Rick Moody on knowing where the payoff is going to be

I suffer from a malady that could best be described as big-tentism or maybe as omni-sympathetica. I find it easy both to be captured by narratives of many different types and to be hyper-critical of narratives of many different types. On the one hand this is a good thing: I like to read everything from formulaic genre novels to the densest literary fiction to the most experimental fiction. I am easily drawn in to the narrative flow and only egregious lack of craftsmanship is liable to knock me out of it. All that gives me a certain breadth and facility as a reader, a writer and a critic.

The downside, of course, is that it means that almost every read for me is a burst of narrative payoff that then quickly mellows in to mixed success. It also that means that, although I try my best to evaluate stories in relation to their genres and individual goals, as an editor and critic I do have a tendency to want to nudge works in to this preferred nexus of mine of genre, literary and experimental.

So that’s sort of a weird preface to this next part, but I wanted to establish my personal psycho-critical space that informs how I react to the following thoughts from Rick Moody (found in this excellent interview — the whole thing is worth reading or viewing at Big Think):

I think that psychologically, emotionally, there’s a need for what story can do and by that I mean a narrative that begins at point A and goes to point B that really travels somewhere and contains some kind of earthly wisdom in the fact that its transit.  That kind of story I think we’re sort of hardwired to find it valuable in a certain way.  And I’m sure that the proliferation of those stories has to do with the fact that we do find them valuable.

That strikes me as great, the problem comes if the shape and manner of all those stories is identical. If every time we read a story we know exactly where the epiphany of the story is going to happen and what the payoff’s going to be and how we’re gonna feel.  In that circumstance they all become sentimental, or they all become melodramatic. They become degraded in a way.  What I imagine might happen and what would be most exciting to me is if that then suggested new ways of telling stories and a need to try to go further and to develop new story structures rather than relying on the tried-and-true in the same ways.

I find that some of contemporary fiction, as it’s iterated in the slick magazines and so forth, does just what I’m saying. It hits the same moments, the same points, we react in the same ways, the prose feels identical not matter the writer.  And to me that’s tiring, but it also makes possible a lot of experimental approaches to thinking about story and that’s something to be optimistic about.

I completely agree. But rather than focus on the need for experimentation (although we can discuss that too), what this quote got me thinking about was where the payoff works for me even if I can see it coming, even if it is sympathetic or melodramatic.

The answer to this is: where I am sympathetic to the worldview of the main character and feel invest in his or her success. Now sympathy can be built in many ways, and one of the key virtues of narrative art is that it allows us to develop sympathy for people with worldviews or attributes or personalities very different from our own; however, there is an added level of satisfaction when it is a Mormon, or a geek, or a writer, or a cowboy, or a noble-but-flawed hero/heroine, or a (competent) dad or mom, or an artist, or a someone who really likes food, or a fantasy world that is clearly influenced by Mormonism or a setting that is LDS-flavored.

Now, of course, there are all sorts of caveats related to the dangers of didacticism and the joys of foreignness and the need to get out of comfort zones. But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that I (and probably you) are going to naturally cut a little (not much, but a little) slack to stories that feature characters and settings that we can relate strongly too. And I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. This world is made for making distinctions and expressing preferences.

And so, I suppose, that this an explanation of why I continue to read Mormon literature even when I know it’s going to be a literary short story that’s going to have this tiny epiphany at a particular moment and that in many cases, I’m going to be frustrated because I want more ambition (and humor and experimentation and, hypocritically, more faithfulness) out of them. And why I continue to read LDS genre novels that don’t have the craft and verve of the cream of the national market (although as LDS genre novel apologists claim, they are getting better).

And it’s also a defense of the whole idea of Mormon literature written for Mormons. And it’s pointing out that we shouldn’t take guff for that because, you know, other literatures are just as sympathetic or melodramatic and other critics and readers have their own natural preferences and interests and worldviews.

And, of course, it’s also to sneak in the notion of experimentation and make again the claim that it’s possible that Mormon writers are uniquely positioned to both understand and interrogate the dominant American cultures (and possibly other world cultures) through experiments in narrative art.

5 thoughts on “Rick Moody on knowing where the payoff is going to be”

  1. Moody’s is a good explanation of why manga and anime have been so wildly embraced by some outside Japan, to an extent that often puzzles their creators. At times they react as if a NYT drama critic started raving about a stake roadshow production.

    Not so much, “Why do you think this is any good” as “What are you doing in the audience in the first place?”

    The very fact that anime and manga are still mostly created by Japanese for Japanese with practically no consideration given to the tastes of the foreign audience means that here we truly have the “same only different.”

    Granted, plenty of it is same-old, same-old and derivative and lowest-common-denominator. But now and then you can hear those same notes being hit, only this time on a pentatonic scale, or the same beats being struck, except by a taiko drum. And, hey, I never experienced it quite that way before.

  2. Exactly: whether familiar or not, often the details that are deployed in the service of the formula make all the difference for a reader.

  3. .

    But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that I (and probably you) are going to naturally cut a little (not much, but a little) slack to stories that feature characters and settings that we can relate strongly too.

    It interests me to hear you say that, because I have often had the impression that the reason many people do NOT read MoLit is because they are less likely to cut it slack and thus hold it to an unrealistically high standard and thus never bother to try reading any at all.

  4. We’re talking personal taste here, Theric. I’m justifying my stance. I agree that there may be many others who don’t buy it.

  5. I find that it’s super easy to cut foreignness slack because I don’t know, I don’t inhabit, I can’t relate to that character in its reality (say, like I can Becky in Actor/Housewife). So since I don’t know what I don’t know, I have no choice but to go with the flow.

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