Monday, January 15, 2007

Good Stuff: A Literary Rant

You might have noticed that I'm something of a literary sort. I've been reading what we in the ed biz call "chapter books" for the last 23 or 24 33 and 34 [edited because I can read but apparently I can't subtract] years, and (at least until I discovered blogs and my print reading went all to hell) I read probably between 100 and 200 a year. So, allowing for rereading, it's safe to say I've read a few thousand novels in my life (roughly 3/4 kidlit or YA lit of some kind and the rest generally categorized as adult fiction), probably at least that many picture books, and maybe a couple hundred nonfiction novel-length books. Not to mention just about every issue of the New Yorker printed in the past seventeen years. I have a BA in English from a fancypants liberal arts college where intensive reading, writing, and textual analysis took the pride of place that football has at many state U's. And I read, purchase, and recommend books to kids for a living.

So you you'd think I would be able to join the fascinating and eloquent discussions over here and here by coming up with some kind of coherent literary philosophy: an opinion about what makes books great as opposed to honorable near-misses, or some ideas about the future of fiction, or about what makes a writer a writer.

But here's the thing: I can't. Not really. I mean, I could, I guess, if forced (or paid enough), but I'd really rather not. I hate articulating why I like what I like, or delineating great from near-great from trashy literature, or declaiming on what makes a novel worth reading. There's a reason I didn't go into academia. The monthly reviews I write for my librarians' group are torture for me, because really all I want to say is "I loved it," or "I hated it," or "Meh, it was okay." When pressed, I can tease out some rationale for those opinions, but mostly they feel like after-the-fact bullshit. I'm not even that crazy about book groups.

I just like to read. Yeah, yeah, it's great that reading expands our horizons, opens a window into other lives, develops empathy and imagination, pushes us to change our world views. But what I love, have always loved, about reading is that it does those things in a way that doesn't feel like WORK. I've enjoyed (and hope to continue enjoying) the work of being a beta-reader for friends' novels, partly because it pushes me to think about why something works or doesn't. And I've done my share of work-y, big-girl reading, and in many cases I've gained a lot from those experiences and those books have stayed with me in a meaningful way. But if most of my reading felt like that, I'd have done a lot less of it, and I wouldn't be a reader or a book person; I'd be doing something else for fun.

I never thought I'd be quoting Dan Savage in this context, but I think he's the one who said, in reference to sexual orientation, "your dick knows what it wants." In general, outside of work or school obligations, people don't read in a particular genre or form because it's good for them or for Literature or for The Human Imagination. People read what they like to read because that's what they like.

It would be disingenuous to claim that those likes and dislikes are totally independent of literary fashion or the greater cultural/political context: the novel, to take a well-known example, wouldn't have become the multi-century hit that it has been without widespread literacy and the rise of the middle classes, and the current popularity of TV and other licensed-character tie-ins for kids speaks to the capitalism-driven media- and marketing- saturated lives of even the youngest American children.

But basically, given enough exposure to a variety of genres and literary forms, people who like romance novels like them because they like them. People (of whatever age) who love fantasy just really click with that way of looking at the world. Folks who enjoy mainstream adult realistic literary fiction, well, some of them might pick it up because they saw it on the front page of the New York Times Book Review (and, yeah, the NYT and a few other gatekeepers have way too much power in terms of canon creation these days, and that is a problem), but they won't go on reading it for long if they fundamentally hate it.

I don't read children's books because it's my professional obligation or because I think kidlit is inherently better than other genres; I became a children's book reader because I just love that kind of literature. I could expound upon its virtues as Isaac Bashevis Singer famously did, but the truth is, if your idea of a good time is to settle into your armchair with a dense experimental tome that challenges the boundaries of linear character-driven narrative, I could rant until my keyboard falls apart and I wouldn't be able to convince or guilt you into liking From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Understood Betsy. And vice versa.

I like what I like. You like what you like. When enough people stop wanting to read novels (for personal and/or cultural and/or market-driven reasons that I've chosen not to spend my adult life puzzling out), people will stop buying them, and stop reading them, and stop writing them, and other forms will come into ascendency. Will that be a sad day for me and other fiction readers and writers? Yes, emphatically. Will it be a loss to the world? Well, maybe; depends on what replaces it.

Will the fall of the novel signal the death of the mind, or of human imagination? Probably not. People have had imagination and (in various forms) empathy for as long as they've been people, as far as I can tell. Whether its expression is "The Song of Songs" or White Teeth or "Six Feet Under" or "Hamlet" or We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families or Five Children and It or "49 Up" or "Star Wars" or the true stories on "This American Life" or the late, great Chez Miscarriage, those qualities have been and will be expressed: in fiction, in nonfiction (which can express imagination in its own way), in whatever form--it's there, it'll be there.

Whether that expression is of high literary quality, or equal to or better than other forms of expression--well, I leave that to the academics and literary essayists. The truth is, I don't care that much. And I don't care what you call the people who produce it. I just want to have enough good stuff to read.

And by "good stuff," of course, I mean stuff that I like, more or less.

Doesn't everybody?


Anonymous ppb said...

well put!And now you have me wanting to read the mixed up files again....

4:00 PM  
Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

I agree about the ultimately personal, individual -- and, therefore, fairly meaningless -- nature of judging what is literary, or even fun to read. (My post, which was, apparently, notable for its spectacular obscurity, was really about the meaningless of ambition in the face of such amorphous markers of success.)

But I do wonder why I've lost interest in fiction, why your print reading has gone to hell since you've discovered teh blogs, why that essayist feels that fiction has lost its power to enthrall or inform. I wonder if it's possible that novels have mostly said everything that they have to say, and will from here on out mostly repeat themselves except in the hands of the few once-in-a-generation masters. I wonder, too, what the forms of expression will look like in a hundred years.

4:31 PM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Phantom, I wonder all that too--particularly about why reading fiction feels like work to me when it never used to. Is it teh blogs? The zeitgeist? Or just my particular stage of life, in which I have fewer blocks of leisure time for reading than I ever have before? I need to think about it more.

That essayist who went on about great novels requiring work to read, though-- well, maybe I just didn't read it carefully enough (too lazy! Too lazy to work hard at reading fiction, either!) but I *can't stand* that way of looking at reading, for kids or adults. Books aren't castor oil.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

No, I quite agree. I don't mind working at a book, but I HATE not enjoying myself while I do it. What is the point?

7:25 PM  
Blogger liz said...

Love this post.

And re: fiction, I'm also finding new fiction to be a chore for the most part. Which is why I'll find an author I like and then read and re-read everything they've ever written and then go back and re-read authors they remind me of and so on until I find another new author.

But I think it's because our bloggy neighborhood has what I look for in books. Y'know....friends.

8:43 PM  
Anonymous rachel said...

Well put, els. I find that I barely read fiction anymore either -- good nonfiction, I eat right up. Some of it, for me, has to do with voice. If the fiction has a really engaging voice (which usually translates to surprising and humorous, for me) I will follow it anywhere. If it reads like someone self-consciously wrote it to be all deep and literary, I can't get past page 20.

Maybe that's part of the appeal of blogs -- you have someone's unvarnished voice, stripped of pretension. Same with nonfiction (at least the nonfiction I like) -- you get the feeling there's a PERSON there behind it, a person who wants to tell you about something they think is really neat (as opposed to a person who wants to bowl you over with how clever and arty and splendid they are).

This is part of what I enjoy about Richard Dawkins: the man is writing nonfiction, but he's a curmudgeonly arse. It comes through loud and clear on every page -- and I would read anything he wrote, because I can see him so transparently.

And THAT, to me, is the very essence of what Zadie White means in the passages Phantom quoted (I didn't read the rest of the essay either, heh) -- the whole point of writing is to communicate what is most unique in ourselves. And that, IMO, hangs largely on our ability to find a voice that rings absolutely true.

Clearly, I DO like talking, writing, and thinking about this stuff...

8:54 AM  
Anonymous redheaddread said...

Preach it, sister!

I hate reading something that feels like work. For me it's pure entertainment, so if the author is showing off how clever s/he is or the nuts and bolts are showing, unless that's an effect the author is going for as in some meta-fiction, my reaction is always bah.

9:13 AM  
Anonymous xiaolongnu said...

Understood Betsy! Oh, how I loved Understood Betsy. You have now inspired me to go track down a used copy onthe Internet (because I live in a city with next to NO used book stores, thank you Honolulu).

4:13 PM  
Anonymous badgermama said...

Oh you have slayed me utterly with that Savage quote. Made my day!

I love you so!!!!!!!!!1111!!!

10:23 AM  
Blogger Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I know you wrote this awhile ago, sorry to be late to the party. I visited a while back, then lost the bookmark & just today found it again...

Anyway, I loved this. That is, I agree : )

2:40 PM  
Blogger elswhere said...

Thanks, Jennifer! For the compliment, and for visiting ;-)

3:01 PM  

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