There are many things that can make a good novel or short story truly great. Some may prefer depth of plotting, others might prefer strong characters, or the development of those characters. Others still may loved vivid description that explore the range of senses or the richness of the world. But for me, those novels that really stand out are those with strong ideas that challenge social norms and present us with situations that force us to confront everything that we believe or think we know about the world.
I consider myself a realist in that if what I believe will not stand up to scrutiny then those beliefs are not worth having. When we take this to the extreme, we end up becoming conspiracy theorists and double back on ourselves and don’t allow our alternate views to be scrutinised.
It was such a premise in The Da Vinci Code which attempted to challenge people’s social norms. Not particularly well written with some glaring factual errors it would have gone down as a quirky mystery novel, but not amongst the most notable, had it not been for Dan Brown’s claims to be based on true events and actual research (A better example of the religious-history-mystery novel for me is Raymond Khoury’s The Last Templar). The success of The Da Vinci Code then is that it challenged social norms about what we have been led to believe about the life of Jesus and of Mary Magdalene and the nature of their relationship.
Of course there are much better examples of challenging the reader, and not all of them are about appealing to conspiracy within ‘the establishment’.
One of the most fascinating was Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. It is ultimately about the age old struggle between traditions and progress. Without giving too much away, the gods of the old world have migrated to the USA for hopes of a better life. But they find that war has followed them. All those things we see as progressive: roads, globalisation, the internet, mass transit, the mobile phone are personified and determined to destroy the old gods. Gaiman received critical acclaim for the novel and it is not difficult to see why. The challenge to the reader here is that ultimately we need to strike a balance between traditions and progress. Embrace the future because you can’t stop it, but never forget the past because it makes us who we are.
The one writer whose work I always find challenging in the cerebral sense is Kim Stanley Robinson. My introduction to his work was his “Martian Trilogy” (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) which gradually evolves from a hard sci fi adventure in the first novel to a literary piece about society, philosophy, religion and politics in the third as the Martian colonists seek to gain independence and forge a new world. Similarly his “Capitol Trilogy” (40 signs of rain, 50 degrees below, 60 days and counting) about catastrophic climate change moves from combating inaction and a well-funded denialist movement to the politics and social approach of what to do about it and where to start.
I can only hope to match the brilliance of Robinson or Gaiman and I hope some day I can write something that makes readers pause for thought. I feel that my most challenging short story is ‘Evil Begets Evil’ which appeared in Herrenvolk and Other Stories. Another monastery-based short (though this time an Italian convent in the modern day), it is about a young lady isolated within the community and cannot engage in most activities because of an unspecified medical condition. This creates a conflict between the young woman and one of the senior nuns who takes it upon herself to find out what the young lady is up to.
Do you enjoy being challenged as a reader? Do you like to challenge your readers or are you more concerned with not upsetting the apple cart?