Beyond Genre – Novels and Emotional Needs
I stated in a previous blog post that I thought tone and mood mattered more to me than genre and provided a far better indicator of whether or not I would like a particular book. I’m not saying genre doesn’t matter; it just doesn’t matter as much. In this post, I’m going to try to explore why that might be. I assume others may also share my ranking of relative importance but since my sample size for this in one, my hypothesis is philosophical rather than scientific so I’ll treat this as a personal voyage.
As a reminder (so you don’t have to read the previous blog), the term mood describes the overall feeling of a literary work in terms of the emotions felt by the reader, and tone describes the way that feeling is expressed by the attitude of the author.
Fiction is an art form. People feel something when they read it. As with all art forms, it is this emotion that draws people to the work. It may have intellectual aspects as well, which can enhance the experience; and increased knowledge about the art form can add to one’s appreciation of it, but it is the emotional impact that makes a person either like a particular piece or dislike it.
First, let me define the term “art form.” I’m making this one up, not the term, the definition, so there is no compelling reason for you to agree. It’s just my take on what all good art has in common. For me, an art form is any stylized representation of some aspect of reality intended to evoke an emotional response from an audience. That’s what makes a novel art, and a text book not. Not that you can’t have an emotional response to a text book. When in school, there were several text books I really came to hate but I seriously doubt the authors intended that.
That feeling the audience gets from art, whether it is a painting or sculpture, a piece of music, a film, or a novel, is ultimately what determines if they like it–not appreciate it–like it. They like how it makes them feel. You can appreciate how a painter uses color and texture or how a writer constructs scenes and characters but still not like the end result. The work, despite all of its technical strengths may not touch you, it may not make you feel anything, or it may evoke feelings you don’t like or want at the time.
Consciously or unconsciously, people approach a work of art with the desire to feel something from it. If the work meets their emotional need, they like it. If it does not, they don’t. But of course different people have different emotional needs at different times so a book they did not like ten years ago, they may find they like now and may not even understand why. I think it is because their emotional needs have changed during that time. The novel, after all, is the same.
In some ways, all art is a form of escapism. This is especially true for novels, as well as movies and fictional television shows. But the word escapism has negative connotations and is, I think, not entirely accurate. People turn to fictional stories in books and movies to temporarily take their minds away from the pressures of their individual realities or to vicariously partake in something they may find missing in their real lives, but this isn’t so much to escape from their lives as to balance them emotionally.
To illustrate what I mean, let’s assume a person works every day at a dull job in which he has no real control over what he does or when he does it. When he comes home, this doesn’t change. Several things have to be done, whether it’s pick up the kids from school, drop them off at band practice, cook supper, pay the bills, mow the lawn, or fix something that broke the day before. When he gets that rare moment of free time, how does he fill it? Well, if he likes having no real control over his life, if he does not like making decisions, he may just turn on the TV news and watch more things he can’t really have much effect on. His dull and impotent life doesn’t bother him and therefore doesn’t create an emotional need. But if the necessity to always react to situations rather than control them makes him feel frustrated, a good novel with a protagonist who always takes charge of any situation, may be just what he needs. It can help him feel things he does not often get to feel in his normal routine. It can help balance his emotional life. Whether the novel is an epic adventure, mystery, space opera, or western, doesn’t matter as much as the feeling of excitement and potency the mood of the novel provides.
The thing creating an emotional need does not have to be personal. For example, someone who has more generalized frustrations about humanity in general, who is bothered by how people always seem to find excuses to harm one another or do really irrational and self destructive things, may turn to fiction to balance growing feelings of pessimism with books with optimistic and hopeful moods.
Escapism? Maybe. Therapy? Perhaps. Novels can fulfill an emotional need and are probably more effective and certainly less fattening than downing a six-pack.