Good Stuff: A Literary Rant
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.