incensed reader that Ms. Meyers was misogynistic and had created a disastrous role model in Bella. The thing is, I had read the novels for entertainment, not for some subliminal message. Maybe I got it wrong!

    • And a very amusing exchange it was too! 🙂

      I guess one of the problems is that at school we are constantly being told to look for hidden messages and meanings in literature, to the extent it has become an industry in its own right.

      Charley and Miriam, I’m sure you’ll agree!

      And while this can be enlightening (few can doubt the themes and message behind Of Mice And Men, for example, or A Catcher In the Rye, or To Kill A Mockingbird), this kind of analysis is open to abuse.

      Does anyone seriously think every line Shakespeare ever wrote was pondered over for weeks on end to convey some subliminal message? One might think so, given the countless analyses written about them.

      Does Romeo and Juliet advocate paedophilia, given the age of Juliet? Does Wuthering Heights advocate necrophilia, given Heathcliff’s graveside activities? Some observers think so.

      Usually sad individuals who wilfully misinterpret a story to fit their own obsessions.

      The person who reads mysogyny into Twilght being a fine example.

        • Miriam
        • September 13th, 2011

        I get fed up of being told to analyse books and poetry. I used to write poems, ages ago, and I made a rule that no one was ever to analyse them, even if I was dead and buried three hundred years before. Because I wrote them to get something off my mind, and if I hid it in the words then it was because I didn’t want the person it was about to know that.

        I think there are some books that succeed marvellously in getting a message across without compromising the story. But there are so many that try too hard, and it just ends up wrecking the book.

        • Well said, Captain Mim!

          Intrigued to know how you’ll enforce the no analysis rule after you’re dead. Come back and haunt them, maybe?

      • barbara silkstone
      • September 13th, 2011

      Prue, I found that statement startling. (Ms. Meyers was misogynistic.)Whoever wrote it was looking to find misogyny or its kin in the Twilight books. Those books are not great literature but they are magic. Bella is an old-fashioned heroine in a modern world. They’re a delightful light read laced with the feelings of first loves.

      BTW… I am still under the spell of your Lalita and Finnian in A Thousand Glass Flowers. Now that’s a strong leading lady. 🙂

  2. Good job Gerry and Mark! FB’d and tweeted.

    • Thanks, Tom.

      It’s been such a disrupted summer I’ve all but lost track of you, Tom. Sorry! Now things are settled it’s high time we had you back here on MWi to update us on events, remind those who missed it of your wonderful debut novel Beyond Nostalgia, and also to tell us about the new book, and future projects.

      Shall be in touch shortly.

  3. Fabulous post! I never knew I’d inadvertantly named a character of mine after one in a book I’ve never read (Vidal, that is). What a charming coinkydink xD

    Love your matter-of-fact approach to characters, and finally someone who sees Heathcliff for the nasty git he is! I never liked him when I read the book. Nasty nasty man.

    Fab post! Mine’s going to look positively ridiculous next to this one xD

    • Haven’t read about Vidal yet, but recently started reading Georgette Heyer thanks to Gerry’s recommendation.

      Charley, you know your posts are to die for, and I have to deliberately insert typos and bad grammar just show you don’t show my intro up too much.

      • After reading my first Georgette Heyer last year, I love her! I recommend Lucinda Brant as well. Georgian romance and crimance and could justifiably stand in Heyer’s shoes.
        No subliminal messages in either: great entertainment. Which by the way is what I am dying for at good old St.Mallory’s .

        • St. Mallory’s is 100% entertaining so far, Prue!

          I can’t wait for each new chapter to come through from the girls.If all goes well it will be live on Amazon this Xmas!

  4. I write to entertain, I don’t ever think of an underlying message when I write my stories. I write my characters as people I’d like to hang out with. Again this is very subjective as I’ve had reviews on both ends of the spectrum. Most people love my characters and make great comments about the character development. Then other reviewers state they thought the characters were flat. It’s just like real life really – Some people you connect with and others you just don’t like. There’s no rhymn or reason to it.

    • Miriam
    • September 13th, 2011

    Everyone knows reading is dangerous!

    It’s far too easy to fall down the stairs when you’re doing it.

  5. Mark keeps telling me I’d adore your books Gerry, and now I know why. Lord Peter Wimsey was my first love, too! And I adore Nero Wolf’s Archie. Plus I grew up tearing through every Georgette Heyer I could get my hands on.

    But I was so disappointed with Wuthering Heights. I thought Heathcliff was a creep. Ditto Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre. Later when I went to Haworth and saw the Bronte house, and saw how their brother Branwell’s room dominated, and heard how his alcoholism had dominated their lives, I suddenly understood the Bronte “heroes”. They’re all based on Branwell–charismatic, powerful, narcissistic and addicted.

    The Brontes weren’t creating “evil” by portraying these characters, they were acting out their own subconscious lives. Charlotte redeemed Branwell, but Emily showed him in all his charismatic cruelty. This is art. It redeems by telling the truth.

    What we do need to watch out for as writers, though, is creating evil only for the sake of entertainment. I’m seriously not fond of “torture porn” where young women are tortured by serial killers to thrill the reader. If there’s no message and no catharsis, nothing but wallowing in the ickiness of it all, I run very far away.

    • Anne, you are so spot on about the Brontes. Knowing about an author’s background can so ofteh shed new light on a novel, and nohere more so than with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

      I have to confess Jane Eyre is one of my all-time favourites, and regulars will know that can only be because of those moving early scenes with Jane and Helen Burns. Perhaps had Emily explored the childhood background of her MCs a little more we would all find Wuthering Heights less of a struggle.

      Your last point, Anne, is so very true. So much crime fiction nowadays seems to follow that route, suggesting a certain commercial value. Given two of our novels are crime fiction in which violence plays a key role, this is a subject I shall come back to when time permits.

  6. ART is powerful, in all forms. Look at the musicians who take heat because their music “makes people do things”.

    It’s funny how powerful words and books could be. They are written for entertainment, some with a sense of purpose, and yet we all humans can take it so literal, it’s amazing.

    I remember one time, my wife was into a show. And a woman one the show stood a guy up at the atlar… well, she was paid to do it. This woman was on another show, and my wife got MAD at the woman, thinking of her other character. I laughed, and so did she, but it proves the power of it all.

    When I’m writing, I try to entertain. I want to bring you into a story, take you away from your life, and in the process, if I can show you something you take away, then kudos to me! 🙂

    Take The Devil’s Weekend for example. I wrote that book as a fast paced thriller. The main character is the serial killer, with the detective chasing him as the secondary. Oliver thinks he’s a free man because he deals with The Devil. Well, at the end, we come to realize that The Devil never loses. In a straight up way, the book is a horror/thriller. In a subliminal way, you could look at it as an example of becoming too greedy, of pushing the limits too far, and what happens when you toy with the darkness inside ourselves.

    This was a great post though, made my nod and think a little. Words are power. Use them wisely! 😉

    • Thanks. Jim.

      You’re right, all art can be powerful, and many dictatorships have tried to suppress writers, which shows just how seriously they feel threatened by the written word.

  7. I am another reader who got tired of having to constantly look for the “deeper meaning”. I have always been of the mind that the only “subliminal message” Shakespeare bothered with was poking fun at the ridiculousness of human beings (particularly the upper classes). And that wasn’t very subliminal. He wrote a rolicking good tale and that was all.

    I have no interest in doing anything but entertaining my readers.

    Why does there have to be anything more to it than that?

    • Why indeed, Shea?

      And yet, too, we have the likes of Dickens who used his power as a writer to expose the sad realities of Victorian England, and many sci-fi classic of the fifties used their stories to warn against desrruction of the planet.

      Politically, of course. Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 took no prisoners with their attacks on totalitarian regimes.

      John Grisham is a great example of a modern writer who attacks the failings of corporate America.

      And several MWi regulars have written books with clear politcical messages.

      What’s important is that they did so in an entertaining way.

  8. I agree; we need to make out characters as real as possible, and if this involves giving them mistaken opinions or characteristics that are less than “heroic,” some readers will fixate on those faults. But all the greatest characters have had their flaws; painted saints are boring.

    • gerrymccullough
    • September 18th, 2011

    This is a very late reply, because I’ve been on holiday since just before this was posted. But, hey, you all seem to have carried on the conversation perfectly well without me interjecting.
    Thanks for the nice things you said. I agree that a message which is too obvious is a bad thing. Books should primarily entertain. But I think what I was trying to say was that we, the readers, will inevitably be influenced by what we read, and so we, the writers, need to be very aware of this, while still writing what we feel we need to write – a delicate line to balance on.

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