At a recent book convention, I approached another author's table. I am fairly selective, and don't usually approach all other authors' tables, but I decided to approach this particular author because the art style she presented, both on her table display and on her book covers was very stylistically unique, and was therefore intriguing.
I first read over the promotional material she had on display–some review quotes, pretty decent-looking. The only thing I could find to knock off points for in those was a comparison to George R. R. Martin, but then it's not like that means much these days. A reviewer might compare anyone who writes high fantasy to Martin.
It was time to find out more. I pointed to the novel with the more interesting cover art of the two. "What's this novel about?"
The author launched into a long explanation of the plot.
"Okay," I replied. "That's the plot. What's your novel about?"
The author immediately clenched her jaw and straightened her back. "I'm not interested in a test. No. That's not okay."
"Sure," I said, and returned to my table.
It was easy to move on and immerse myself in conversations with other authors and potential readers, but as the day transitioned from afternoon into evening and the foot traffic died down, I couldn't help but notice my mind drifting back to this very uncomfortable exchange. Tense interactions such as the ones above are no longer as emotionally draining for me as they once were, so it's not as though I minded being challenged in this way. On the contrary, the more I thought about this author's position, the more firmly I decided to maintain my current stance, and the more I saw within this failed interaction the microcosm of a disturbing trend in our society today.
I asked what I believed was a straightforward question: "What is one of your novels about?" The author replied that the novel was about Event A leading to Event B leading to Event C leading to Situation D causing Problem E and oh, however will the characters solve that problem. On some level, I agree that this can be construed as an interpretation of what the novel is about, but when I ask what a novel is about, I am far more interested in why its author chose to create it than I am what specific events the author rendered within it.
The author's defensiveness led me to believe that she did not know why she created it; she only knew what she had created. Furthermore, I find it concerning, on a social level, at the implications of the author's statement, "I'm not interested in a test." What kind of test did she presume I had in mind? The only test truly in my mind was one of whether or not I was going to choose to spend a small portion of my money and a heaping portion of my precious time on her novel. However, it seems that the only reason a person could have these days for asking an author to talk about the why instead of the what is that they are interested in proving some kind of academic or intellectual point. Commercial transactions must certainly all be about elaborating surface details. I mean, it couldn't possibly be that someone actually interested in spending money on a novel could want to know if its author was expressing an idea of philosophical, ethical, social, or intellectual value. No, such an inquiry could only be the result of some kind of intellectual snobbery. Clearly.
Is it important for an author to know the why of their novel in addition to the what? That's my belief. And that's because beliefs and attitudes, the stuff of the why, are not imbued within a work at the author's behest, they are imbued within a work whether the author likes it or not. Regardless of how much or how little an author wants their work to be about something (other than plot), every story they write will be about something. Better for the author to be cognizant, in my opinion, of what they're espousing.
As an author, I am interested in being tested in this way. For every word of every novel, every book interior and cover design I lay out, I try to stay aware of why I am making the choices I do. When I pitch my novels at convention, I start from a description of the why and move on to elements of the what only after the potential reader shows some interest in the story's core ideas. Voyage Embarkation is about growing up different in a seemingly chaotic and incomprehensible world. Insomnium is about finding productive ways of pulling oneself up out of a dark and troubling life situation. Alterra is about religion, science, and the way human ideology underlies both. And Schrödinger's City, my most thematically coherent novel yet, is about perception and uncertainty. I embrace the question of the why, and I don't find it interesting to talk about the what, except if I need specific examples of how I chose to achieve the why.
Hopefully, we will gain renewed awareness as a society that novels are more than just bags of titillating events, that novels have the power to enrich our lives rather than deaden our minds with an endless onslaught of dopamine hits: And then just when you thought they'd have a nice wedding, everyone was ruthlessly slaughtered instead!–It turned out that their enemies had been genetically engineered into wolf creatures who began tearing the remaining competitors limb from limb and feasting upon their raw flesh!
The true test of authorship is whether or not an author can tell you why and not just what. The author I engaged with at this convention was right to be defensive, as she gave away the fact that her novel was, in all likelihood, about nothing at all.