A punch in the gut

Punch me in the gut. Go on, hit me hard. Wind me, knock me down. Make me weep.

That’s what I expect from a novel. I want to be moved. I want to surface, gasping for breath and blinking at my surroundings. I want to feel. I want to be reminded of my humanity. I want the experience to have meaning.

Not all novels have a punch-in-the-gut moment, but many do. It usually falls either just before the climax as a driver for the protagonist’s final absolution (ie revenge) or in the climax itself at the bittersweet ‘won the war but lost what really matters’ moment. At its best it’s a leftfield blow that leaves you devastated and numb. At its worst it’s cheap melodrama. You can find good examples in Sarah Waters’ Affinity and Cole & Richards’ Dr Who: Shadow in the Glass. Bad examples probably include everything I’ve ever written.

The punch-in-the-gut is so common as to be almost ubiquitous. It’s what gives the novel resonance and depth and bind you, the reader, into the emotions of the survivors. It’s not quite the same as the plot-twist although there is a lot of overlap, and often they’re combined. And I love it.

Except I kind of don’t.

Just because something is good doesn’t mean it’s pleasurable. I had this argument with a die-hard literatus regarding McEwan’s On Chesil Beach; yes, I can admire the skills and talents and feel like I’ve gained as a person when I’ve hit a tragic ending. And it is a great book. But that doesn’t mean it’s a fun experience.

Working-class people go to the theatre to be entertained: middle-class people go to be made miserable.

So the saying (or quote; or simple homespun wisdom – I only ever heard from my Dad and was never sure of its original provenance) goes. It’s wisdom I’ve always wondered about. Because it’s not true. Is it? Was there ever such a division – when the workers would go to the music halls to be entertained whilst the prosperous would go to Shakespeare and opera to be reminded of their humanity?

I am poor but educated: although my wife roundly mocks me when I deny my middle-classity, I have never felt like I belong. And I like happy endings. Sorry. Can’t deny it. Which leads me on to the next piece of wisdom that has never seemed to quite fit in my soul:

Write the book to want to read.

I read widely. I try to get as diverse a diet as possible, make an active effort to fit ‘classics’ into my body to make it as fit, strong and flexible as possible. But I have my favourites. My cake-books: the ones I read purely for pleasure. I like wit and intelligence, and adventure and if all these can be combined with something I can learn from the experience then so much the better. It should come as no surprise, then, that I love Pratchett. I love Gaiman, especially Neverwhere. I feast on Dr Who novels, although they tend to be empty calories: the SFF equivalent of Mills & Boon.

Also cat books. I like cats, okay? Sue me.

But I don’t write like this. The books I produce are dark and fear-filled; lost little orphans with nightmares and visions no mortal mind can hold. And I don’t know why. There always has to be a punch-in-the-gut moment near the end, where either a hero dies or some revelation breaks her heart. Possibly both.

I don’t know why I do this. Is it because I’m so deep in character that the fundamental tragedy of the situation needs to be felt, or is it just because I’ve been inculcated to think that this is what a novel needs to be ‘good’? Or is it just a manifestation of the darkness within my soul?

What do you think? All you writers and readers; I’d be interested to hear good or bad examples you may have come across in your literary voyaging. Do you enjoy being punched, or do you seek out comfort and warmth?