Friday, October 21, 2011

The Purpose-driven Novel

The theme at Novel Spaces this month is, "Should novels have a purpose beyond entertaining the reader?" My answer is an unqualified, "Yes!"

It's not that I'm against novels entertaining people. In fact, I believe the most important function of a novel is to entertain. A novel that doesn't is a failure.

But a novel that does nothing but entertain is like cotton candy—without substance and a waste of time and money.


At minimum, I believe a book should have a theme. It can be as simple as "Love conquers all" or "Justice wins in the end " or "Honor above all," themes that run, respectively, through many romance novels, mysteries, and Westerns. It can be something controversial, such as "Fate controls one's destiny" or "People control their own destinies." Without theme, a book has no meaning or resonance, no power to last.

But books can offer a much richer experience than mere entertainment and a theme that satisfies. I have conscious purposes for almost every story and book I write. I put in situations to make my readers think, as well as messages, ideas, or information. Sometimes themes show up on their own, and when they do, I go back and develop them further.

Here are five of my several purposes for my 2009 novel Like Mayflies in a Stream.

1. Like Mayflies in a Stream is set in ancient Mesopotamia about 2750 B.C.E. Most historical fiction readers, like most fantasy and science fiction readers, want to know what it's like to live in another place, time, or society. I obliged them by having scenes set in the city, the wilderness, and a farming village. The characters are as true to their time as I could make them, as are the customs and physical settings. The reader both has an excellent time reading about the characters' adventures (I hope) and learns something about the world's first city and its people.

2. My book was inspired by the world's first epic poem, "The Epic of Gilgamesh," which is about the world's first superhero and his exploits. The tension between wildness and civilization is a thread woven intricately throughout the poem. This theme deeply resonated with me: I am only happy when living in a city with lots of music, good food, and art, yet I am also only happy when I am part of the natural world. I have never completely reconciled those two sides of my nature.

I put into my novel conflicts between wildness and civilization at several levels: between wilderness and village; between wilderness and big city; between Gilgamesh, the world's greatest king, and Enkidu, a wild man brought up by gazelles; between the sophisticated priestess Shamhat and the rustic trapper Zaidu; and within the complex man Gilgamesh himself.

The reader gradually realizes (again, this is my hope)  that we 21st-century Americans are not so different. We still struggle with civilization. We want civic order and prosperity, but we want to do our own thing and make our own rules. We want to breathe clean air and hear birds sing, but we also want to live near our jobs and enjoy the safety of having our houses behind flood walls and wolves well away from our backyards.

3. Shamhat, priestess of Inanna (the goddess of love), only appears in a few lines in the "Epic of Gilgamesh." I made her the heroine of Like Mayflies in a Stream and gave her many ethical dilemmas. Her duties conflict, and she has to puzzle out whether she owes her greatest loyalty to her king, her city, her temple, her family, or herself. She makes choices—but I am still pondering whether they were the right choices. I hope readers are too; I hope reading about Shamhat's decisions will help readers when they have to make similar ethical choices.

4. I have a pet peeve: The collateral damage left behind by macho heroes in books and movies is often glossed over or even presented as entertainment. Audiences cheer, for example, when a movie has a car chase or an explosion that kills many people. Gilgamesh is the prototype for this style of hero.

I thought the world needed a feminist perspective on the epic's portrayal of Gilgamesh as a hero worthy of honor, as well as on his many modern-day successors. (Why do I consider this a feminist issue? Women usually suffer the most in stories with these kind of heroes.) In Like Mayflies in a Stream, Shamhat witnesses the destruction Gilgamesh causes, and she takes on the heavy burden of trying to protect her family, her friends, and her temple.

5. I have another pet peeve: Some authors who want a  woman character to be strong make her rude and sarcastic and bossy, put her in black leather boots (high-heeled, of course), arm her heavily, deprive her of female friends, and have her be as violent and create as much havoc as Gilgamesh and other macho heroes.

I am a strong woman and I am (almost) nothing like that, and I worry about the influence of so-called "kick-ass heroines" on young people's self-concepts and on perceptions and expectations of women. So I  write heroines who are strong in the way real women are strong and who are true to their societies and times. That's how I wrote Shamhat. Hadley Rille Books specializes in fantasy novels and historical fiction with strong, realistic heroines, and Shamhat and Like Mayflies in a Stream found a welcoming home there.

I invite more Novelnauts in their October posts to take up the question of whether fiction should have purpose. I have strong opinions that it should, and I believe that done well, purpose in fiction makes  fiction stronger, not weaker.

What do you Novel Spaces readers think?

I'll be blogging again at Novel Spaces on November 6. Between now and then, I'll be attending the World Fantasy Convention. I hope to tell you a bit about it on November 6 and more in my November 21 post.

If you've read this far, thank you. This post was long, and I appreciate your reading it to the end. I hope it gave you much food for thought.

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

I enjoyed Mayflies very much. I'm not sure how many of the theme elements I picked up consciously, but there certainly was a resonance in that book that I enjoyed, and which probably arose from your use of some of these themes.

Anonymous said...

Love your post! Your book sounds like a blast. As an archaeologist who is also a mystery writer, I like what you're doing here. I also think not enough people know about Hadley Rille Books. They take chances. Thrall, by Kimberly Todd Wade, is a great story set at the dawn of conscious thought, for example.

My archaeological mystery, American Caliphate, being published in December by Oak Tree Press, has several purposes:

1) to share the wonders of archaeology with readers and to show just how much we can know about the past;

2) to light a tiny historical candle and illuminate a time and place that not often explored in literature - part of the novel takes place in 16th century Spain as a family of Moors considers emigrating to the Americas;

3) to introduce a female protagonist who is powerful, capable, and yet still very sane and very female.

I could probably think of more, but I'll go with these for now. Best of luck with the book!

William Doonan

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, thank you. I'm glad to hear that the "more than entertainment" parts of my book didn't interfere with your enjoyment.

WILLIAM DOONAN, Your upcoming book sounds fascinating! That's such a sad time during history. I read Richard Zimler's The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon this summer. It's another post-1492 mystery novel in which the mystery is interwoven with families trying to decide whether to leave Spain forever. Thanks for letting me know about your book and its messages.