About Not Preaching….And Letting the Reader Think

By Jack Limpert

9780812993806_custom-f9472c743ae546a0b19bf6a1c8ce3a89971d1a83-s2-c85Tenth of December, a collection of short stories by George Saunders, has a bonus at the end of the book: A conversation about writing between Saunders and fellow author David Sedaris.

Here is some of what Saunders says about writing:

Just as a scientist would get the true measure of his materials by putting them under stress, my model of fiction is that we need to see human beings at or near their breaking points. So I think this can sometimes make the stories feel harsh, dark, or misanthropic. But it seems to me that if we want to look at, say, “love,” using fiction as the lens, then we’d want to really challenge love: give it something to push back against; construct a situation in which it could show its true colors, so to speak.

I try to find some little nugget that, for whatever reason, is interesting to me. The less thematic or philosophical or political the better. Kind of like a seed crystal in Biology class: You put it in the dish and it starts to grow, organically and on its own. As soon as I start steering toward some moral or intention, my stories tend to go flat. Part of the artistic contract is: no preaching. And knowing how a story is going to end before you start it, and why it has to end that way, and what it will “mean,” is (at least when I do it) a form of preaching. It has an inherently condescending quality, and any sensible reader would be offended/bored.
Writers who want to preach: I see it every day on the op-ed page of the Washington Post. As a reader, I start most op-ed columns with the mindset: Is the writer trying to help me understand the world’s complexities or is the writer telling me what he or she thinks and what I should think.

When I see the writer use the words “I think” it’s almost always a signal to read something else. It’s too much like preaching, and, as Saunders says, “It has an inherently condescending quality.”

I also saw it in Washingtonian pieces. The writer wasn’t content to do good reporting and writing—the writer wanted to make sure the reader understood how he or she was supposed to think about the subject. Sometimes the preaching could be edited out, sometimes it so permeated the piece that we gave up on it.

In July 2013, Mike Feinsilber and I exchanged ideas on “Letting the Reader Think.” It was provoked by a Sunday New York Times Book Review piece about how fiction writers keep the reader hooked.

In that post, I asked Feinsilber, a veteran wire service writer and editor, about letting the reader think. Here’s what he said:
Did letting the reader think ever get talked about? You bet. Most stories out of Washington are about ongoing situations; nothing ever gets finished. I argued that reporters can’t assume readers had read, or remembered, yesterday’s story. They have lives outside of Washington, outside of the news. They’re reading the paper at the breakfast table, the baby is crying, the phone is ringing, the car pool is coming in five minutes. So I crusaded for clarity, and for summarizing the background high in the story.

I also argued that people don’t mind being told what they already know. On the other hand, and this I think isn’t contradictory, I preached that readers don’t want to be told what to think, what to conclude. If you write that a proposal is “daring” or an outcome was “surprising,” you robbed the reader of the opportunity to think “Gee, that’s surprising.” You’ve told him what to think.
Here’s what I wrote back to him:

I edited several writers who were savvy researchers-reporters and were good at explanatory pieces. Their problem was they couldn’t resist scattering topic sentences throughout their stories. A high school or college English teacher had drummed into them the need for topic sentences to help the reader understand what he’s reading—English teachers say such sentences add cohesion and help organize ideas.

To explain something in the story for us, the writer would get a good quote from someone knowledgeable and then the writer would add a sentence in front of the quote telling the reader what the quote meant. They couldn’t break the habit. Repeatedly I’d strip out the topic sentences—the reader didn’t need any help understanding the quote—and repeatedly the writer would do it again next time.
As Saunders says: Any sensible reader would be offended or bored.

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