Pain is personal. Despite what the therapeutic wisdom decrees, no one else can share your pain. They can’t get inside your pain receptors and know exactly where the distress signals hurt(l)ing down the nerves originate from. They are only armed with one of those emotional maps, equivalent of the first ever cartographers; suspiciously smooth scalloped coastlines with nothing known of the dark interior, so they drafted gargoyles and behemoths to represent the unknown monsters. At best they can give you some coping strategies, some bargains for you to make with your own psyche. All anyone can do is hold the line back at ‘reality’ for when you are ready to emerge back from your pain. For when you are able to ‘function’ once again. They can’t reach in to drag you back across that line. Their touch would sting like a Taser gun.

But writers love to write about pain. Their flawed and broken characters are usually riddled with pain. Pain probably forms a significant part of their backstory and underscores how they come to be here at the beginning of the novel. The novel itself a process of peeling back the scabs and knitted clots, as a cathartic process of healing. But does the reader really require (demand?) catharsis through vicarious reading of somebody else’s pain? Twitter’s ‘GritLit’ debate last night on #litchat filled me with grievous pain (alright, more of a nagging itch really). This subgenre seemes to be about ‘realistic’ portraying of violence and pain as an unheightened, bromidic part of human interaction (Cormac McCarthy the poster boy of the genre). But in order to rise it above the merely voyeuristic, it seems it has to be clothed in some sort of Virtue versus Sin, Redemption versus Damnation Old Testament moral garb I thought we’d just about got shot of in these godless times in the West. Such homicidal homilies do not speak to me (and not just because I’m British, our streets are ratcheting up the pain and death quotient in line with the US quite nicely thank you very much).

Of course you can write about pain in an achingly beautiful way. Dan does it in his debut novel “Songs From The Other Side Of The Wall”, in this case the deep pain of loss. But I’m wondering whether the writer can write about pain, not to produce catharsis (that kind of lets the reader off at the end of any novel, they’ve followed the journey, job done), but to try and produce pain inside the reader that they actually do feel for themselves, drawn from their own experiences. Of course, you don’t want to make the experience of reading your book too unpleasant for someone to want to pick it up in the first place. I am just asking whether it is possible not to externalise whatever emotions you deal in your writing, embodied in the form of your protagonist, but to drive the reader into themselves based on what you offer them. That the book is more like a conversation, in which you draw out the reader’s personal and subjective feelings (and pain?) That you inspire/incite/precipitate the reader not to stay on the outside reading about your character, but that your character gains ingress into their private intimacy (which is what the process of reading a book in silence is doing on a physical level anyway).

I yearn for my characters to burrow into the psyche of my reader, not the other way round. I want to turn the mirror back on them and make it a two-way window way again.

Is this possible within literature? To make the reader feel their own pain rather than yours? Seems a bit self-indulgent otherwise. There is so much pain at large in the world, why request a reader to sign on for a second hand account of somebody else’s, without making them confront their own?

marc DA (devils’ advocate rather than District Attorney)

~ by yearzerowriters on October 29, 2009.

14 Responses to “Pain”

  1. Yes, Marc, it’s absolutely possible. I would argue that the pain we feel when we read is always our own – and that we feel it if and when a writer has been able to create a point of intersection – however small – between the pain on the page and that in the reader’s psyche.
    Of course, the $64mmillion is whether ANY intersection is possible. I will have to leave the finer points of the quale till tomorrow though, when I am less addled.


  2. I really enjoyed this post and the questions you ask about the possibility to have characters who burrow into the psyche of the reader. I think this happens when you create characters who are genuine enough and open-texted enough for the reader to find themselves within that character.

    But I agree with you, the magnification of pain in Grit Lit, in my view, leads to a kind of reader pain fatigue.

  3. This works in the case of exceptional writing. There’s a book, Sinuhe the Egyptian, written by Mika Waltari, that does this more than any other book I’ve ever read. To consider it was written in the 1940’s, without the aid of the Internet or anything beyond a couple museums and libraries, is a feat indeed.

    And yes, some writers here have achieved it too. It takes enormous courage on the part if the writer to write text that is so incisive.

    • Heikki, do you make it your mission in life to have Freudian avatars? I mean seriously, first your chopper and now your helmet?

  4. I think what I’m groping towards for is the literary equivalent of a Voice that tattoos itself on the reader’s spine, in the same way a Bessie Smith or a Billie Holiday song might. Hard to pull off I concede.

    I think my problem with GritLit is that consciously or not, it always seems to be written with an awareness of the movie camera lens POV. It forever remains observational and descriptive of the symptoms and external causes of pain, without ever being able to permeate and go inside the victim’s pain. That’s just not enough in my opinion.


    • marc, would you consider SKIN BOOK to be too grit lit-ish? I want to make as good as I can and over-externalisation is a bad thing


      • No, far from it. You are dowsing for the interior emotions. You can do so much with the skin as the membrane between the inner and outer – it is impermeable (until breached), it keeps the blood in, it mediates the external environment through its sense of touch and temperature etc.


  5. No… I just thought it appropriate to shield my most valued asset when entering this conversation.

    Seriously, it is my ex libris.

  6. Interesting post, Marc. A tad strident and overwrought, in my opinion, and as one of the guests in the aforementioned Grit Lit discussion, I think you missed the mark.

    Grit Lit is not about violence, as such. Violence is often one of the features of the respective milieux in which the characters find themselves. Other factors are poverty, and the variegated “grittiness” of everyday circumstances. These characters are typically found in rural areas as opposed to urban/suburban settings, and as such are outside the mainstream in terms of culture.

    In fact, very often the characters in so-called Grit Lit are outsiders, socially and morally.

    And as far as “pain” goes, the characters in the genre (or niche genre, or subgenre) simply take what life dishes out, where they don’t dish it out themselves. Much like literature in general, perhaps?

    Pain is suffering, and as Buddhism teaches us, all is suffering. In other words, that’s life.

    • Sorry Seamus I’ve only just seen this 1/11/09.

      I take entirely what you say on board, but then is it a genre only open to a few? For example, as a Brit writer I couldn’t possibly enter the world of rural America you describe. It seems culturally quite narrow – though obviously there are huge numbers of people within the real life version of its settings.

      The Brits have had plenty of stabs at ‘realism’ – admittedly most of it urban and almost always suffused in class analysis. As I say, our urban violence is fast closing the gap by imitating that in the US, and I’ve written a novella about it, but I guess I made it hyper-real as much as quotidian real; it’s the only way of getting inside a subject and yet remaining partly on the outside in order to deal with it as a whole thing – sort of like the perspective Cubist art was pursuing.

      I do like Cormac Mccarthy by the way, or at least the two novels of his I have read. But one of them was “The Road” which I found very satisfying as it was a real work of imaginative flight, even if the overriding tone was grimly apocalyptic.

      Returning to GritLit briefly, as an antidote to the urban American Dream, in that it is rural, fatalistically immobile, to what part of the American psyche do you think this speaks to? Why now does there appear to be an appetite to look at this demographic which presumably has been around for a long time?


  7. Now I’m sorry I left the #gritlit chat last night; I’m so done with the chats because they seem to be overpopulated with midwestern housefraus and I learn nothing.

    Marc, if anyone can get into a readers mind, it is you. You’ve now raised the bar and challenged yourself (and us), so I’m now waiting patiently for your next piece to tear me apart.

    I have to admit though, I am a real softie and it doesn’t take much to turn me to mush. The word *kidnap* makes me cry; and so does Oprah. So is what you’re saying to turn the text into a therapy session where the reader drags her own baggage into the story? Don’t we all do that subconsciously anyway?

    I used to love horror movies. I wrote horror movies. I read horror movie scripts for a living. I sold horror movies to distributors. Now, you mention Saw and I cringe. So unless your text is really what you say it can be, me and my suffering are doing fine on our own, thank you.


  8. I think it is absolutely possible with literature — although I reckon it’s harder with words than with pictures. That just means we have to try more. The key, I believe, is not to resolve it for the reader. Never resolve it.

    I think I’m going to camp on Marc’s doorstep until he agrees to have tea with me and let me pick his brain.

    • I don’t drink tea or coffee and I don’t need alcohol to unloosen my tongue. Mind you some of my unformed thoughts tumble out and sound like I’m drunk… Feel free to pick away Daisy.


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