Monday, March 15, 2010

Like Haggis for the Soul

Do you want to know what the term is for the opposite of a pet peeve? Turns out it's a Scottish word.

I'm talking about when you're watching a movie or reading a book, and something about it kicks you out of the story because it really irks you. Not that. The opposite of that. When you know the story is imperfect, but there’s something that keeps you locked in anyway.

I was going to do a post about my literary pet peeves, and then I did a complete 180 after catching the tail end of Star Wars: Episode 3 on cable last night. That’s when I realized that the opposite of a pet peeve is this: Ewan McGregor.

If Ewan MGregor is in a movie, I will watch it, and no matter what else is wrong with that movie, I will probably keep watching. Truth be told, all of Star Wars falls into this category for me for the simple reason that I have an eternally bright feeling of wonder leftover from 1977 when the first Star Wars came out. And once a movie or book gives you that feeling, you can forgive whatever other flaws it might have. Like the fact that every Star Wars movie always features some sort of battle vehicle that moves across the land on legs, even though there would be no conceivable engineering reason for such a thing to ever exist. I realize it’s just there because it looks cool, and I’m OK with that.

When it comes to books, I am a much peeved reader. Some things merely irritate me, and I keep on reading anyway, but some things are so annoying that they cause me to come to a dead stop, dismount the book, and smack it on the haunch to send it on its way. But I’m not going to dwell on the pet peeves here. Instead I'm going to focus on the Ewan McGregors that keep me reading:

• When an author is generous-minded, you can feel it in the way they create characters and resolve conflicts. They put these characters through their paces, but they don’t bat them around like badminton birdies. You can tell they respect these people --even the bad guys -- they’ve created and don’t hold it against them that they’re not actually real.

• Sheer creativity. I will keep reading if I'm struck by the sheer cleverness of a plot or the details of an imagined world. I’ll give one small example: the word “pensieve” to describe the memory-holding basin in Harry Potter. That is just so clever and perfect. I love it.

• Some of the best writing under the sun – as in “there’s nothing new under the sun” – capture people who are a “type.” And even when these types are full to the brim with distinctly modern quirks, they are still recognizably authentic. You feel like you know this person on the page because you know somebody like this in your life. It’s hard to reinterpret a type of character in a fresh way, but I appreciate it when it's done well. 

• If an author can make me laugh without trying to be funny – in other words, if humor arises naturally from the situation on the page, just as it does in life -- I love that. Especially when the character is just being honest at the wrong moment, to the wrong person, and doesn’t even realize he/she has said something amusing.

• Authors who can create good good characters get high marks from me. I mean, we all know that naughty is a lot more interesting than good. But if you can make a good character who’s not a bore, that takes some mad skills. Best recent example of this I can think of: Both Katsa and Po from Kristin Cashore's Graceling.

• If I’m reading along and so much as a single paragraph or a sentence makes me jump up out of my seat and say, “Yes! That is exactly right. Truth and beauty! Beauty and truth!” I am forever smitten with that writer. I haven’t had this happen in a while, but I’m always on the look out for it. The best example of this for me is the final paragraph of Middlemarch. If I had to point to a single reason that I have put up with all the miseries of the writing life, it is because I someday hope to write anything at all that is one tenth as good as that, even though I know I never will.

Oh, and one last, very important thing, maybe the most important of all. Any book makes me happy at the thought that though this day or week has been awful and full of disappointments of one sort or another, at least I have X to read when I get into bed tonight? By golly, that author has earned my eternal devotion as well.

So what about you all? What are your own Ewan McGregors**? What keeps you in it, even when you know a story’s not perfect?

**And, no, you may not change the name to something else, like calling them your own private Johnny Depps or something. Although, OK, Johnny Depp would be all right, too, but that’s the ONLY exception I’m going to make.