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)