Before the start of the MA I went to visit my father in Hamilton. Now, my father is a well read man. He’s read Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekov, Pushkin, Tolstoy, pretty much all the heavyweight Russian writers. His bookshelf is stacked with Sinhala translated texts. We spent 10 days with him – me and my sister – and at the end of the trip, on the morning we were leaving, he handed me a book and told me to read it and study it. It was The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks.
I’d heard of the movie with Ryan Gosling but, by choice, had managed to avoid watching it. Why would my father, this learned and scholarly man, give me this book out of all the great books he’s read? It stumped me. It confused me. It made me angry. I don’t do trash fiction. Trash romantic mainstream fiction. It’s borderline insulting. I couldn’t figure it out.
I read it in February and it was infuriating. The characters were too beautiful and the storyline too neat. I could feel the narrative arc like a cold sore, ever present, in your face. The ending was tied up too neatly. The romance, unbelievable and Disney-ish. What the hell was he trying to say giving me this book?
I still have no idea as I’m writing this three months later but reading it did give me some insight into what I don’t want my story to be about. That’s the thing I took away from it.
I don’t want heterosexual white relationship tropes to be seen anywhere near my work. The advice that you should read bad writing as well as good writing is true! You learn a lot about what not to do, or what you would never include in your work. I found it revolting. But what I do want to analyse is: why has this book been so damn popular? Do people just love a good love story? How can I use some of these elements in my manuscript without leaning into the same tropes?
Does my father want me to write white-washed fiction that appeals to the masses? Maybe that’s what he’s trying to tell me. To slow down and relax. To not be mad at generalisations. To trust archetypes. There is a universal truth about a good ol’ fashioned love story. I still don’t know what to make of it but I feel that having read The Notebook, it has influenced my manuscript in some sort of way. There is the seed of it buried deep within. I want to try a version of The Notebook for people of colour, for people from minority groups. Give people a new archetype by which to think about love and relationships.
I learnt how characters can move through a scene centred around food from The Notebook. No shit. How evocative being gathered around the spectacle of preparing a meal is. The scene where they catch and eat lobsters or crabs, that has something in it. I’m mining here but I want my characters to move like this too. I want them to continue to work while developing. Talking to each other about food while revealing more and more about themselves with each line. That’s it. That’s what the Nishanthi, Riya, Akash and Jingwen scene is all about.
It’s nice to read something outside of your scope. You can’t be too caught up with literary fiction, whatever that means, and poetry and books that have won prizes. I have to widen my scope of reading. To read everything from graphic novels to short stories online to articles and interviews and reels and Tweets. That is something that I have to do.
That is what I took away from reading this book: that there is something to be gained from anything you read, no matter how trashy it is.