I recently had the opportunity to attend a talk by André Alexis, author of the Giller Prize winning Fifteen Dogs. His third and most recent novel is The Hidden Keys, which along with Fifteen Dogs is meant to be part of a group of five books beginning with his novel Pastoral. Alexis explained that each of the five books, the fourth of which is still being written, are all novels in different genres about the same three things – Love, Place, and God. During the talk, Alexis read passages from each novel, all completely different but all clearly talking about those three things.
This made me think about how the words we use can really affect the message we are trying to get across. If André Alexis, in a masterful and calculated way, can make us feel completely different five times over about the same three ideas, imagine what havoc we amateurs wreak when we aren’t careful with how we choose our words. The words we decide on can determine if our message is sincere or strident, condescending or uplifting, and can either enhance or obscure what we’re really trying to say.
Fiction, whose duty it is to pull on heart strings or make us check for monsters under the bed, uses how words can make us feel to set the scene and pull us through the story. Think of the question “Is the dog eating in the barn?” and you might think of an old farmer asking where his trusty sheepdog, Flossy, is at while he tucks into his lunch before going back out to tend the sheep. But if I tell you that I have Stephen King’s Cujo open as I write this, you realize that the context of the question makes it much more sinister – while the dog may be eating in the barn, kibble is likely not the main course. We know this because by page 181, King has used his macabre skill with words to get us all freaked out and we know that no good can come of the dog in the next 138 pages.
Non-fiction also uses words to set a scene, and make us feel a certain way about what we’re reading. But “the feels” can get a little sticky when dealing with factual writing. Paraphrasing French physicist Henri Poincaré, a pile of facts is no more the truth than a pile of bricks is a house, and it’s up to the writer and the reader to position those facts in reality. A historical non-fiction author will present the facts of a historical event in a way to make you feel as if you were experiencing it. A writer on climate will provide you with the data around climate change, but will also try and provide the context of what that data means – like rising sea levels and more severe weather – to make clear the real-world ramifications.
There is danger when a writer becomes reliant on inflammatory or sensationalist language to get their point across – which can undermine a truthful message, or obscure an untruthful message by playing to the emotions rather than intellect of the reader. It’s sort of like cluttering up your pile of bricks with banana peels and broken glass – the house becomes that much harder to build. We don’t know if the dog is really Flossy the trusty sheep dog, or the dreaded Cujo – we just know how we feel about it.
When reading fiction or non-fiction, it’s good to try and discern the intent of the writer. With fiction this is usually just a part of the book as it is meant to be experienced – the author knows what emotions they want us to feel and we feel them. Same goes for non-fiction, but because we believe what we’re reading to be true, we need to think a bit more carefully about the intent of the author – Are they being sincere? Are they trying to get a rise out of us? If so, why? It’s not always a bad thing to make your audience feel something, but we need to know if we really need to be scared of the dog, or if poor Flossy is being given a bad rap for no good reason.
*Originally published in County Life.